Saturday, October 18, 2014

Book Review: Fail: Finding Hope and Grace in the Midst of Ministry Failure

Why on earth you ask am I reviewing a book called Fail? Sounds strange, huh? Yes, you're right. It sounds more than strange it sounds crazy, insane, downright dumb even! Yet when I saw this new book on the InterVarsity Press website I couldn't wait to read it. Couldn't wait to read a book on failure? Yep. That's right, could-not-wait. 

You're probably thinking that I should review a book on success, on growing bigger and better parishes, on budgets, bucks, and more backsides in the pew. Been there, done that. In the early years in ministry I thought that I had to be slick and savvy, do anything to get the folks in the door. The more folks in the congregation the bigger the collection. The bigger the collection, the bigger the budget. The bigger the budget the bigger and better buildings we can have, and on and on and on. Unfortunately this is the primary passion of many pastors these days. They focus on coffee and donuts, on good music, and on slick advertising and social media sites. However, the main reason for being a pastor is gone: Jesus. 

JR Briggs knows a lot about failure because as many of us he did fail. He didn't have one of those huge fall from grace failures like some big name pastors have done, but he did fail. Not only did he fail in his parish but he felt like a failure on the home front too since he and his wife could not have children. I don't to give too much away about the book but I'll leave it to the reader to figure out the reset. 

Fail (Downers Grove, InterVarsity Press, 2014) is a must read for all graduating seminary students and for young pastors. When I was reading I kept saying to myself, "Where was this book twenty years ago?" However I probably wouldn't have read it then anyway, I was too busy trying to succeed. But like Briggs I failed and failed and failed yet again, but I'm still in the saddle. Failure hurts as he says and many pastors can't take the pain and hurt that comes with failure. Pastors forget that in the eyes of the Romans Jesus was a big fat failure. He only had about twelve followers and even most of them were incompetent. Jesus requires us to be faithful not successful. Unfortunately we pastors got in wrong. Briggs tries to remind us that we shouldn't be afraid of failure, we actually should embrace it.

Briggs isn't preaching in the sense that he tells you what you should or should not do but he does guide the reader through the strange and mysterious labyrinth of when things go wrong in the pulpit. He weaves personal vignettes from his own ministry and from other pastors as well as biblical stories from both the Old and New Testaments to show the reader where he's headed. I really enjoyed the easy to read writing style combined with the biblical material. In many ways Fail is both a good read for experienced pastors like myself as well as a sort of text for a course in ministry or pastoral theology. The end of the book includes a very thorough resource section for further reading as well as a bunch of questions for reflection or small group discussion or for journaling. One of my tasks in the next two weeks is to go to a local cafe, order a large coffee, and do some journaling based on the questions that he includes in the end. 

Many pastors get caught in the early days to prove oneself to the congregation, to the local district or judicatory, and to God. We do everything to show others how wonderful we are in the pulpit and the counseling room, in the hospital and the hospice. If we're lucky we'll fail along the way, if we're really lucky we'll fail big time so that we can learn to follow Jesus and embrace the cross. It is only the crucifixion of our egos that we can finally become the pastors that we were called to become in the first place. 

I could go on and on about this book but I won't. I want to re-read portions of it and do some journaling when I have the time. 

Do yourself a favor and buy yourself a copy of Fail. No. Better yet, by two copies and give one to a clergy friend. You won't be disappointed. 




Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Book Review Convictions

We all have them. Deep felt core beliefs or truths that we hold near and dear. Nations and countries have them too: England has the Magna Carta, the United States has the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Persons have them too, here I think of Martin Luther's 95 Theses or Martin Luther King Jr.'s Letters from the Birmingham Jail.

Core beliefs are what help guide us during difficult times, during times of turbulence and chaos. They help us move forward taking one step at at time.

Marcus Borg's new book, Convictions: How I Learned What Matters Most (Harper, 2014) is part memoir and part outline of his deep heart felt convictions of Christianity. Borg just turned 70, which is a major turning point in anyones life, especially the life of a very popular theologian.

