For The Someday Book

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John Dominic Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, A Startling Account of What We Can Know about the Life of Jesus, New York: HarperOne, 1994, 232 pp.

Crossan BiographyAs Holy Week approaches, I want to immerse myself in the story of Jesus, to walk with him and imagine his life and personality. I find myself looking many years for something to read that will further that effort. This book was originally purchased to read on my trip to the Holy Land in 2012, but I never got around to it. Too late for the Holy Land, but right on time for Holy Week six years later–24 years after its publication.

Crossan is a leading member of the Jesus Seminar and historical Jesus movement. This book was a shortened version of his more scholarly work examining what we can actually know and prove from history about Jesus of Nazareth. I suspected that I would discover much of the content of this book had been reshaped and rehashed in later Crossan works about Jesus, including God and Empire. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find much of the material was new to me, and the approach offered me a fresh, updated look at Jesus as I approached my Holy Week services.

Over the years, Crossan, Borg and other Jesus Seminar scholars have softened their approach. Their original attempts to segregate the Jesus of history from the Christ of faith drew hard-edged lines, yet in spite of the fact that this book comes from that era, it is clear throughout that Crossan (himself a Catholic priest) is devout in his faith and dedication to Jesus. He seems less interested in destroying a traditional view than in painting a more accurate picture.

The hard scholarly edge remains in his sourcing. Crossan shapes a story of Jesus that relies on the biblical accounts as the least reliable sources, positing only those aspects of Jesus that are attested in non-biblical sources and situating him thickly within the politics and culture of first-century Roman Palestine.  While it is still disconcerting to read from time to time that Crossan believes some of my favorite New Testament narratives are pure fiction (including the Last Supper), I’ve heard those arguments many times now and breeze right past them to the more interesting elements–the consistent elements of Jesus’ identity, ministry and practices that are attested in both biblical and non-biblical sources, and make sense within the sociological and political world he inhabited.

Crossan’s Jesus is a peasant leader from Galilee, whose ministry is for the peasant classes of that region. One of the most interesting chapters is “The Jordan is Not Just Water,” in which he examines the political implications of baptizing people in the Jordan River, symbolic of entry into the Promised Land. He also articulates his well-known connection of Jesus and the Cynics, carefully charting what Jesus borrows and changes from their practices. Crossan affirms some core practices that remain central to both the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith: his dedication to a “kingdom of nobodies,” the sharing of radical meals free of social distinction, the breaking of boundaries.

The chapters on the body and the cross spoke to me powerfully during Holy Week. Both spoke to the harshness of life in the Roman colony, with rampant death from disease and violence alongside social death and expulsion based on fear and superstition. Both chapters spoke about human bodies and Jesus’ body–their real pain and suffering, the exposure and mutilation of the cross, and the social alienation of victims of state terrorism by crucifixion, whose bodies usually could not be buried and were left to the dogs. The stories made Jesus seem very small, vulnerable and invisible within his world, like thousands of others—yet thanks to his disciples, his witness was unique enough to have survived.

This was a good refresher for me on the Jesus of history, and offered insights and perspectives that were new to me, even though the book is more than 20 years old.

 

 

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Mark Greene, The One About… Eight Stories about God in Our Everyday, London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, 2018, 66 pp.

TheoneaboutWEBThis is more of a booklet than a book, but I wanted to include it here to give it credit as a potentially very useful tool. I read it in a single sitting, and keep returning to imagine how to use the book or its concept in my congregation.

The book is intended to be a working tool for use to spark conversation and engagement with ordinary Christians about how God is at work in their lives. However, it is descriptive instead of prescriptive in its approach. As advertised, it simply contains eight short stories about how people practice their faith in their work life. None of them are clergy or professional church staff–all work traditionally secular jobs, across a variety of class and educational backgrounds. For example, a hairdresser prays for her clients as she massages the conditioner into their hair, and a manager listens to all his employees and develops a caring and compassionate relationship with each one. The book doesn’t just tell the stories as examples, however–it inserts questions, scriptures and tools for reflection so that the reader is prompted to imagine how they can mimic the example in the story in their own work and life. The stories are true, though names have been changed, and they are relatable.

