Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Book Review: Into Your Hands

I have reviewed several of Walter Brueggeman's books on this blog, especially his two-volume sermon collections which are very good. Brueggmann is the William Marcellus McPheeters Professor of Old Testament Emeritus at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia. He is a prolific author and has many books on both the Old and New Testaments as well as various essay collections and talks. I always enjoy his writing.

Into Your Hand: Confronting Good Friday (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014) is a short collection of sermons/prayerful reflections on the seven last words of Jesus. These talks were delivered in a three hour long prayer service at his home parish which included song, Psalms, and prayers. Even though the book is very short, its around 45 pages, it contains a lot of food for thought regarding Jesus' last hours.

What I like about Brueggemann is that although he is an Old Testament scholar and seminary professor he has a pastoral heart. He brings the Scriptures to life for his readers, and in this case, his hearers, as he reflections on the last words of Jesus which we find in the gospels.

It's unfortunate that in many Churches Good Friday gets overshadowed by Easter Sunday. All too often the focus is on the Empty Tomb, on Christ is Risen, and in some places, the Easter Bunny. Yet what about Good Friday? What about the suffering? What about the beatings? What about the crown and the vinegar? What about the abandonment? What about Jesus' crying to God the Father? All of these things are discussed by Brueggemann in a prayerful and pastoral way.

This book would be a great book club book for those wanting to learn and discuss the basic outline of Good Friday.

For more information about Into Your Hand click here 

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Book Review: Invasion of the Dead

Spring means blooming flowers, green trees and grass, and warmer weather. Spring also means that its the Easter season. It is very timely then that I received Rev. Dr. Brian Blount's new book, Invasion of the Dead: Preaching Resurrection (Louisville, KY: Westminister John Knox, 2014) for review. Couldn't have timed this better!

Rev. Dr. Blount is President and Professor of New Testament at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, VA and is the author of numerous books, articles, and reviews. This book is a collection of lectures that he gave in 2011 at Yale University Divinity School. The three lectures are interspersed with three of his sermons.

Most parishioners forget that every Sunday is a mini-Easter, a mini-Resurrection feast. Sure we celebrate Easter once a year after Good Friday but every Sunday is the Lord's Day, it is the Day of the Lord, where we offer our prayer and praise and break bread and share fellowship with one another. Yet most of us probably don't think much about the resurrection, or as Dr. Blount says, many folks just stop a bit shy and focus on the cross. Yet all the gospels contain the resurrection accounts and the preaching of the good news to the whole world.

I must say being a pastor I enjoyed reading Dr. Blount's sermons and hope that one day he publishes them. The three sermons in this book focused on some aspect of the resurrection: new life, joy, rebirth. I especially enjoyed the last sermon in the book focusing on Mark 16 called "Rise" which was delivered in honor the rededication of First Presbyterian Church in Raleigh, NC. Blount refers to a tired and dying parish like that of Jesus. Yet there is hope in that dying. He admits that much of institutional Christianity is dying or has died, namely old ways of thinking and old ways of doing things.

Does this sound like a depressing story? Yes! But Dr. Blount provides hope. Just as Jesus rose from the dead so too can a parish rise from the burning ashes that they might find themselves in. Some parishes struggle with poor attendance, others struggle with lack of regular income, and others struggle with shifting demographics. All this sounds like bad news, tired, sad, and downright depressing. Yet Dr. Blount reminds us that new life is possible. That God's gracious gift of resurrection can even be found in big and small ways throughout the Church.

Reading this book gave me several pearls of wisdom for my own parish ministry. Where do I see God's gracious hand in my life, in my parishes life, in the larger Church that I find myself? Where do I see glimmers of the shimmering light of the resurrection?

For more information Invasion of the Dead click here 

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Book Review: All Who Go Do Not Return

You might be wondering why is an Eastern Orthodox priest is reviewing a memoir about a former Hasidic Jew? Well for starters I grew up in a very Jewish world in New Jersey. Many of my school age friends were Jews, my mom's boss was an Orthodox Jew, I worked part time in high school for a brother and sister who survived concentration camps in Germany, and for a time I wish that I was Jewish too, especially around Chanukah. I was super jealous when us Christians only had one day of gift giving at Christmas where my neighbor friends had eight days! Since we had so many Jewish believers in our community my local school always had off on Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah. So it made perfect sense that I would read and devour Shulem Deen's new memoir (Graywolf Press, 2015)

Deen was a former member of the Skver Hasidic group based in Monsey New York, which is around thirty miles or so north of New York City up in Rockland County. There are many branches of the Hasidic community each involving various small cultural and theological nuances which usually include following their beloved Rabbi or Rebbe as they call him. The Rabbi is not just the main spiritual leader but the one who leads prayers, teaches, and upholds Jewish law. The Skver Hasidic dynasty originated with the teachings of Rebbe Yitzhok Twerski who lived in the Ukraine. Upon coming to the United States the Skver Hasids established New Square, New York as their home base, not too far from other Hasidic Jewish groups.