The book is an easy read and is divided into eleven chapters which include his thoughts about faith, God, salvation, Jesus, the Bible, the cross, Christianity and politics, and justice for the poor. In short it's his thoughts on what he finds to be highlights or turning points of the Christian faith. Woven throughout the book is part of his growing up narrative, about being raised in a typically conservative Protestant household. His college studies changed him, opening his eyes to a fresh re-reading of the Bible, not in the literal way in which he was taught as a child but to read it metaphorically and allegorically.

While reading Convictions I kept wanting to hear more about his own life and how it changed. He does offer a few vignettes from time to time but someone has famous and as influential as Borg I wanted more. I wanted more of how he changed his mind on things, how he developed as a theologian. He certainly isn't without his detractors and over the years he has been very controversial in some theological circles. A book is not a soup pot and you certainly cannot put everything in it but I did want more of his personal growth story.

If you are remotely interested in contemporary Christianity or have read Borg's previous work than you need to read Convictions.

For more information about the book click here 


Monday, June 30, 2014

Book Review: A Replacement Life

If you are looking for a laugh out loud, funny, yet endearing book for this summer then look no further than Boris Fishman's debut novel A Replacement Life (Harper, 2014). I guarantee you'll laugh a lot, if not, somethings wrong with you!

Fishman was born in Belarus and immigrated to the United States as a child. He is the editor of Wild East: Stories from the Last Frontier and his work has appeared in many noteworthy outlets such as New York Times Magazine as well as the London Review of Books. This is his first, but hopefully not last, novel.

A Replacement Life takes place mostly in Brooklyn New York in a Russian Jewish community. The main character Slava, is a fact checker at a booming and widely popular magazine called Century. He desperately wants to have a "real" article published one day but keeps on getting rejected. His whole career revolves around checking facts in  other articles written and published by his colleagues. Readers of Tom Rachman's first book The Imperfectionists will see similarities here, both very real and both extremely funny.

As Slava slods through article after article at work, word gets around the Jewish community that the German government is giving away money for victims who suffered in the Holocaust.  Slava is asked to write suffering narratives for "victims." Needless to say not all of these colorful victims suffered directly in the Holocaust, some, such as Slava's grandfather suffered in Uzbekistan! What is intriguing here is the tension between fact and fiction and how far one goes with it. Did all these characters suffer in some way? Yes. Did they all survive the war? Yes. Were all Jewish? Yes. But not all suffered directly in Nazi Germany. Does living in the diaspora, being forced out of ones home fall under suffering? Does living in a makeshift homeless shelter for a while fall under suffering? Where does one draw the lines around suffering, especially in war? Who is to say that having to move to Uzbekistan shouldn't be considered suffering?

Fishman is a wonderful writer. He has a keen eye for detail, colors, sounds, and shapes. There is one seen where Slava is invited to dinner and Fishman describes the meal as food after food is coming on the table, it took my breath away. Having lived among Eastern European Jews and worked with them as well, I know very well the culture, language styles (accents included!), and religion and Fishman describes all of it perfectly without getting into cliche.

The other important theme in A Replacement Life is faith. Slava and his grandfather are cultural Jews. After the war some Jews lost their faith in God and either became atheists or cultural Jews, Jews who  observed Passover or Hannukah but that's about it. Slava however finds himself caught up in a relationship with someone who is more of a believer than he. He questions his own faith just as he questions whether or not his cousins and neighbors suffered in the Holocaust. There is one touching scene when an older man named Israel walks to the local synagogue every once in a while just to light a candle and say a prayer for his son who returned to Israel to make aliyah. Israel is not that religious, but his son has become a Hasid with all of the trappings of the black fedora, coat, and long hair locks. This of course bothers Israel yet he still loves his son dearly.

Throughout the novel Fishman creates a continuous tension regarding immigration, identity, faith, community, and justice. He also creates a tension between truth, truth(s), and half-truths, as Slava tries to seek the "ultimate truth, "which of course he never can.