I am imagining how to use the stories with a small group, or encourage people to read them and host a conversation about how people in my congregation engage their faith in their workplaces, to elicit their own stories and share with one another. The London Institute for Contemporary Christianity does interesting work in this area, and I am grateful for this latest resource.

 

 

Susan Howatch, A Question of Integrity, London: Warner Books, 1997, 680 pp.

Susan Howatch, Glittering Images, London: Harper, 1987, 504 pp.

41FEVHBSZKL._SX288_BO1,204,203,200_These novels were a gift from a church member, who shared that they were her favorite books. She prayed for me diligently during my treatment, and often at St. Marylebone Parish Church, whose healing ministry provided the inspiration for one of the churches in the stories. I didn’t get a chance to read them during treatment, so I am catching up.

Glittering Images is the first in the five-volume Starbridge series, and A Question of Integrity is the first in the St. Benet’s Trilogy. I read them back-to-back, and they were similar enough for me to decide to write one review instead of two. Both novels feature lead characters who are male clergy in the Church of England with have strong intuitive, if not psychic, powers that they deploy in their ministry. The stories explore how these powers work for good in their healing work and even exorcisms, but the bulk of the plot in both books comes from the clergy’s more sinister desires, especially around sex. Glittering Images uses the metaphor of a public “glittering image” that masks a true self mired in desire, unfulfilled longing, and wounds of old relationships with family and lovers. A large part of the content of both books consists of conversations and monologues with the main characters (clergy and non-clergy) baring their souls to one another or a spiritual director, narrating therapy sessions where they construct a catalogue of their desires, sins and secrets.

11245Glittering Images is set around the fictional Starbridge Cathedral and surrounding area, in the late 1930s. Scholar-priest Charles Ashworth is sent as a spy by the Archbishop of Canterbury to discover any improprieties in the living arrangements of the Starbridge bishop, Jardine, who shared his home with both his wife and her female companion. Ashworth and Jardine become entangled with one another’s secrets, lovers and desires as they both must confront their twisted interior lives against the respectable public personae.

A Question of Integrity takes place in the late 1980s in London, in a fictional parish whose healing centre is modeled on St. Marylebone Parish. Descendants of the characters from Starbridge appear as well. There are five main characters: Alice, a young woman in crisis attended by the healing ministry, who joins the staff and becomes a healing presence to all; Lewis, a cantakerous older priest with a dodgy past trying to live a pure and celibate life and use his psychic powers for good; Nicholas Darrow, a dashing superstar healer with enormous powers and a dangerously inflated sense of his own moral compass; Rosalind Darrow, his wife who seeks her own way apart from him; and Stacy, a young curate trying to sort out his own identity and missing his family. The narrative is told it five sections, with each character narrating one in first person (except Stacy, Alice gets two), each battling with their own sexual desires.

I was intrigued enough by the first book to immediately read the other one, but I am doubtful if I will continue with either series anytime soon. I think the stories attempt to portray the lives of the clergy in a way that humanizes them, but in the end made them seem extreme in both their gifts and their sins, which makes them even larger than life. Also absent are the lives of women in ministry, who always draw my interest far more strongly. The clergy in the stories are all redeemed in the end by their efforts at honesty, self-disclosure and truth-telling.

Journey Inward Journey OutwardJourney Inward, Journey Outward by Elizabeth O’Connor, HarperSanFrancisco, 1968, 176 pp.

I was introduced to Elizabeth O’Connor in my first semester of university, when I attended a retreat for those interested in exploring ministry as a vocation. (I was supposedly there as a music leader, not a candidate for ministry, but, well, you can see where that went.) A workshop leader used multiple passages of her Cry Pain, Cry Hope that have stuck with me ever since.

