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Practicing Resurrection: A Memoir of Work, Doubt, Discernment, and Moments of Grace by Nora Gallagher, Vintage Books, 2003, 216 pp.

Practicing ResurrectionI don’t remember where I first heard about Nora Gallagher, but I immediately resonated with what I heard and wanted to read more. I bought this book thinking it would be an inspiration for an Easter sermon on a similar theme, but I didn’t get around to starting it until nearly Pentecost. When I did, I discovered it was not only just the right book at the right time, it is a book on one of my favorite topics: vocation, discernment and call. I read everything I find on that topic, and I found this one without even knowing that was the subject.

Practicing Resurrection is a memoir about Nora Gallagher’s journey of discernment about her call to ministry. She is an active leader in an Episcopal church, and feels a tug to something more. The story begins with the death of her brother, walks through meetings of a discernment committee, processes her experiences as a student minister, and concludes with a clear call to ministry–though whether that involves ordination into the priesthood remains a mystery.

Gallagher’s prose is gorgeous, and it spoke straight to my soul. Her way of framing the stories of her journey in the language of Spirit and discernment alternatively gave voice and substance to my own thoughts and took me to new places. My copy of the book is full of highlights and passages to which I hope to returned (or have returned and quoted already).

Here is just a sampling of the many passages I want to go over again and again:

The life of faith was amorphous, ephemeral, a glimpse, a moment. Trusting it was like my early swimming lessons in learning how to float. (3)

“Often we are afraid to ask for what we want or desire,” said Carr Holland, “But the way of discernment is to lay out our desire and then come back to it with openness, seeking the wisdom of examination. Is this a need? Is there a deeper need? Is your reign foreshadowed here?” (4)

On discerning call, quoting her priest Mark: “It’s not usually something that is immediately known, as if you would have a vision or something and that would be the end of it. We are all becoming what we are called to be. … One thing: a priest must love herself.” (16)

The priest in liturgy should help point the community in the direction of God, and keep the liturgy alive rather than make it a museum piece. What gives it legitimacy is the trust relationship that is built with the community and what the community invests in it. Then, in some objective way, God, who is always present, becomes more and more transparent.” (20)

Part of this process, I assure you, will be the dismantling of that carefully constructed person. … The Holy Spirit, I began to see, was relentless, but she was not mean. … Discernment, I came to see, was about looking everywhere for traces of God. (96-97)

Gallagher has a gift for telling a good story, one that is unique and personal and specific, and then asking the question or naming the issue in such a way you realize that the story is in fact universal. I will be seeking out more of her writing, and I look forward to reading this one over again in the future.

 

Preaching from Memory to Hope by Thomas G. Long, Westminster John Knox, 2009, 152 pp.

Preaching from Memory to HopeThis book made me want to read more books about preaching. It’s something I do every week, and I read lots of books that give me ideas about what to say when I preach. This book, however, is more about what happens when we preach, not what we say in any given week.

Long begins with a critique of narrative preaching, the style of story-based preaching that has become dominant in the last 30 years. Narrative preaching arose in response to a culture that knew its way around Christian doctrine and dogma, but felt bored and stilted in its heart. Grasping on to the stories at the heart of the Gospel was a way to get to the heart of listeners and move them. Now, however, Long points out that our context has changed.

We no longer live in a sleeping Christendom waiting only to be aroused and delighted by evocative stories. The culture has shifted, and we need to take up with purpose Augustine’s two other terms: teaching and ethical speech. (18)

Quickly, Long goes on to point out that narrative is not irrelevant, but its purpose is targeted and specific:

Narrative is not a rhetorical device to titillate bored listeners What we are doing, first of all, is dress rehearsing in the pulpit a competence expected of every Christian, the capacity to make theological sense out of the events and experiences of our lives. (18)

He goes so far as to label overly simplistic, canned “preacher stories” as unethical in their response to the depth and complexity of faith in real life. (20)

In the second chapter, Long claims that preaching ought to model the complex conversation that happens between serious disciples and the world around them. Preaching becomes testimony, speaking to the places where God is alive and at work in the world around us. Too often, preachers today do not speak as though God really is alive and at work among them. Long tells the story of Martin Luther’s fear and trembling at the obligation to represent the gospel, and quotes Karl Barth:

What are you doing, you [human being], with the Word of God upon your lips? Upon what grounds do you assume the role of mediator between heaven and earthy? Who has authorized you to take your place there and to generate religious feeling? (35)

Preaching is not an explanation, it is an event. Something happens when we preach, and the Word is broken open and God is made present in the act of sharing it. “Preaching involves looking through the lenses of biblical texts to discover and then to announce present-tense manifestations of God in the experience of hearers.” (44)

The third chapter levels a striking, searing critique against a new form of Gnosticism arising today. Long identifies four traits of Gnosticism as 1) believing that knowledge saves; 2) antipathy toward incarnation and embodiment; 3) focus on inner divine spark; and 4) emphasis on present spiritual reality rather than God’s promised fulfillment. He sees this gnosticism holding a special appeal to intelligent people, and taking shape through both those who call themselves “spiritual but not religious” and among those who ascribe to conspiracy theories about Christian history, such as those found in the books of Bart Ehrmann and Elaine Pagels. The fourth chapter turns this critique of gnosticism against one of the most beloved of the populist, critical scholars: Marcus Borg. His contention that Borg’s ideas are full of gnostic thought is thorough and convincing.

Long points the way forward, calling for “preaching in the future-perfect tense,” preaching that is centered in eschatalogical hope. He writes:

Like the risen Christ himself, preaching is a word from God’s future embarrassingly and disturbingly thrust into the present, announcing the freedom in a time of captivity, the gift of peace to a world of conflict, and joy even as the lamenting continues. (124)

I think Long is on the right track. He gave clarity and voice to many of the things I strive for in my own preaching, and questions that have lingered, unexpressed, in the back of my mind. I encourage all my fellow preachers to hear his concerns, even if you do not accept them.

 

Jesus Feminist: An Invitation to Revisit the Bible’s View of Women, Exploring God’s Radical Notion that Women are People, Too by Sarah Bessey, Howard Books, 2013, 235 pp.

Jesus FeministThis book was chosen for a UCC clergy book group in which I participate, and I was very disappointed in this book as a choice for that group. We have been a church ordaining women and embracing feminism for 150 years, and this book seemed far too basic for our conversation. Bessey’s argument is about why women should be included in church leadership–a debate we are no longer having.

I am trying to separate my frustration with the choice of this book for that group and my feelings about the book itself, which are not nearly as negative. There are still far too many places in the church where women are not understood to be equally created in the image of God and qualified for spiritual leadership. There are countless women who are silenced, by their churches, by this theology, and by themselves. Bessey’s book speaks faithfully and well to those audiences, especially to those who find themselves with a hopeful suspicion that Jesus actually welcomes women to live up to their full spiritual leadership.

Bessey is a poetic writer, and her book is all heart. Her heart is beautiful, beckoning, pleading with the heart of her readers to be moved to open themselves to God’s plans for women in a more expansive way. This is lovely. She says things like, “Patriarchy is not God’s dream for humanity.” (14) She offers spiritual insights like these:

Let’s be done lobbying for a seat at the Table. I want to be outside with the misfits, with the rebels, the dreamers, second-chance givers, the radical grace lavishers, the ones with arms wide open, the courageously vulnerable, and among even–or maybe especially–the ones rejected by the Table as not worthy enough or right enough. (4)

That’s the thing when we say yes to God–it’s not about that one yes. Our one yes keeps resounding and spreading, like ripples in a pond after a pebble is thrown into it, until the yes of God and the yes of our hearts and the yes of Jesus’ love and the yes of us all sweep over the world. (149)

On losing her faith:

I hold almost all of it loosely in my hand now, all of it but this: the nature, identity, soul, action, and character of God is love–lovelovelovelovelovelovelove. Everything was resurrected on that truth. (50)