Barnes and Noble has made A Replacement Life one of their Discover New Writers Books. I hope you all can discover the joy of reading this book. I earnestly look forward to Fishman's second novel. Hopefully it will be both a page turner and as funny as his first one!

For more information about Boris Fishman click here 



Saturday, May 10, 2014

Book Review: Sacred Fire

I enjoy books that intersect between Scripture and life, between spirituality and psychology. If you enjoy these topics too then I recommend that you read Father Ronald Rolheiser's new book, Sacred Fire: A Vision for A Deeper Human and Christian Maturity (Image Books, 2014). Rolheiser is a Catholic priest and a specialist in spirituality and systematic theology. He is also the author of the bestselling book The Holy Longing which came out a few years ago.

Rolheiser manages to weave together personal stories from his parish ministry, stories from Scripture, and stories from the writings of the saints in order to create a wholistic and organic way of looking at our spiritual journey. So often we fall into the rules, regulations, rites, and rituals nature of spirituality, participating in the Sacrament of Confession and partaking of Communion without thinking about what these actions mean. Rolheiser highlights some important aspects of our spiritual life and teaches his readers what it means to live a mature life in Christ.

The book is divided into three major parts

A Vision of Discipleship 

Mature Discipleship, The Struggle to Give Our Lives Away 

Radical Discipleship, The Struggle to Give our Deaths Away 

While this book focuses primarily on the second section, which is also the longest, he admits that he will be writing a book about Radical Discipleship which is very important, the notion that the way we live can reflect the way we die. If we want to have a good death we need to live a good life.

Rolheiser says that in our childhood and young adult years we are in the beginnings of our discipleship. We look at the Church, God, prayer, and life in very simple and often childish ways. We are just in the beginning stages of our life and therefore have a hard time thinking down the road. We are just beginning our walk of faith and often fall, not realizing the mistakes we make.

Mature discipleship is coming to grips with our mortality and the choices that we make. Since I"m in my 40's I am right in the center of the mature discipleship, realizing that certain dreams and goals will never happen but at the same time being okay with that. In my 20's there was a strong passion for life, for moving mountains and so forth. Yet in our 40's and 50's Rolhieser says that we come to grips with the fact that life isn't that way. We have to realize our limitations and that our goals and dreams always don't come to fruition. We have to accept life as it comes, reminding ourselves that our call to faith does not equal success, especially in the eyes of the world. Jesus called his disciples to faithfulness, not to successfulness. Settling for life as it comes does not mean failure, it means accepting that we are human and that we cannot do and have everything we want. A fifteen year old may throw a tantrum because they cannot buy a game or a special piece of clothing or music. If a fifty year old does that we call him or her "immature" because they are acting like a teenager. Rolheiser says that it's normal for a fifteen year old to act that way but not a fifty year old, at least a fifty year old that is living a mature life in Christ. However, I have met fifty year old and even seventy year olds who act like teenagers sometimes!

The third part regards the nature of a good death. The way we live can hopefully reflect the way we die. If we live in a way that is Christian, realizing that we are all mortal and one day we will leave this world as we know it then our death can be a blessing for us and for those around us. I am looking forward to reading more about this in Rolheiser's next book.

If you want to dig into a good spiritual book this year, one that will provide you with "food for the journey" then look no further than Sacred Fire. You won't be disappointed.

For more information about Sacred Fire click here 


Monday, April 28, 2014

Book Review Ordinary Preacher, Extraordinary Gospel

I dread Monday. Why you may ask? Monday mean that I have to begin preparation for next Sunday's sermon. A whole week prep time you ask? Yes, that is, if you want a well crafted, inspiring, and biblical sermon. In the early years of  parish ministry I used to put off my sermon prep till Thursday or sometimes Friday. I kept telling myself, "Oh, I'll get to that later." Well, later never happened. Phone calls, emails, meetings, and family matters always seemed to get in the way. Friday would come and I'd say, "Yikes, I need a sermon for Sunday." Trust me, it ain't fun trying to come up with creative, well crafted thoughts under pressure. Sermon prep takes time. It takes prayer. It takes quiet reflection and meditation on the Word. It takes some homework and some thoughtful imagination. You cannot do all of this in twenty four hours. Trust me, been there and done that. I have heard of pastors who even waited until early Sunday morning to prepare their sermon, now THAT is really crazy!