Anyone familiar with Hasidic Judaism knows that they generally live in tight closed knit communities where they live, eat, study, and pray together. Many own stores and shops in the community and in some ways their life is not too different than the Amish who live in Lancaster Pennsylvania  and who have very little contact with the world around them: i.e no televisions, radios, computers, movies, secular books, or newspapers. Their life revolves around prayer, study, marriage, and family. Like the Amish, many of the Hasidic Jews do not receive public education and therefore many do not have basic life skills such as reading and writing in English as well as little advanced math comprehension.

Deen's memoir is a heart wrenching story of a young married Hasidic man with children who after a long period of soul searching and discernment decided to leave New Square. Leaving any community is not easy, but leaving the Hasidic community seems nearly impossible. Deen was considered an "aprikoros" or heretic by the local Jewish leaders. He was banned, sent away as someone who would contaminate the rest of the community. This story is heart felt because as we know that life is never cut and dry, one has many connections, friendships, and networks within a community and to leave family, friends, and faith is horrific especially when someone is raised in that particular faith tradition. To leave what you know, what is familiar to you, all of the customs both big and small is not so easy as it seems.

There are many memoirs where the writing is thin and the story bland. Not this one. Deen's writing is like reading a piece of artwork. He provides the reader with the many sides of Hasidism, the good, the bad, and the ugly. He shows the warts and wrinkles the joys and the pains as well. For example of all the people mentioned in the book, it seems like his siblings still continue to love and care for him even though he left. As I was reading it dawned on me how painful it must have been for them as well. I also thought about his friends who stayed at New Square. How do they feel about his leaving? Are they jealous? Do they feel, like Deen, caught between staying and leaving?

As someone such as myself who is steeped in a robust liturgical and ancient faith tradition as the Eastern Orthodox Church I felt much sympathy and affinity with Deen's faith struggle. We too can often be very sectarian, afraid of secular books and culture, afraid of asking questions, afraid of challenging the saints and the Fathers of the Church (ancient sermons and theological writings of monks, bishops, and priests), but accept everything without questioning. More often than not what is left is a very thin faith and one that is one of fear of power and authority and not based on love. Many clergy, like the Rebbe's mentioned in the book fall into the trap of dominating power and authority in the parishes. Once I was asked by a parishioner to actually name her child. It is one thing to bless a child on the eighth day which is our custom, but she wanted me to provide the actual name, as if she was giving over all power to me. I firmly suggested that this was a decision that needs to be made between herself and her husband. She pushed the issue and I remained firm. I was not assuming that responsibility for her. Long story short it is not uncommon for believers to project things onto me as their spiritual leader and guide which is not really my responsibility. Things are similar in Hasidic Judaism where followers will hang on every word and teaching of their Rebbe, so much so as to push and shove one another as he enters a room so that they can touch him or receive a blessing.

I had difficulty reading this memoir, not because of the narrative or the quality of the writing, but because I saw in it the destructive power of religion. I wondered what if Deen was raised in a different type of Hasidic group, one that allowed for discussions, for questions, for a slightly different lifestyle? How different this life might have been! There is much in Judaism that is beautiful. I often listen to Jewish hymns on the internet and read selections from some of the great Hasidic spiritual writers such as the Baal Shem Tov as well as the more contemporary Abraham Joshua Heschel whose writing and life I admire very much.

Religion can easily turn into sectarianism and fundamentalism. Those who challenge or call to question are shoved to the margins and are either pushed out or are asked to leave. How sad. Judaism has a rich and lively heritage which in some ways parallels Christianity with its various rites, rituals, hymns, prayers, and food. Yet sometimes we can easily be imprisoned in these rites and rituals, very often not knowing why we do them, but wondering can they be done in a slightly different manner which is more appropriate for our time and place.

I could go on and on about Deen's memoir but I won't. I'll leave it up to you, the reader, to take and read. I commend Shulem Deen for his courage and humility to write this book. It must have been a labor of love. I know he touched my heart.

For more information about Shulem Deen and his memoir click here 

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Book Review: Wearing God

There is a common saying that goes, "You shouldn't judge a book by it's cover." I admit if I saw this book on a store shelf I would most likely not pick it up. I'm not quite sure I understand the connection between the flying birds and the woman in the middle. However, that being said, I was intrigued by the title: Wearing God: Clothing, Laughter, Fire, and Other Overlooked Ways of Meeting God (Harper One, 2015) 

I was first introduced to Laura Winner's writing when she published When Girl Meets God. I've read a few of her other books and was interested in what she has to say about vocation, God, the Church, and our life in Christ. She is a professor at Duke Divinity School and has published many books on the spiritual life.

