For The Someday Book

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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.

 

Necessary Lies by Diana Chamberlain, St. Martin’s Griffin, 2014, 372 pp.

Necessary LiesLike recent reads What She Left Behind, Orphan Train and Orphan #8, this novel begins in the author’s discovery of a little-known aspect of history, one that focuses on the lived reality of a small subset of people often overlooked. Those books turned on the stories of orphans and mental health patients; Necessary Lies opens the story of forced sterilization among impoverished women in North Carolina in the mid-20th century. The story’s characters are fictional, but the author drew on historical research into the lives of the women impacted by sterilization decisions.

The main characters of the story are Ivy Hart and Jane Forrester. Jane is a college graduate newly married to a pediatrician, Robert, who expects her to align with the lifestyle of a doctor’s wife in 1960–Junior League, bridge club, social events with other doctor’s wives. Jane has her own ideas. She wants to use her degree and serve others, so she takes a job as a social worker for the county welfare. She drives all over fictional Grace County meeting clients, helping tend to their needs and making sure they are not duping the government. She is also charged with making the case for sterilization.

Fifteen year old Ivy Hart is one of her clients. She lives with her grandmother, her older sister, and her nephew as a sharecropper on the Gardiner family farm. She is in a loving romantic relationship with the Gardiner’s son Henry. They share the land with the Jordan family as well, an African-American woman and her five sons.

Jane’s supervisor and co-workers agree that Ivy should be sterilized, and her grandmother is eager to sign the permission form after her older sister’s pregnancy. However, Ivy dreams of a family. As Jane grows to care for Ivy and hear her story, she resists, with dire consequences.

The novel is a plot-driven page-turner. Ivy, Jane and the rest are likable enough characters, but this is not a book in which to find great depth or lasting characters or magnificent writing. It’s a great summer read, vacation read,  or escape read. The insight into a unique and painful piece of history was enough to intrigue me, and I enjoyed the story greatly.

 

 

Doing Good… Says Who? Stories from Volunteers, Nonprofits, Donors, and Those They Want to Help by Connie Newton and Fran Early, Minneapolis: Two Harbors Press, 2015, 163 pp.

Doing Good Says WhoShortly after I turned 18, during my first year of college, I spent my spring break on a mission trip to the hills of Appalachia. With high hopes, I imagined that my unskilled hands and loving spirit were going to change the lives of the poor, needy, helpless souls we would serve in Jesus’ name. On my first day, I spent nine hours scrubbing the baseboards of an old tuberculosis hospital, alongside one other shiny young volunteer and an old local deployed as our supervisor. I had volunteered to depart from the group and go with him because he was said to be wise and full of stories, but he spent the day in silence in another part of the building. He made it clear that he knew exactly what we were good for–washing baseboards, and not much else.

He was right, of course. We had lots of enthusiasm, little skill, and enormous amounts of unconscious prejudice. By the end of the day, left with nothing but silence and chapped hands, my self-centered idealism had been cracked open. It was a lesson in humility, service and perspective that I have valued ever since.

I wish this book had existed then, and that someone had given it to me before that first mission trip experience. I’m doubtful that it would have pierced my fantasies of “rescuing the poor from despair” with one week of unskilled labor, but it might have settled my expectations down or at least given me a resource to fall back on once I fell from such a great height of naive arrogance.

As they write in the introduction:

How do any of us go about recognizing what we don’t understand in another culture? How can we know when our efforts are actually “doing good?” Does it matter? In the stories that follow, it matters. (ix)

Fran Early and Connie Newton have assembled a collection of stories based on their years of experience living and working among the people of Guatemala and those good-hearted souls who want to improve their situation. These stories are collected from hundreds of interviews, woven together into five themed chapters. Each chapter is a story in itself, compiled from the many interviews into a single narrative. The stories themselves are powerful juxtapositions and memorable misunderstandings, and they range from recovering a stolen toilet to a disastrous offer of a $10,000 gift to a women’s co-operative only made possible by cakes and tamales. You’ll meet arrogant doctors and amazing ones; hardworking yet clueless funders; local women whose expertise is invaluable; and a cross-section of volunteers and local Guatemalans you will come to love.