Chris Neufeld-Erdman is the senior pastor of the University Presbyterian Church and is also a teacher of spirituality courses at Fresno Pacific University. This book, Ordinary Preacher, Extraordinary Gospel: A Guide for Wise, Empowered Preachers (Cascade Books, 2014) is his latest book.

The book is a collection of a well seasoned pastor, teacher, and preacher. These chapters are not dry academic "theospeak," but enlivened narrative from a man of God who has "been there and done that" thousands of times. He has stood in that pulpit on Sunday morning and preached the good news of salvation. Surely his parishioners love him very much but I also know that they have no idea how much work, struggle, sweat, and tears goes into his preaching. This book is really a one week retreat for seminarians or pastors who want to literally take a week long look at how Chris prepares his sermons. The book literally goes from Monday through Saturday as he explains his regular routine of prayer, reflection, word study, and making connections between the text and life. While reading Ordinary Preacher, Extraordinary Gospel I wish I had it in year two or three in my ministry, I would have put it to good use. I had to learn the hard way. I was also amazed at how similar my own sermon preparation is to what Chris does, maybe good minds think alike!

Chris has a fine writing style and includes two sample sermons in the back of the book for readers to see a sampling of how he crafts his sermons and what they look like. He also includes a short reading list in the end of the book for those who want to read more.

Chris also adds other types of sermon types in the book such as marriage and funeral sermons too. I appreciated them and laughed when he gives the reader a dose of reality when he says that pastors shouldn't worry too much about the wedding sermon because after all no one, not even the preacher is going to upstage the bride! So true. I also agree that pastors need to preach sermons, the good news about Christ at funerals and not deliver eulogies. Eulogies should be left to family members or friends, the pastor's role is to proclaim the resurrection boldly and without shame.

For more information about this book click here 


Thursday, April 24, 2014

Book Review Learning to Walk in the Dark

Last Spring after Easter I tried an experiment. While walking one evening on the road behind our house I decided to close my eyes and "see" would happen. Just for a few minutes of course. It was strange. The road is more or less straight except for a sharp bend at one point and there are few cars that drive on it so I knew I'd be safe. I walked close to the edge of the road so as not to walk in the middle. It was surreal. Every twenty paces or so I opened my eyes just to see where I was on the road. I was also tempted to put my hands in front of me as if I were trying to feel my way through a room, talking about dumb! I tried to walk with my eyes closed to "see" what it might feel like being blind. Of course I am not blind and could never fully identify like that, but I was planning my sermon on the story of the man born blind in John chapter 9 and I wanted to have a similar experience. I wanted to see how it feels like to walk and not know what if anything is in front of you. I wanted to walk trying to figure out where I was headed. I noticed that I heard more birds and heard the wind rush through the Spring wheat. I felt the breeze on my skin and felt the warmth of the sun on my face. My other senses kicked in even though I couldn't see in front of me. Walking in the dark, not so easy. After my mini-experiment I was very grateful for my eyesight even though I now have to use reading glasses, a mandatory purchase after you turn forty I guess!

Dark and darkness is the theme for Barbara Brown Taylor's new book, Learning to Walk in the Dark (Harper One, 2014). I fell in love with Taylor's previous books especially her early sermon collections as well as her recent best-sellers Leaving Church and An Altar in the World. She has such a wonderful writing style, informative and conservational yet provides enough information for the reader to ponder and wonder about long after the first reading. When reading Taylor's books you feel like she is right in the room with you, guiding and leading you along with the material. As a pastor, preacher, and teacher Taylor is certainly using her gifts to share her well earned knowledge with the rest of us. I certainly will use some of her stories and examples in future sermons, maybe even when I return to the man born blind again later this year.