However, as a reader I needed more “head” to go with the heart, more substance and scholarship to make her case. Bessey’s understanding of the issues showed little or no research or understanding of biblical scholarship, and especially feminist biblical criticism. I have spent much of my adult life immersed in Christian feminist scholarship, and her book’s ignorance of these conversations was frustrating in every way. She presented ideas and concepts about Jesus, Paul and their attitudes toward women that have been explored in depth for more than 30 years–yet she talks as though she just found them herself in the scripture. While she may indeed have come up with them on her own, her versions lack the depth and perspective of so many ongoing conversations. I wish she had done just a little more homework, to discover that such a world even existed–she writes as though these are new ideas, and they are not. They are shallow, oversimplified (and sometimes even discredited) ideas about the interpretation of scripture about women. She never even questions or critiques the use of exclusively male language about God.

That is a harsh critique, but it is not the end of my assessment of the book. Bessey’s book still matters, it still has a place, it still fulfills a need, and I would still recommend it to certain readers in certain circumstances. Those just emerging from the closed world of conservative fundamentalism or evangelical Christianity will find a soul sister in Sarah Bessey. Women and men just beginning to question the hardened gender categories of biblical womanhood and pastoral leadership will find a handy introduction and invitation to open their hearts and minds a little wider.

I can imagine people to whom I would recommend this book, and to them it would be life-altering. However, that audience is small and targeted, and does not include the many of us who have already decided that women are to be fully integrated into the life and leadership of the church and have moved on to living it, doing it, and watching the consequences and changes women bring.

 

A Week in Winter by Maeve Binchy, Alfred Knopf, 2013, 326 pp.

Week in WinterThis is my first Maeve Binchy novel, though I know many who love her. There is an odd pattern between A Week in Winter and A Wedding in December, both about inns and innkeepers in winter, and both unfolding stories of multiple characters centering on their time spent together at the inn. The novels share more subtle similarities too–lovely writing, characters that are charming and entertaining but not gripping, a good story for beach reading (or a snow day!).

A Week in Winter centers on a small inn in the town of Stoneybridge on the west coast of Ireland. Chicky Starr, after years away in New York living what everyone assumed was a happily married life, has returned to Stoneybridge to renovate an old home into an inn, bringing experience running a boardinghouse. Everyone things she is crazy, because no one would want to visit Stoneybridge.

The first chapter belongs to Chicky’s story, and each subsequent chapter adds a new character to the week at the inn, unpacking the journey that got them to that one place and time together. The second and third chapters bring in the employees of the inn. Rigger is a troubled youth sent to family in Stoneybridge to hide out from his life in Dublin, and makes a life for himself there. Orla found success as a young, professional woman living the fancy life in the city, but could not find all she wanted there. She puts her business sense to use at the inn and finds hope.

The guests each get a chapter to tell their story as well. They include an unhappy schoolteacher who leaves soon after making everyone miserable, a movie star trying to escape attention and travel incognito, two young doctors who have been broken by seeing too much death, a mother and her potential daughter-in-law who do not like each other yet refuse to give up on the man they both love, a Swedish young man choosing between what he loves and what his family expects of him, a librarian troubled by visions of the future, and a couple who is disappointed that they won a contest’s second-prize trip to Stoneybridge instead of the first-place trip to Paris.

Each chapter is like a short story of its own, interwoven together by setting and integrating one another as secondary characters. The stories are charming, hopeful and endearing. I was reminded of Jan Karon’s Mitford series, which keeps everything nice. While the stories do approach life’s difficulties, they allude more than explore, and most characters find redemption. It’s a feel-good book all around, and I didn’t mind a bit.

 

A Wedding in December by Anita Shreve, Little, Brown and Company, 2005, 325 pp.

Wedding in DecemberAs we prepare to move,  it has been overwhelmingly busy. My normal brisk pace of reading has suffered, but I needed to get lost in a book just to escape. I also needed to read through some books that I want to read but not pack. This one has been on my shelf for a long time, but never caught my fancy. It was too light, too simple–until now. It was just the breezy read I needed.