There is an ongoing conversation within my ministry colleagues about the crucial role of discipleship and faith formation, and the “competition” between time or investment as churches in acts of justice and compassion and acts of prayer, worship and study. I am firmly committed to the church’s mission and advocacy endeavors, but believe they require investment in the work of discipleship, shaping our inner lives in the mind and heart of Christ. The movement can work both ways–engagement in outward works of compassion and justice can lead us toward inward works of devotion, and inward works of devotion can lead us toward outward acts of social engagement. But it can be a struggle to sort through the balance, and engage those who think one side or the other is more important.

As I am preaching a Lenten sermon series on spiritual practices, including both inward and outward ones, this seemed like an apt time to seek O’Connor’s wisdom in a new arena, even though this book is old and set in a different era.

Journey Inward, Journey Outward is the second volume (the first was Call to Commitment) of the story of the Church of Our Savior in Washington, DC, an intentional, missional Christian community in the 1960s led by Rev. Gordon Cosby. The congregation has sought with care and great deliberateness to develop disciples of Jesus governed by inward habits of prayer, worship and communal living, engaged in outward practices of mission. As always, O’Connor’s gifts as a writer give voice and perspective and ways of framing that capture my thoughts and inspire deeper reflection.

 

She begins with a conversation about vocation, the way of intentionality and consciousness of God at work in our lives. She describes those without vocation, comparing them to the crowd surrounding Jesus (as opposed to the disciples):

They do not receive anything into themselves; things happen to them, but never in them. Their lives are rich in outer events, and poor in inner ones. (5)

The person who has lost his true self has a hunger in him. It may be expressed in apathy or industry. He may try to satisfy it with a job he works at 14 hours a day, or a family that is ‘everything’ to him, or success that is worth all striving, or the acquisition of things, of which there is no end of want. But there is nothing to fill the emptiness of the one who is not following the way of his own inner being. (7)

This is exactly the kind of pain I see so often in the people I meet every day, most of whom are “good people,” dedicated to serving others and trying to live rightly. Yet there is a pain, an alienation, a loneliness, a “God-shaped hole,” as some would say. More outward action and good works will not fill the void. More, it is not the way of Christ.

O’Connor says that the journey inward involves three engagements:

  1. The engagement with oneself — moving toward self-knowledge, plumbing the depths of our own consciousness
  2. The engagement with God — from St. Teresa: “We shall never succeed in knowing ourselves unless we seek to know God.” Prayer, both in daily life and in time apart, along with study and spiritual disciplines
  3. The engagement with others — a real commitment to friendship and relationship with others, even when it is difficult

She summarizes the whole thing here:

If engagement with ourselves does not push back horizons so that we see neighbors we did not see before, then we need to examine the appointment kept with self. If prayer does not drive us out into some concrete involvement at the point of the world’s need, then we must question prayer. If the community of our Christian brothers (and sisters) does not deliver us from false securities and safe opinions and known ways then we must cry out against that community, for it betrays. (28)

The inward must not be sacrificed to the outward, nor the outward to the inward. There is no transformation that way. (30)

That’s what it’s all about–transformation. If we are about the work of Christ, it is always transformation that we seek, and that requires both inward and outward engagements.

The remainder of the book gives practical insight and stories to the way Church of Our Savior has endeavored to live these practices in their life and work together. Specifically, they organize mission groups for all members that practice both inward-looking prayer and worship together and outward-looking engagement in service and justice in the community. The stories O’Connor tells speak of remarkable transformation, in both the communities they serve and the individuals who have opened their lives to God in this way: an army captain turned potter and artist; a homeless shelter for children emptied as children are placed in homes; a coffee shop become worshiping community. Each remaining chapter unpacks the story of a mission group, recounting its many challenges and small victories on both the inward and outward paths.

A few remaining treasures from her writing to share.

After discussing the role of risk-taking in the Coffee House community, and the importance of taking risks as part of the life of faith, she talks about the safety they found to take risks:

The safety was not in protection from ‘slings and arrows,’ but in a group of people who, however poorly they might embrace it, had as the basis of their life in Christ an unlimited liability for one another. (84)

The image of having “unlimited liability for one another” is worthy of further exploration and reflection.