Learning to Walk in the Dark is an exploration of the theme of darkness. Her main thesis is that for many Christians darkness and "the dark" is associated with bad things; the "secular world" (darkness) vs. the Kingdom of God (light), or good (light) vs. bad/evil (darkness), as well as other examples. She says, very funnily I should add, that many Christians live in what she terms "full solar Christianity" which translates as just pray and you'll be fine as well as other self-righteous sayings and behaviors. I never had a full solar Christian experience. My entire life from college to seminary to graduate school to full time parish ministry has been one long walk in the dark. I was comforted reading the Thomas Merton poem that ends the book since someone gave me a copy of that poem long ago and I refer to it often. I do not know what tomorrow will bring or the day after so I must take each day as it comes, the good, the bad, and often the ugly. I am unsure about so many things and even after all these years of parish ministry I have more questions than answers. Taylor reminds her readers that this is perfectly normal. Walking in darkness is not a bad thing, it embraces the mystery of life.

The book is divided into nine chapters each dealing with a particular theme such as dark emotions, walking in a cave, the famous dark night of the soul of John of the Cross, as well as experiencing how the blind feel and act. Perhaps the most scary chapter for me was reading about her experience exploring a cave. I've been on large caverns before on tours but never explored a real cave with water, small rooms, and totally dark. The caves that I have been to were all tourist attractions. I cannot imagine trying to squeeze through those tiny crevices and duck down through those holes. Not only that but Taylor and her guide were talking in the dark expect for their flashlights and head lamps. This was certainly an act of faith on her part.

This is a short book but one that has to be read again and again to get the full effect. I found myself reading quickly and then stopping to re-read the chapter. Learning to Walk in the Dark would also be a good read for a parish book club or adult education class

For more information about Learning to Walk in the Dark click here 

For more information about Barbara Brown Taylor and her other books click here 


Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Book Review Pastoral Work

I had the honor of hearing Eugene Peterson speak at a Faith and Writing Festival at Calvin College a few years ago. His keynote address garnered several standing ovations at least four that I remember. He stood at the podium and his greying hair and slight smile reminded me that Peterson is a "pastor's pastor." I cannot remember when I found Peterson's work. I think a friend gave me one of his books and I was hooked. Since then I devoured all of at least most of them and recently purchased his translation of the Bible called The Message.  After reading Pastoral Work I would like to re-read Peterson after the Easter season as a reminder of what it means to be a pastor.

Pastoral Work: Engagements with the the Vision of Eugene Peterson (Cascade Books, 2014) is a sort of Festschrift or honorary collection of essays by some well known pastors, writers, and pastoral-theologians: Lillian Daniel, Will Willimon, Anthony Robinson, Stephanie Paulsell, James Howell, and others. The book is edited by Jason Byasee and L. Roger Owens.

When reading these essays Peterson's voice and speech came back to me again. I had forgotten some of the vignettes and stories that he told in his own books and in his memoir. Peterson started out on an academic track studying with Brevard Childs and William Albright. However his academic track got off track when he became an assistant pastor in a parish in White Plains, NY. It was there in the parish where Peterson stayed for most of his ministry, returning to academic work later at Regent College in Vancouver, BC.

Peterson's writings reflect his love for reading, art, and Biblical scholarship as well as his love for the parish. He is the model of a pastoral-theologian, a pastor who has a keen sense of theology and who uses theology to serve the Church.

Pastoral Work reflects Peterson's love of both theology and the Church. The essays include a wide variety of topics from preaching, pastoral vocation, community building, and other such topics. Each essay is a mini reflection on what the author thinks of Peterson and what Peterson's own life and ministry has contributed to congregational life in the 21st Century.

I admire Jason Byassee and L. Roger Owens for their work and thank them for reminding us in the Vineyard that we are not alone. Petersons' writings are here on my shelf to take and read whenever I feel lost, isolated, disgusted, or in need of some reminding of why I followed the Lord's call to be a pastor in the first place.

For more information about Pastoral Work click here