The story takes place at an inn in western Massachusetts, where a group of high school friends have gathered for a wedding reunion more than 25 years after graduation. Two of the classmates, Bridget and Bill, had been high school sweethearts who broke up suddenly in college when Bill met (and eventually married) someone else. They have gotten back together, and the classmates are celebrating their wedding. It is their first reunion since graduation, which was marred by the tragic death of Stephen Otis, one of their circle. They carry the guilt and grief of that day into their adulthood.

Nora, Stephen’s girlfriend, owns the inn, having made her life as the wife and helpmeet of a famous poet before his death and her new life on her own as an innkeeper. Harrison, Stephen’s roommate and best friend, was in love with Nora, but is now married with a family of his own. Jerry, the loud one, brings a younger wife and conspicuous displays of wealth. Agnes, the quiet one, has been carrying on a secret affair for years.

The story unfolds the unfinished business between the various classmates, both in their relationships with one another and their guilt over not having been able to save Stephen. It wasn’t a great story, but it was a good one. The writing is lovely and understated. The characters and story will not be seared into my memory, but I enjoyed journeying with them for awhile.

A Wedding in December is a striking portrait of middle age, an era I find myself entering as well. In preparation for our move, I am revisiting old things from high school, notes and letters from my younger self. Through the power of Facebook, I am able to reconnect with some of those old friends and tend to some unfinished business. Much like the characters in the novel, we are able to move beyond our 17 year old versions of ourselves and see one another as fully-formed adults. Again like the story, sometimes this lifts old regrets, eases old tensions and heals old wounds. Other times, it opens new dimensions and reveals that we are forever locked into the choices we made a long time ago.

I was finally ready to appreciate A Wedding in December at the time I read it. Perhaps you will be too.

 

 

Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead by Brene Brown, Gotham Books, 2012, 287 pp.

Daring GreatlyBrene Brown’s TED Talk about vulnerability took my circles of clergy friends (especially women) by storm. Everyone was talking about it, talking about her, talking about vulnerability and the role it might play in pastoral leadership and preaching. As someone who prefers to stay fairly tightly protected and invulnerable, I knew I had to read it.

Brown’s writing reads with the invitational, conversational style of a self-help book, but it presents information developed from her enormous qualitative research projects. Using a “grounded theory” methodology, she has spent 12 years conducting in-depth interviews with more than 1200 people on the topics of shame and resilience, along with other forms of research, including leading many seminars on the topic. Vulnerability has emerged as a core theme related to shame and resilience, hence this book.

The book’s prelude summarizes its conclusion like this:

Our willingness to own and engage with our vulnerability determines the depth of our courage and the clarity of our purpose; the level to which we protect ourselves from being vulnerable is a measure of our fear and disconnection. … We must dare to show up and let ourselves be seen. (2)

Brown lets her research subjects give definition to vulnerability, offering lists and nuances that point toward a meaning. However, she settles on this moment of brilliance: “Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage.” (37) Vulnerability is taking a risk and putting yourself out there, even if it means you might fail.

Brown’s subsequent chapters address various themes around shame and vulnerability. She starts with scarcity, noting that our “never enough” culture leads to feelings of shame about being ordinary. The opposite of scarcity is not bounty, it is wholeheartedness. (29) I might call it wellness, or satiety–a rare quality.

The next section debunks myths about vulnerability–associating vulnerability with weakness, believing we can go it alone, and understanding the difference between vulnerability and oversharing. She then differentiates between vulnerability and shame. Shame is a feeling that our flaws make us unlovable and unworthy. Vulnerability requires us to trust that we will be loved even when we fail and our flaws are revealed. Shame resilience can be learned, and one of the most important ways to overcome shame is with empathy.

If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive. (75)

This strikes me as such an important insight for pastoral ministry. I listen to people’s stories so often, and I can even see sometimes in the very moment of empathy the way it liberates them from the shame they carry.

In order to break through, we must get through the “vulnerability armory,” which includes foreboding joy (mistrusting joy as a sign that something bad is coming), perfectionism, numbing, oversharing, running away and more. This was the most insightful chapter for me, as I recognized my own use of many of those tools and shields to protect myself.

