For The Someday Book

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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.

 

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.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

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.

Blessed are the Crazy: Breaking the Silence about Mental Illness, Family and Church by Sarah Griffith Lund, Chalice Press, 2014, 116 pp.

Blessed are the CrazyThis book is brave. Sarah Lund commits from the very beginning to testify–to bear witness to the heartache and struggle of her own life and where God has (and hasn’t) been present and active in it. Then she follows through, confessing to her own pain, the pain of her family, and stories of brokenness and hope. Her vulnerability as a writer, pastor and person left me humbled and challenged to pursue that kind of testifying in my own life and ministry.

Before the book even begins, there is a definition offered for “crazy in the blood,” referring to the genetic predisposition to brain disease and “why some families are more dysfunctional than others.” This is Lund’s family and her story. She begins in her own voice as a five-year-old child, recalling a story of violence from her father after church. Her testimony unfolds through her teen and young adult years, as her father’s violence and mental illness unravel his life. Even as a local church helps her to know that “not everything in my life was ruined,” (7) Lund feels as though a God of love cannot reside in a home filled with such hate, and that faith and hope are set out to sea. She finds faith renewed in her college years, along with the perspective to understand her father’s violence as an illness.

After her years as a child and youth, her testimony turns to a faithful wrestling with how to love members of her family whose mental illness risks destroying their lives, and hers along with them. It is not just about her father. Her eldest brother is diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and she comes to care for a cousin on death row for a murder likely triggered by untreated mental illness and family abuse. It is painful to read, but her truth-telling is healing and liberating.

While my own testimony is not shaped by “crazy in the blood,” I found myself relating to her journey in many ways. This is what makes it testimony–that it was not just a story about her life, but about God at work, which means I could come to see God at work in my life through it. She describes her father, brother and cousins as her greatest spiritual teachers, and they became my spiritual teachers too. For example, her brother Scott describes his relationship with God:

When he is mentally stable he believes in God; when he is feeling manic he believes he is God; and when he is feeling depressed he believes there is no God. (44)

While I am not subject to the pain of Scott’s illness, I can recognize my own relationship with God in his description. I too find myself thinking that I am god-like when I feel strong and capable, just as I doubt God’s existence when I falter and fail.

Healing is a word that Lund uses carefully and sparingly. Mental illness has no cure. Though it can be managed throughout life, it will again and again flare up to cause damage and distress. She uses the powerful metaphor of bearing the cross.

By bearing the cross of mental illness and carrying it, we can move it–not rid ourselves of it or deny it–to a place of transformation like Golgotha. … Instead of only being the instrument that killed Jesus, the cross became a symbol of the power of God to overcome the sins of the world. In the resurrection, God shows us that what is broken by this world can be made whole again. … I believe that by telling our stories of mental illness, by giving our own testimonies for mental health, we can carry our crosses to more healing places, even places of transformation. (51-52)

Subsequent chapters challenge social notions (and Christian ones) about people with mental illness. She talks about the execution of her cousin and crushing power of state-sanctioned murder. She asks, “if God was with Paul and in Paul, what happened to the God-part of Paul when he was executed? Did part of God get executed too?” (68) Her answer–that “part of me and part of God died the night of Paul’s execution”–indicts our whole system of “justice.” A similar indictment follows as she talks about a kind of Christian faith that believes faith and prayer are sufficient alone to combat the brain diseases that her family has suffered, or that they suffer due to insufficient faith in God.

Instead, Lund offers a better, more compassionate way for churches and Christians to journey with people with mental illness and their families. She evokes a theology of suffering, where mental illness is neither a blessing nor a curse, but a situation in which God enters to accompany humans in their suffering. As people of faith, we should join God in that faithful, compassionate work of accompaniment. The book concludes with practical suggestions for churches about how to begin those kinds of ministries.

At first,  what stands out most about Blessed are the Crazy are the personal stories, whose vivid drama draw attention and stick in the reader’s memory. But the book matters not just for its storytelling, but for the theology of suffering and God’s persistent love in the midst of it, and for the challenge to people of faith to live out that love by walking together with those who are suffering from “crazy in the blood.” This book is a gift to all clergy, to families seeking hope in mental illness, and to church communities seeking to respond.

Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving and Finding the Church by Rachel Held Evans, Nelson Books, 2015, 269 pp.