She recounts the exploration of faith in the church’s education program, and in particular one person’s account of the role of Gordon Cosby in inspiring their faith. Quoting this individual:

“I knew that this was a man of faith, and that he included in it the faith that I could have faith. I became expectant myself, and when I became expectant, things began to happen for me.” (105)

There is something true and holy in this explanation of ministry. We hold faith that others can have faith, that God is at work in their lives. Even when we have doubts, the role of pastor and our presence with them represents that to people. And that simple presence and faith of expectation opens the way for people to believe for themselves that God is at work in them.

Dr. Cosby’s education session included three relationships that each of us need if we are to be growing in faith.

  1. We need those who are further along the way, who give us hints of where we are and raise the question of where we are going.
  2. We need those who are our peers–fellow pilgrims with whom we share the day-by-day events of our life in Christ
  3. We need those who are not as advanced as we–a little flock which is ours to tend and nourish (110)

While I resist the notion of being “advanced” in faith, it is true that there is wisdom and excellence in practice developed over time, and helping others navigate terrain that you yourself have already traversed is important to one’s own continued growth.

In spite of its age–some of the book is very 1960s–O’Connor’s writing and perspectives on the spiritual life and the inward and outward journeys remain insightful. If you are curious, you can usually find a used copy of O’Connor’s works online at Alibris. (I know because I have lent out Cry Pain, Cry Hope a few times and had to replace it.)

 

 

 

SilenceSilence by Shusaku Endo, London: Picador, 1969 (English translation, original Japanese published in 1966), 267 pp.

I had not heard of this book until the Martin Scorese movie came out a few years ago. Ever since, I was intrigued, thinking that the story said something that mattered to me as a pastor myself. However, I knew the content involved cruelty and torture, and I could not bring myself to be haunted by images. The book was the way to go, so my imagination could both connect and disconnect as my mind and heart could handle.

Silence is, at face, a story about the secret Christian missions to Japan in the early 17th century, and the Japanese Christians that survived persecution. However, it is really a story about what the Christian faith means, what it means to profess your faith versus live its values, and what courage and faithfulness looks like when those two things collide.

The story revolves around Sebastian Rodrigues, a Jesuit priest, who makes his way to Japan full of passion and youthful self-confidence, but also curiosity, to hear of a beloved mentor who is reported to have apostatized. Christianity is illegal, but Rodrigues is aided by secret Japanese Christians before he and they are caught and tortured, with tricks and twists to encourage them to apostatize.

Endo’s writing is powerful, and the inner journey of Rodrigues compelled me as a reader to my examination of conscience.

A few passages that spoke to me:

We priests are in some ways a sad group of men. Born into the world to render service to mankind, there is no one more wretchedly alone than the priest who does not measure up to his task. (22)

A chilling bit of foreshadowing in the novel, but a truism to the heart of any pastor–for none of us truly measure up to the task set before us.

Reminiscent of Romans 5:6-8, and worth remembering as a restatement next time I preach on that passage:

But Christ did not die for the good and beautiful. It is easy enough to die for the good and beautiful; the hard thing is to die for the miserable and corrupt–this is the realization that came home to me acutely at that time. (47)

The silence of the book’s title has many layers in the story, but one of the frequent ones is the silence of God in the face of suffering. Endo writes powerful of the feeling of God’s silence in several passages.

Behind the depressing silence of this sea, the silence of God… the feeling that while men raise their voices in anguish God remains with folded arms, silent. (79)

On sin, with the distant context of the missionary’s missteps in an unfamiliar culture:

Sin, he reflected, is not what it is usually thought to be; it is not to steal and tell lies. Sin is for one man to walk brutally over the life of another and to be quite oblivious to the wounds he has left behind. (114)

Silence is a beautiful, powerful novel. Although it telegraphed early how the story was likely to unfold, and the moral choice Rodrigues would face, the looming knowledge only made Rodrigues’ surprise and naivete more evident. This would make an excellent book for discussion in a group, especially a group of people that sees themselves as servants or missionaries or ministers to others on behalf of Christ, and wants to explore questions about their assumptions and impact.

 

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.

 

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.


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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