The final chapters teach us how to practice vulnerability and learn to change. Disengagement must become re-engagement, as we let our hearts out in the open. Brown offers specific practices to help free us from shame and allow appropriate vulnerability in the classroom, workplace and in our families. Her chapter on parenting both identifies places where parents act to shame, and strategies to behave differently–including being vulnerable ourselves.

did not generate the kind of excitement or life-changing insight that it has to some of my friends and colleagues, but it was still an interesting read and offered much wisdom for pastoral work and many ideas that could appear in sermons about forgiveness, shame, healing, redemption and strength.

Beyond Resistance: The Institutional Church Meets the Postmodern World by John Dorhauer, Chicago: Exploration Press, 2015, 158 pp.

Beyond ResistanceDon’t judge this book by its cover. It looks about as dry as can be. It’s not.

Don’t judge this book by its font. It’s annoying, yes, but you’ll get over it and the content is worth it.

Don’t judge this book by its subtitle. “Postmodern” is an overused, dated term these days, but the much of the content of this book on the state of the church is as contemporary as any I’ve read.

John Dorhauer is the newly-elected General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, and this book lays out his perspective on the current state of decline in the American church. I read it as a clergyperson in the UCC eager to hear his vision.

What struck me first and foremost was that Beyond Resistance refuses to paint a rosy picture or offer a programmatic solution to the problem of church decline. This is an odd thing for a book, and it was initially a bit depressing. The author’s opening line is, “Let’s be honest… churches are dying.” (7) He then lists lower birthrates, aging property and “postmodernity” as the three key factors impacting church decline. While he does not try to define what postmodernity means (thank goodness!), he describes it as a cultural change “in expectations around what it means to be a person of faith,” (14) making note of three key factors of being “a postmodern.”

Disbelief in universal truth

Learning differently (i.e., not through written and spoken word alone)

Distrust of institutional authority

Let me pause here a moment to say: I find the term “postmodern” loaded with baggage from other disciplines and very dated. My philosopher spouse saw the book on the table and said, “How old is that book? Why are you reading a book on church change from the 1990s?” I wish Dorhauer had used another term–perhaps “post-Christendom” or “21st century” or even a neologism he invented. He later uses the term “Church 3.0,” which I also didn’t much like, but it’s at least better. However, the problems with vocabulary aside, the content of what he says is right on. It seemed obvious to me, because I clearly belong to the group he describes. However,  active, engaged, but older, clergy colleagues in a book group on this text were shocked and upended by this information about the worldview of so-called postmoderns. I was shocked by their shock, but it revealed to me just how vast is the divide between “moderns” and “postmoderns.”

Given that the church has historically been driven by its claims to universal truth and institutional authority, and Protestantism’s reliance on written and spoken word, you can see why the current crisis has occurred. However, Dorhauer insists that it is not a “rejection of Church as Church.”

This is not a denial of the value of a life well lived, enhanced by meaningful encounters with the sacred and shaped by like-minded people living in a committed community of faith with one another. It is simply the experience of coming to church, wanting to have a meaningful encounter, and walking out under-stimulated, bored, or having learned little to nothing. (20)

The second chapter argues that the church exists for mission, and much of our current malaise is founded upon our loss of our core sense of mission. However, Dorhauer never defines what he means by mission, and in my experience people hear that word to mean very different things. Does he mean acts of charity, caring for the poor and needy? Does he mean evangelism, converting people to the way of Christ? Does he mean discipleship, forming new followers who will walk in Christ’s way? The way he uses the term throughout the chapter seems to imply that he has only the first definition in mind–acts of charity and justice. If so, I find that deeply disappointing. While I agree that the church should always be about that kind of service and advocacy, our core mission is to build disciples AND build the Kin-dom of God. People don’t come to the church looking to help the poor–they come looking for holy presence and Jesus Christ, and we should be about making that presence known. Service and advocacy are one of the most important ways we do that–but only one. Dorhauer would probably agree with me here, but I was frustrated with the lack of clarity in the chapter, and the way service and advocacy seem to be privileged as *the* mission of the church. It is a frequent critique I have for leaders across our United Church of Christ.