Searching for SundayI am enormously grateful for the voice of Rachel Held Evans and the contribution she makes to the contemporary conversation about what it means to be a Christian, to be a church, to love God and live as God intends. For me, she is added to a growing list of authors whose work gives a fresh eloquence to ancient questions, people like Rob Bell and Nadia Bolz-Weber. When I read their books, I never feel like I am reading anything monumental as a new idea or paradigm-shattering concept, but instead I find a new generation voicing the ancient-yet-always-new vision and theology at the core of our Christian faith. I know that for some people, these authors rock the boat and rock their world. That’s not the case for me, though it doesn’t make me any less of a fan. It’s as if someone gives eloquent voice to what I’ve been thinking for 20 years already. I’m indebted and grateful to these authors for giving me a way to share this with others, whether those whose boats need rocking, those who’ve already sprung a leak, and those feeling about to drown.

Searching for Sunday offers a refreshingly life-affirming take on the traditional seven sacraments of the church: baptism, confession, holy orders, communion, confirmation, anointing of the sick and marriage. Evans made the journey out of fundamentalism and found a new home in the Episcopal church. This book traces that evolution by placing her personal stories in sacramental context, tying these holy acts to the ordinary elements of our lives. I loved the way she makes these holy mysteries accessible and interwoven with the water, bread, hands, sins of our lives.

Mostly, I love her prose. It’s not the major, overarching insights of the book that draw me–it’s the minute crystals of light that she captures, phrases and ideas I want to remember and revisit for preaching and teaching the future. Here are a few of my favorites.

This book is entitled Searching for Sunday, but it’s less about searching for a Sunday church and more about searching for Sunday resurrection. It’s about all the strange ways God brings dead things back to life again. (xviii)

I hadn’t yet learned that you tend to come out of the big moments–the wedding, the book deal, the trip, the death, the birth–as the exact same person who went in, and that perhaps the strangest surprise of life is it keeps on happening to the same old you. (14)

Most days I don’t know which is harder for me to believe: that God reanimated the brain function of a man three days dead, or that God can bring back to life all the beautiful things we have killed. Both seem pretty unlikely to me. … What the church needs most is to recover some of its weird. … We are people who stand totally exposed before evil and death and declare them powerless against love. There’s nothing normal about that. (21-22)

I often wonder if the role of the clergy in this age is not to dispense information or guard the prestige of their authority, but rather to go first, to volunteer the truth about their sins, their dreams, their failures, and their fears in order to free others to do the same. … There is a difference, after all, between preaching success and preaching resurrection. (112)

I could only proclaim the great mystery of faith–that Christ has died, Christ has risen and Christ will come again, and that somehow, some way, this is enough. This body and this blood is enough. At Eagle Eyrie I learned why it’s so important for pastors to serve communion. It’s important because it steals the show. It’s important because it shoves you and your ego and your expectations out of the way so Jesus can do his thing. It reminds you that grace is as abundant as tears and faith as simple as food. (140)

If you are looking for words to describe how God is alive in the church, ancient and new, Rachel Held Evans points the way. She reclaims the historic witness of the church and places it squarely in the middle of our 21st century mess, and sees where God is alive and moving among us. Her words give me words to claim faith anew.

 

There’s a Woman in the Pulpit: Christian Clergywomen Share Their Hard Days, Holy Moments & the Healing Power of Humor, ed. by Rev. Martha Spong, Skylight Paths Publishing, Woodstock, VT, 2015, 215 pp.

Woman in the PulpitFor years, my clergywomen friends and I have been swapping stories about what our lives are like in the crazy, beautiful work of ministry. “You should write that down.” “We should write a book someday.” “Somebody needs to publish all these stories,” the voices echo. Finally, someone did!

There’s a Woman in the Pulpit captures the stories of dozens of clergywomen across denominations and cultures and across the world. The initiative began with the RevGalBlogPals, a blog ring of women in ministry that I read for a long time and was honored to join when I became a blogger myself. Many of these women have been writing their stories for years, others are new to ministry or to writing. They pulled together the best of the best from all the submissions for There’s a Woman in the Pulpit.

Here’s my response: I laughed. I cried. I shouted, “I know exactly what you mean.” I had to put the book down because I was too deeply moved to turn another page. I wanted to answer back by swapping stories of my own. I felt like I was hanging out with old friends (and, truth be told, several of the authors are my friends–in person or via the internet). I said a deep, sighing “yesssss” on multiple occasions.