 

I was initially disappointed with the authors’ decision to condense and co-mingle the stories into a single narrative. It felt a bit concocted or processed to me, and I wanted the raw experience that I thought I would glimpse in a direct interview. However, upon further reflection, I realized that’s part of their point.  If we travel or talk or read about people who are poor or foreign or struggling, we imagine we can have real, unadulterated access to other people’s lives. We can’t. Their strategy refuses to let us indulge in the illusion that, by this book, we too are somehow getting the real story. While we can grow in compassion and understanding, chances are we won’t ever fully be able to part from our own lenses to see things as others do. Such depth requires years of listening, living and learning, much as the authors have tried to practice. What we get here is, in fact, more helpful–it is the critical lens we need to question our perspective and learn to listen more carefully.

 

(And if you, like me, still worried that the narrative was not authentic enough, or you are bothered that stories take too many liberties, or you care about research methods and this kind of looseness makes you uncomfortable, start with the appendix. The appendix gives a thorough accounting of their research methodology and documentation of sources. Start there, your questions will be answered, and you will be at liberty to appreciate the stories and their contribution.)

Early and Newton identify five guiding principles or key concepts that anyone interested in helping out another community should come to understand. Each of these principles makes up a chapter of the book, one of the interwoven narratives that illustrates the theme, as would a case study. These themes are:

  1. Respect and value people
  2. Build trust through relationships
  3. Do “with” rather than “for”
  4. Ensure feedback and accountability
  5. Evaluate every step of the way

These guiding principles would be helpful tools for local church mission committees; mission trip participants; university service learning centers and students; any congregation or organization interested in forming partnerships (whether international or interfaith or just intercity/suburb); social work students; ministry students; Teach for America volunteers; NGO and non-profit boards of directors; and so many more. Any of these groups of good-hearted souls would benefit from a group reading and discussion of the stories, the guiding principles, and how they impact their work.

I typically make frequent notes and underlines in reading a study text, but not this time. Each story deserves to be taken as a whole, like the people they represent. They are not a frozen image or an inspiring quotation. There is no anecdote that can capture the complexity of reality. Only relationship, mutuality and listening with care can begin to get you there.

This book is so helpful, so necessary. I’m disappointed my 18 year-old self didn’t have it, but I’m glad to have it now, and plan to share it widely.

 

 

 

 

Comfort and Joy by Kristin Hannah, Ballentine Books, 2005, 237 pp.

Comfort and JoyComfort and Joy is pure fun. I grabbed it from the pile to read on an airplane, and it was simply perfect. Nothing too deep, but a fabulous story told well, with likable characters that you want to find happiness and they do. There’s heartbreak and redemption and heartbreak again, and a bit of magic thrown in too.

The central character is narrator Joy Faith Candellaro, a simple school librarian from Bakersfield whose whole life falls apart when she discovers her husband and her sister are having an affair. The story begins as she anticipates her first Christmas alone. On a whim, unable to face the bleakness of a holiday with no family, she buys a ticket on a charter flight to the Pacific Northwest without telling anyone where she was going or even that she was leaving town.

Things don’t go as expected, and Joy finds herself the only guest at a closed inn. Her only companions are a boy, Bobby, and his father, Daniel. The boy’s mother has recently died, and his father has returned after their separation to close down the inn and move Bobby to Boston to live with him. Joy and Bobby become companions in their separate griefs, and they help one another heal through the holidays.

However, all is not as it seems, and just when Joy believes she has found a new and happy life, everything falls apart and she must return home to make peace with her life in Bakersfield. I can’t say more without giving away too much, but do not despair–the book lives up to its name. There is Comfort and Joy at the end of the story.

This book is a light and quick read, perfect for an airplane or a snowy afternoon. Get yourself some cocoa or hot tea and snuggle in for the smiles.

 

The Alchemist’s Daughter by Katharine McMahon, Three Rivers Press, 2006, 346 pp.

Alchemist's DaughterThe Alchemist’s Daughter is a beautiful historical novel set in England in the early 18th century. McMahon writes wonderfully, with a rich prose in the narrative voice of her central character and a unwinding revelation of the story in both the narrator and in the reader.

The story is told to us by Emilie Selden, the alchemist’s daughter herself. Since her mother died in childbirth, she has never left the family estate, and known only her father, a cook and gardener (Mr. and Mrs. Gill) as her daily companions. She has had occasional interaction with villagers or the parish priest, but her reclusive father has endeavored to keep her isolated. She has spent every day with him and his experiments, learning the depths of science and natural philosophy available at the time.  Loneliness pervades the narrator’s voice, though her lifetime of isolation barely gives her language to understand it.