However, lest you think I am only critical, the second chapter also contained one of my favorite sections. In his role as Conference Minister, Dorhauer talked with churches about these changes. When older, stable congregations talked about “becoming Church 3.0,” he told them frankly that they couldn’t. Instead, established congregations should seek mission partners who are about this new way of being church. That’s where the wisdom lies–with the establishment in doing tradition well, and with outsiders who are doing church 3.0 well. (40-43)

The third chapter is titled “Grieving, Believing, Perceiving,” which reminds me immediately of Walter Brueggemann’s excellent book Reality, Grief, Hope, which I have revisited in sermons, conversations and even our Indiana-Kentucky Annual Meeting theme in the last two years. The difference here is that Dorhauer takes on the truth-telling (reality) and grieving with a greater openness, depth and brutal honesty than I have seen anywhere else. It is painful, but also affirming to hear that we are not alone in our struggles. He shares openly about the shrinking opportunities for clergy and the feelings of failure. I felt heard and seen for the first time. Though the truth is depressing, it is liberating to hear it told, especially from the new GMP of the UCC. He gets it.

As he moves toward the hopeful–believing and perceiving in his rubric–Dorhauer names the current task in this time of tumultuous change as identifying the core values and practices that cannot change if we are to remain faithful to the Gospel.

The Church as we know it is going to have to live through open debate about what changes can and will be accepted, and what changes simply cannot be made. … Knowing, through the time of change, what is so important that, if it is altered, we cease to be is an essential task of the Church. Knowing what must be passed on through the sea of change that is coming is important. (56)

In his role as GMP, I hope he leads our entire denomination through this kind of rigorous open debate. It is sure to be painful at times, but it is the best ministry we can offer right now, I believe.

Chapter four focuses on the difference between Church 2.0 and Church 3.0. As he recognizes, others have written with greater depth on this topic. Dorhauer takes special care to note that this change is not an upgrade or adjustment–it is an entirely new way of being and doing. Chapter five tackles the difficult questions arising around church authority and clergy authorization. He addresses the crumbling model of a seminary-educated clergy, who are trained for a dying church 2.0 at great expense, while recognizing the ongoing need for accountability, oversight and development of new religious leaders for church 3.0.

Chapter six repeated the same fundamental problem of this book–using outdated examples or terminology for a concept or content that is actually quite leading edge. The chapter is about metrics and measurement in churches, looking beyond membership and money to the lives we change, the impact we make in our communities, and the ways our mission is accomplished. However, he begins by saying the church should be more like McDonalds (“Over 6 billion served!”), without seeming to recognize that McDonalds is losing money like mad these days, a franchise on a faster downward spiral of unpopularity than the church is. The ideas in the chapter are good–the illustration risks making them look old and irrelevant.

Chapters 7-10 turn toward the new expressions of Christianity sprouting up in our midst. He is deeply appreciative of these new Christian communities, but draws a clear boundary around calling them churches–because they would not self-identify that way, nor would a traditional church necessarily recognize them. They are generally small, with flat hierarchies, non-ordained leaders, non-traditional gatherings that don’t resemble formal Christian worship, and exhibit a commitment to openness with regard to Christianity and other faiths, a mingling of diverse ideas. Yet what Dorhauer concludes after his exploration of many of these communities is that they are authentic expressions of Christian community.

The gospel as we know it is in good hands. It is my hope that your own explorations of these postmodern communities of faith are no threat to the current expression of the Church and, in fact, are going to preserve the good news and make it relevant in people’s lives in ways that my church can’t. (118)

He offers validation that those newly sprouting Christian expressions are real and true versions of following Jesus, even if they are unlike any church we have yet seen. The final chapter offers helpful guideposts to churches navigating this time of transition.

As you can tell if you’ve bothered reading this far, this book provoked a lot of reaction in me. There were things that bothered me and that I would argue against, but those are surface matters like vocabulary and illustrations that made cutting-edge ideas seem unnecessarily dated. The heart of the book, its insights and truth-telling, is a great gift as we wrestle with the rapid changes afoot in the life of the church. This book makes an important contribution to the conversation. If you care about this conversation, I highly recommend it, especially if you are a part of the United Church of Christ.

 


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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