The breadth of the stories moved me. While I expected the stories about tender moments with the dying to bring a tear or two, I was surprised to also find myself sighing deeply over the stories of mothering through ministry, or presiding at the communion table, or preaching. There were stories I immediately recognized as similar to my own, like keeping vigil at the bedside of a beloved church elder or searching for a nice pair of preaching heels, and stories that offered me a window into another’s life, like parenting a child with a disability or juggling a church and a farm.

If you want to know what it’s like to be a woman in ministry (or just a person in ministry–not all stories are gender-specific), this is the book for you. If you are a person in ministry and want to read something reflecting our experiences with beauty and wonder and humor, this book is for you. If you love a woman in ministry, this book will offer insight into her world. While there are occasional stories of sexism or gender bias, most of the book is just about the beautiful, messy, holy lives we share with beautiful, messy, holy people and congregations.

When I have shared stories like these with others, including male clergy colleagues, there is often disbelief. “That doesn’t really happen, does it?” You might read this book and feel the same question arise. Here is my three-part reply: 1. Yes, this stuff really happens. 2. Yes, I mean it. It really does. 3. Isn’t it beautiful and messy and holy, and isn’t that just what God is like?

I’m so proud to know many of the women whose writing is contained in this book, and I feel blessed to have our stories told for the world to share. Get it, read it, love it.

Lila by Marilynne Robinson, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014, 261 pp.

LilaOh, Marilynne Robinson, how you move me! I think she (and especially her character Rev. John Ames) has become one of my favorite theologians in recent years. I have treasured the first two volumes of this trilogy, Gilead and Home, and waited longingly for Lila to finally be available.

Lila completes the trilogy with the story of Lila Dahl, the late-in-life wife of Rev. John Ames, a wanderer with an unknown past. In the previous two stories, she is a mystery. Finally we hear her own voice, and Robinson reveals–in her careful, slow way–Lila’s complicated past. Like Ames and Boughton, hers is a story of loneliness and isolation. Unlike the men, who also had to cope with disappointment, Lila never had any expectations for her life, so her struggle is not so much with disappointment as with emptiness. Her loss is not of an imagined future, but of any comfort and companionship at all.

Everything that happens here between Lila and Rev. John Ames is familiar to readers of Gilead and Home. She comes to church and he baptizes her. They meet and talk in their stilted way. They are married, and soon she is pregnant with his child. What we learn in this book is Lila’s perspective on their relationship, and the intricate back story that leads Lila to Gilead and breaks her heart open to love. Her story begins in poverty and abandonment, grows into love and wandering and being an outlier with Doll, the woman who raised her. When she loses Doll, she loses herself and falls into the realm of violence and abuse. Yet she escapes, she finds redemption, and together with Ames finds a frail happiness she can hardly believe is real.

As always, Robinson offers a deep sense of poetry and theology, even though our main character is not a preacher. Below are a few gems I want to remember.

She saw him standing in the parlor with his beautiful old head bowed down on his beautiful old chest. She thought, He sure better be praying. And then she thought, Praying looks just like grief. Like shame. Like regret. (93-94)

The next four passages are words spoken by Rev. John Ames, and they sum up much of my own theology.

I really don’t think preachers ought to lie. Especially about religion. (99)

Thinking about hell doesn’t help me live the way I should. I believe this is true for most people. And thinking that other people might go to hell just feels evil to me, like a very grave sin. So I don’t want to encourage anyone else to think that way. Even if you don’t assume that you can know in individual cases, it’s still a problem to think about people in general as if they might go to hell. You can’t see the world the way you ought to if you let yourself do that. Any judgment of the kind is a great presumption. And presumption is a very grave sin. I believe this is sound theology, in its way. (101)

“If the Lord is more gracious than any of us can begin to imagine, and I’m sure He is, then your Doll and a whole lot of people are safe, and warm, and very happy. And probably a little bit surprised. If there is no Lord, then things are just the way they look to us. Which is really much harder to accept. I mean, it doesn’t feel right. There has to be more to it all, I believe.”
“Well, but that’s what you want to believe, ain’t it?” (Lila)
“That doesn’t mean it isn’t true.” (143-143)