The main story begins when she is 18. Her father is away and a handsome, wealthy fop (Aislabie) comes riding into the estate. Having never learned to navigate relationships with anyone, much less a flirtatious suitor, she falls for the gentleman and ends up entangled in a binding relationship. Due to the law of the time, her father’s estate also falls into the hands of Aislabie, and she risks losing everything she has ever known.

As a parent, I saw The Alchemist’s Daughter as a cautionary tale about the folly of isolating our children from the world instead of preparing them to encounter it. It’s also the story of Emilie discovering the truth of her life and her world, and how she claims her place in it. She is the alchemist’s daughter, rich in knowledge few men and likely no women shared at the time.

One of the most interesting characters in Emilie’s small world is Rev. Shales, the new parish priest and also a naturalist. While she and her father are engaged in alchemy experiments to bring forth life from death, the priest objects on moral grounds. His words captured a beautiful resonance for me as a pastor.

In my work, I meet the dying and bereaved every day. I have seen young children fail, and women and their new born infants die in childbirth. I would do everything in my power to restore them, but in the history of mankind only Jesus Christ had that gift. There is much we could do to improve life–decent food, medicine, clean air, warm homes. Let’s concentrate on what sustains life, not on some fruitless attempt to bring it back. (27)

Again later, in a conversation with Emilie after her relationship with Aislabie proves problematic, Shales expresses thoughts about prayer and the afterlife that could have spoken for me.

Emilie: “I feel punished.”
Shales: “No. No. I do not believe in a mechanism for punishment and reward.”
Emilie: “So your prayer is not entreaty.”
Shales: “For what? For favors? For an assured place in heaven? I have tried all kinds of asking and am never satisfied. What I know is that the expectation of heaven can be no substitute for what happens here. It can’t be an excuse for inflicting misery on others. But sometimes I can’t help hoping that heaven will contain a few shocks for those of us who are complacent or cruel.” (156-157)

The Alchemist’s Daughter is a rich and wonderful story, beautifully written, transporting the reader into a tiny, isolated estate and the mind of a young woman who knows nothing else in the world. Read and enjoy.

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter, HarperPerennial, 2012, 337 pp.

Beautiful RuinsWhen NPR’s Fresh Air calls this the best book of the year, you know it’s on my list to read. The book jacket is covered in “best book” endorsements from the New York Times, Boston Globe and many other trusted sources. Beautiful Ruins earned every one of them.

Just listen to this opening line, which won me over immediately:

April 1962, Porto Vergogna, Italy
The dying actress arrived in his village the only way one could come directly–in a boat that motored into the cove, lurched past the rock jetty, and bumped against the end of the pier.

I mean, already we have a beautiful writing and a story about a dying actress and an Italian man in a remote Italian village in the early 1960s. I was hooked.

Very quickly, we come to know that the man in the story is Pasquale Tursi, a native of tiny Porto Vergogna who has inherited his father’s small inn and his passion for making it (and the town) a tourist destination. The dying actress is Dee Moray, who is in Italy to play a lady-in-waiting in the movie Cleopatra, with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. A doctor tells her she has stomach cancer, and the movie’s publicist, Michael Deane, ships her off to Porto Vergogna and leaves her there. She is the inn’s only guest, apart from an American, Alvis Bender, who ostensibly spends a few weeks there every year to write his novel, but really just drinks the days away.

The story then jumps to “recently” in Hollywood, California. We meet Claire Silver, a young woman interested in film as literature and currently working as an assistant to Michael Deane. Between 1962 and “recently,” Deane became one of the most powerful, innovative producers in Hollywood, but has fallen from success and is now a washed-up has-been, making bad reality TV shows. We also meet Shane Wheeler, an aspiring filmmaker who is coming to make a pitch to Michael Deane.

On the day Shane shows up to make his pitch, met by Claire, Pasquale Tursi also appears–and the past secrets all begin to pour out. The novel moves back and forth between the events of 1962 and “recently;” between Porto Vergogna, Cleopatra and today’s United States; between Pasquale, Claire, Alvis Bender, Shane, Dee Moray, and Michael Deane, with major doses of Richard Burton thrown in for fun. Their lives become intertwined, chance encounters become lasting relationships or missed opportunities, and the story keeps the reader wondering how it will all work out in the end. I cared about all of the characters, and wanted to find out if they would get what was coming to them–whether love or healing or punishment or justice.

Beautiful Ruins sometimes made me shake my head in shame at the human condition, then made me weep at the beauty, then made me laugh out loud. I couldn’t put it down, and it was beautiful from beginning to end. I can’t wait to read Jess Walter’s next book. Find Beautiful Ruins. Read it. You won’t regret it.