The Bible is full of metaphors. When we read the gospels for example we read that Jesus refers to himself as a vine, as a shepherd taking care of his sheep, as the bread of life. These metaphors are so common sometimes we tend to glance over them and don't realize their power. We don't spend time with each metaphor and say to ourselves, "Gee how is Jesus like a shepherd for me?" or "How is Jesus like a vine and I'm one of the branches." Metaphors are powerful for they put the indescribable into something tangible and real for us. They make what is ethereal and put them into a concrete image so that we can better understand the meaning of the text.

 Winner's aim in this book is to unpack some of the major metaphors in the Bible that speak of Jesus and God. She delineates her topics into a few sections:



Bread and Vine 

Laboring Women 



Of course there are additional metaphors that she could have included but the book would have been over five hundred pages! The Bible is full of wonderful metaphors but one cannot write about all of them in a book like this.

Winner is a fine writer. She writes as if she is sitting with you over a cup of coffee or tea, explaining the meaning of these metaphors to us. She has a casual tone, a result of many years preaching and teaching seminary students. Throughout the book she includes several quotations from major writers, both modern and ancient, as well as prayers and hymns from the liturgical year. A few of these would have been fine, however I did get distracted with the over abundance of them. Sometimes less is more. Yet throughout the book I did pause and read the quotations allowing them to speak to me as well.

Two of them caught my eye:

"In every culture, clothing not only is utilitarian but also symbolizes a person's or group's identity." Sarah A Chase

"The Lord Jesus Christ himself…is said to be the clothing of the saints." Origen

I never thought about clothing as identity. One day I may wear blue jeans and another day I may wear my khaki pants and polo shirt. Yet how many people wear uniforms to work, police officers, fire men, postal workers, janitors. When I see a UPS man in his brown shirt and pants I know immediately that he is a UPS man without having to see the sign on the truck.

If anything, Wearing God will help the reader return back to the Bible again and take a slow read, allowing the metaphors unpack their meaning. I found that all too often I read the Bible too quickly and miss some of the major points!

If you are interested in reading more about some of the metaphors that speak about our life in Christ than Wearing God is a book for you.

For more information about Wearing God click here 

Friday, April 10, 2015

Book Review: Collected Sermons of Walter Brueggemann

I came across the writings of Walter Brueggemann several years ago and I'm so happy that I did! Brueggemann is a committed Christian, pastor, and for many years served as the William Marcellus McPheeters Professor of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary. I enjoy his writings because they have both depth and breadth and while he has a scholar eyes and mind he also has a pastors' heart. I rank Brueggemann up there with Eugene Peterson, Fred Craddock, Thomas Long, among others.

When I saw his second volume of collected sermons I knew that I had to review it. A few years ago I read and reviewed the first volume of sermons and the second volume, very much like the first, doesn't disappoint.

As a longtime pastor I have found that I need to fill up my wells so that I can continue in my preaching and teaching ministry. It's certainly challenging to preach sermons week after week, month after month, season after season for many years. It can be downright tiring. However, I need to continually read, study, and pray the Scriptures as well as read books like this collection of sermons. It is food for the journey. If you're a pastor or a teacher in the Church I encourage you to read this collection too, you won't be disappointed.

The sermon collection is arranged according to the Church Year:

Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany 

Lent and Easter 

Pentecost and Ordinary Time 

What I like about Brueggemann is that since he knows the cultural and religious world view of the Old Testament he brings that to light in his preaching. His sermons weave both the Scriptural as well as personal as he finds no problem mentioning a book, movie, or personal anecdote as we would a story about King David or Abraham. The Old Testament comes to life in his sermons and while reading one could just imagine Adam or Eve just walking into the room. I don't get a chance to hear many preachers because I have a parish myself, however I hear from some folks that too many sermons are like dry bones, dusty and old, stories told and re-told without much imagination from the preacher. However, Brueggemann is far from dry, these dry dusty bones come to life as he refashions them into the life-giving story of God's salvation for us in Jesus.

If you want a book that will feed heart, mind, and spirit then look no further than Walter Brueggemann's Second Volume of Sermons, you'll be happy that you did!

Since reading this book I have read several other of his books too, his books on the prophets for example is excellent. I hope you will find Brueggemann as inspiring as I have!