‘Of course misfortunes have opened the way to blessings you would never have thought to hope for, that you would not have been ready to understand as blessings if they had come to you in your youth, when you were uninjured, innocent. The future always finds us changed.’ So then it is part of the providence of God, as I see it, that the blessing or happiness can have very different meanings from one time to another. ‘This is not to say that joy is a compensation for loss, but that each of them, joy and loss, exists in its own right and must be recognized for what it is. Sorrow is very real, and loss feels very final to us. Life on earth is difficult and grave, and marvelous. Our experience is fragmentary. Its parts don’t add up. They don’t even belong in the same calculation. Sometimes it is hard to believe they are all parts of one thing. Nothing makes sense until we understand that experience does not accumulate like money, or memory, or like years and frailties. Instead, it is presented to us by a God who is not under any obligation to the past except in His eternal, freely given constancy.’ (223)

I mean, just, wow. That’s how I feel the whole time I am reading these books. The aching beauty, the grim loneliness, the frail joy, the probing faith, the way she captures the contour of the soul moves me every time. If you haven’t yet read Robinson’s trilogy, get to the library now and get started. These books will stand among the great works of 21st century literature, I’m certain.

Reading for Preaching: The Preacher in Conversation with Storytellers, Biographers, Poets, and Journalists by Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2013, 133 pp.

Reading for PreachingMy credentials as an avid reader are well established by the very substance of this blog. I love to read. I read a lot. I love to talk about books, to invest in them and dissect them and commit them to memory. Professionally, I am a preacher. When I read the title Reading for Preaching, I placed my book order without delay. I thought this book was written for me.

While I enjoyed Plantinga’s book, I quickly discovered it was not written for me. Plantinga makes a compelling case for why a preacher should endeavor to regularly read, especially novels, biographies, poetry and journalistic narratives. I am clearly already sold, and a quick skim through the long lists of reviews posted here will show that I most frequently turn to those precise genres (except poetry, which I should read more often). For example, Plantinga thinks it unrealistic for a preacher to read as many as six “classic novels” each year, and offers hope that preachers will read just one.(41-42) While all my fiction reading is not “classic novels,” I definitely read a lot more than that already.

However, Plantinga does offer great perspective and insight about why reading matters–for me and for other preachers. He begins with the obvious: reading is a source of illustrations for sermons. There is nothing worse to me than a tired, canned sermon illustration, and Plantinga urges preachers to “dig up your own stuff.” (22) He points out the ways that reading can make preachers more attentive not only to the possible illustrations in texts, but events in everyday life that might illuminate the gospel. Reading also serves to “attune the preacher’s ear,” to help a preacher register how best to speak to a given audience. Plantinga identifies a variety of dictions a preacher might use–from tuxedo formal to tank-top casual to upscale colloquial or business casual (49). Each one pitches the message to a particular setting, designed to speak appropriately and engagingly to the audience at hand. Reading a variety of dictions helps the preacher recognize and develop the right tone for his or her own congregation and message. He recommends children’s literature as an especially good tool.

The second half of Plantinga’s book talks about the importance of reading as a source of wisdom for the preacher. While scripture remains the preeminent source of wisdom, other literature also provides a great deal of wise insight into the human condition. He highlights the way literature can open us to a variety of worlds and life experiences beyond our own:

The preacher wants his program of reading to complicate some of his fixed ideas, to impress him with some of the mysteries of life, with its variousness, with its surprises, with the pushes and pulls within it. (95)

Plantinga also points to the ways that literature and journalism can help us explore good and evil, sin and grace with a more complex, nuanced understanding.

The whole book is rich with appreciation and encouragement for the life of preaching, and the importance of sermons in the life of Christian worship. For example, he remarks:

The unpredictability of the preaching event gives no one license to wing it. Faithful preachers work hard on their sermons, understanding that although a fruitful result may be God’s gift, hard work is the preacher’s calling. After all, it is audacious to speak for God. (43)

It is a bold and humble task we do as preachers, and I cannot imagine undertaking it without an army of words behind me from other authors. Plantinga’s argument for the importance of reading did not move me because I am already convinced, but this book did encourage me to see my indulgence in good fiction not as a rest from quality reading, but a different kind of endeavor at building my theological and emotional vocabulary for preaching.

I finished this book and felt much better about setting aside the latest book from a consultant on church leadership, returning instead to the public library, where I checked out nearly a dozen new books, a mixture of quality fiction, history and biography. Now, to read them all!

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

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

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

In his preface from 1956, he writes,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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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