 

 

The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction by Eugene Peterson, Eerdmans, 1989, 171 pp.

Contemplative PastorI read and return to Eugene Peterson whenever I need to be grounded again in my pastoral calling. I don’t always agree with him, and sometimes see his generation and gender coming through too much, but I always find much wisdom and inspiration for what the life of a local church pastor ought to be all about.

Having read The Pastor and Under the Unpredictable Plant, I was disappointed, but not surprised, to discover that The Contemplative Pastor did not contain a lot of new ideas or concepts. As always, Peterson emphasizes that the pastor should be a local theologian, an unbusy presence in people’s lives, attentive to what God is doing in a particular community, focused on reading and teaching more than administrating programs. This book also contained a unique focus on poetry, arguing that pastors should also invest in the art of poetry, as both readers and writers. Each chapter begins with a brief poem, and the closing chapter is a collection of Peterson’s poems.

Rather than big, new insights and ideas about what the true essence of ministry is, or how to do the work of pastoring, I found in this book a series of short, beautiful statements that remind me of my purpose and reorient me toward my mission as a pastor. I share favorites below.

Here is an example of that reorientation toward mission:

The pastor’s question is, “Who are these particular people and how can I be with them in such a way that they can become what God is making them?” … I’m responsible for paying attention to the Word of God right here in this locale. The assumption of spirituality is that always God is doing something before I know it. So the task is not to get God to do something I think needs to be done, but to become aware of what God is doing so that I can respond to it and participate and take delight in it. (4)

Again, later, he emphasizes the pastor’s task as listening and pointing out what God is already doing in the church and its people. This is what it means to “cure souls.”

What has God been doing here? What traces of grace can I discern in this life? What history of love can I read in this group? What has God set in motion that I can get in on? (61)

One of the things Peterson does best is talk about prayer in the life of the pastor, and its central role in the pastoral way. I love how he addresses the tension here between God and pastors:

Prayer is the joining of realities, the making of a live connection between the place we find ourselves and the God who is finding us. But prayer is not a work that pastors are often asked to do except in ceremonial ways. Most pastoral work actually erodes prayer. The reason is obvious: people are not comfortable with God in their lives. They prefer something less awesome and more informal. Something, in fact, like the pastor. Reassuring, accessible, easygoing. People would rather talk to the pastor than to God. And so it happens without anyone actually intending it, prayer is pushed to the sidelines. (42-43)

Following a long exegesis of Annie Dillard, he concludes that teaching prayer is primary.

My primary educational task as a pastor was to teach people to pray. I did not abandon, and will not abandon, the task of teaching about the faith, teaching the content of the gospel, the historical background of biblical writings, the history of God’s people. … The more I worked with people at or near the centers of their lives where God and the human, faith and the absurd, love and indifference were tangled in daily traffic jams, the less it seemed that the way I had been going about teaching made much difference, and the more that teaching them to pray did. (89)

Peterson is always good for me when I lose my way in this work, and need to get my feet on the ground and my heart right with God again. While The Contemplative Pastor was not as good as the other two listed above, and less likely to receive a reread in the future, it still served its purpose and moved me to prayer.

Orphan #8 by Kim van Alkemade, William Morrow/HarperCollins, 2015, 381 pp.

Orphan 8I enjoyed reading this book, which was more like fictionalized history than historical fiction. Van Alkemade learned of her grandfather’s time spent in the Hebrew Orphans home, while his own mother also lived and work there. In pursuing more about his life there, she stumbled across the story of a group of orphans suffering from alopecia caused by “x-ray treatments” received in their time there. She continued to pursue her research, learning as much as possible about the medical experiments, life in the home, and stories of those who lived there.

This novel is a fictionalized version of that collected history. Van Alkemade does a marvelous job of weaving together a unified story and full, fictionalized characters from the history she unearthed, but there are moments and plot developments that feel forced or uneven–usually because she chooses to stick with what actually happened, rather than what might make a more satisfying story. It’s the danger found in all memoir, of neglecting storytelling in favor of recording facts. The novel suffers only lightly, however, and it is still well worth reading.

The story centers on the fictional character Rachel Rabinowitz, who becomes an orphan at age 4, along with her older brother. They are separated when Rachel goes to the Hebrew Infants Home rather than the Orphan Home for older children, and it is during her time at the Infants Home that she experiences the dangerous radiation, the medical experiment of a young doctor. We meet Rachel as an adult, when she is a nurse in a hospice unit who discovers she is caring for the doctor who gave her those painful, life-altering treatments.