For more information about the sermon collection click here 

For Walter Brueggemann's Website click here 

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Book Review: Torah to the Gentiles

Children usually think that bigger is better; Joey has a bigger bike than Johnny, Suzy has a better doll house than Mary, Cade has a larger tree house than Jackson. However I was taught as a child not to judge a book by its cover, or size for that matter. Some of the most important pieces of writing were not long at all, here I think of the Magna Carta, Luther's 95 Theses, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and Bill of Rights, and the Emancipation Proclamation.  Short pieces of writing but extremely important. The same pertains to the Scriptures. Paul's letter to the Galatians is very short at 6 chapters but extremely important and essential for faithful followers of Christ to fully understand not only what the gospel means but how we are to live together as one body of Christ in the Spirit.

Fr. Marc Boulos is the pastor of St. Elizabeth Orthodox Church (OCA) in Eagan, MN and the co-host of The Bible as Literature podcast.

I applaud Fr. Boulos for his recent contribution for our understanding of perhaps Paul's most important letter in his corpus, the epistle to the Galatians. Boulos' many years as a pastor, teacher, and preacher, together with his pastoral experience has provided him the language to translate Paul's teachings on how we must live according to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

It might be easy to discount this small book, but good things come in small packages. The introduction and conclusion are worth the price of the book for in them Boulos lays out the practical implications of living as one body; living by the rule of love, "Learning how to love is like learning to swim. It requires endless practice in the real world-endless hours in the pool-dealing with the primary data. In the case of love, this data is the wisdom gained from the shame of the cross." (p. 123). It is the crucified Christ which draws Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free, into one body. Although we all know that living as one body is not easy, yet it is the command of love that is the glue that binds us together.

The book is divided into six chapters, each chapter includes both the original Greek and English so the reader can see both. What is important about this book is that Boulos uses "scripture to interpret scripture." In other words unlike some biblical commentaries that has various "theological lenses" in which they view the text Boulos uses the ancient teaching technique of using the scriptures to unlock the meaning of the scriptural text in which he is using. While reading Torah to the Gentiles I immediately thought that this would be an excellent resource for a Bible study or small book study since it includes both the scriptural text as well as commentary.

Paul is not an easy read. Most people prefer the gospels since they are straight narratives with characters, plot, setting, and drama. Paul's letters are dense as he primarily uses Graeco-Roman religious, military, and legal language in his argument and after a while many people stop reading Paul because they don't "get it." Yet Boulos takes this dense language and unpacks it, allowing the reader insight into Paul's writing itself. This is not an easy task, yet Boulos manages to do it with ease.

If you want a basic introductory to Paul's "epistle of epistles" then go out and buy yourself a copy of Torah to the Gentiles. No. Buy a few copies, give them to your pastor and to your local prayer group or Bible study. You won't be disappointed.

For more information about Fr. Boulos and his parish click here 

For more information about OCABS Press click here 

To purchase a copy of the book click here 

For an interview with Fr. Boulos click here 

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Book Review: Yoked Stories of a Clergy Couple in Marriage, Family, and Ministry

I've been a pastor for while now and it's challenging enough having a parish AND a family. Thankfully my parish isn't too big but there are times when I feel torn between parish responsibilities and also supporting my family, especially regarding my daughter's school and sports activities.

However, my wife is not a pastor, she is a school teacher. She has her own friends and her own life apart from our parish. I cannot fathom how difficult the stresses, strains, challenges, and choices that need to be made in a clergy couple family, a family where both spouses serve as pastors. I don't have any clergy couple friends either so I do not know first-hand what life is like for them, but now, after reading Andrew and Mihee's book Yoked: Stories of a Clergy Couple in Marriage, Family, and Ministry (Lanham, MD: Rowan and Littlefield, 2014) I have some insight. After reading this book I thought, wow, there is no way I could do what they do!

This book is a wonderful resource for couples who either are already in ministry or who are contemplating having a joint ministry. It's also good reading for any pastor in ministry since many of the stories which Andrew and Mihee include are apropos to ministry in general.

Yoked is divided into ten easy to read chapters:

Church on Sundays 

What is nice about this book is that for each chapter both Andrew and Mihee made their own contributions rather than one person writing one chapter and then alternating them. Thus we get their combined insights into the various parts of parish ministry. To make matters even more complicated they are in a mixed race marriage Mihee is Korean-American and has her own cultural, racial, lingual, and sociological background to bring into the mix. They also have three children too. After reading a few pages I kept thinking to myself, how do they manage with all of the responsibilities and challenges of parish ministry.

Without going into too much detail I can say that at the end, after all is said and done the reader comes away with a radical honest and truthful confession about how pastors struggle with their personal faults and foibles, with negotiating marriage and child-rearing, and the difficulty and joys of parish life. Much of what they say does not just reflect the life of a two pastor family but is really applicable to every pastor; the need for sabbath and rest, the need for connection and community, and the need for established boundaries.

I commend Andrew and Mihee for writing this book and hope that other pastors, whether they are married to a pastor or not will read this book and learn something from it.

For more information about Yoked click here