There is a lot going on in the story–Rachel’s coming out, her relationship with her brother, her ethical decision about how to relate to the ailing doctor in her care as a nurse, the environment and information about the life of orphans in the early decades of the 20th century, and more. While it was all interesting material, it was cumbersome from time to time, as the novel bounced between different eras and relationships. Again, van Alkemade chooses to service history over story from time to time. Yet Rachel is such an enjoyable companion that it overcomes much.

Nevertheless, Orphan #8 was a fascinating read, van Alkemade is a good storyteller, and I enjoyed learning about this unique time and place in history.

Community: The Structure of Belonging by Peter Block, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, San Francisco, 2008, 240 pp.

block_communityThis book is the more technical, less practical prequel to The Abundant Community. Most people who write about community are touchy-feely types who want to share stories, espouse big ideas, and inspire mutual affection. Not Peter Block. Block writes like an engineer, drawing a blue print for load-bearing walls and structural soundness for communities. He writes like a pathologist, dissecting the body of a community to determine sources of health and sickness, identifying the systems and structures that bring it to life. This analytical approach is novel and insightful, if a bit dry at times. Peter Block is clearly passionate about the importance of communities, and this book is a call to action in the work of building stronger, more integrated neighborhoods and communities.

After an introduction and a literature review, Block states the imperative for building community in an age of increased isolation. He then gives his first insight into what creates community–one that holds up for me in my lived experience.

Community building requires that we engage in new conversation, one that we have not had before, one that can create an experience of aliveness and belonging. It is the act of engaging citizens in a new conversation that allows us to act in concert with and actually creates the conditions for a new context. …

We must begin by naming the existing context and evolving to a way of thinking that leads to new conversations that produce a new context. It is the shift in conversation that increases social capital. Every time we gather becomes a model of the future we want to create. (32)

I could not agree more. When I work with a group or committee, the most difficult aspect is to change the conversation to something that creates new energy and opportunity, rather than rehearsing old patterns. And–even more–we have to model that future in every small way when we gather, from the arrangement of the room to the role of leaders to the nature of the questions.

Block then names common but ineffective strategies to move beyond stuck or stagnant community: seeing people as problems, believing that increased laws or oversight will fix problems, waiting for a stronger leader, and undervaluing associational life. By contrast, Block describes a “restorative community,” one with the power to act and engage, the power to hold one another accountable and create a new future together. Restorative communities are not about entitlement, and they do not expect others to fix our problems for us.

Block, following his future collaborator McKnight, addresses the problem and isolation caused by current social services systems, and the way they destabilize community.

To continue, as a community, to focus on the needs and deficiencies of the most vulnerable is not an act of hospitality. It substitutes labeling for welcoming. It is isolating in that they become a special category of people, defined by what they cannot do. This isolates the most vulnerable. Despite our care for them, we do not welcome them into our midst, we service them. They become objects. (58-59)

By contrast, what Block identifies as the “transforming community” as the one capable of changing individual lives and the community. Transforming communities “focus on the structure of how we gather and the context in which the gathering takes place, working hard on getting the questions right, and depth over speed and relatedness over scale.” (73) When I was involved in both community organizing and church revitalization, this proved the right strategy and focus for building transforming communities. Block’s next several chapters address the important elements of building transforming communities: leaders are conveners, small groups are the units of transformation, questions are more important than answers, six conversations materialize belonging (each gets its own chapter: invitation, possibility, ownership, dissent, commitment, gifts), hospitality and welcoming strangers is central, physical and social space support belonging.

Block’s concluding chapter argues that creating these kinds of structures of belonging in transforming communities can eliminate unnecessary suffering, which is often caused by isolation. He especially identifies youth, health care, social services, local economies and public safety as areas that could be dramatically changed and improved by the presence of transforming communities. The book then adds an extensive overview of its contents, and a lengthy lists of organizations and individuals that are role models for this process.

Block’s book is a helpful contribution for those of us doing the work of community building. His analysis felt to me like taking someone who cooks freestyle, and measuring and recording everything they do to concoct a recipe for others. I’m not sure anyone could create community experience simply by following the recipe, nor does any recipe for a complex dish adequately convey every nuance. Yet, it’s helpful, and even insightful for those of us always tossing things together to make sure we’re not leaving anything out. I’m not sure how helpful it would be to someone not already actively, thoughtfully engaged in community building efforts.

 

 

 


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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