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:

Collision 
Clout
Charisma
Caution 
Combination
Cooperation
Re-Creation
Church on Sundays 
Community 
Calling 

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 




Friday, November 14, 2014

Book Review: A Life of Daring Simplicity

Once in a while a book comes along that is interesting, out of the ordinary. I read a lot of books on the priesthood, on pastoral care, and ministry so I'm quite familiar with the terrain. Recently Liturgical Press published a book by Michael A. Becker called A Life of Daring Simplicity: Daily Devotions on the Priesthood (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2014). 

This book is identical to the many Year in the Life Books that are published, A Year in the Life with Thomas Merton or a Year in the Life of Dorothy Day. Each day devoted to a saying or quotation from a particular person. This book is basically a years worth of daily devotions for priests. Each day opens with a short scripture verse, a selection from numerous contemporary and ancient authors, and then a very short prayer or reflection.

I really wanted to enjoy this book. The cover is inviting and the topic is a great one especially for people like me who are pastors. Yet I found the book very uneven. Becker draws upon a variety of writers such as Pope Francis, Saint Pope John Paul II, and the former Pope Benedict as he does others such as Thomas Merton and Gordon Lathrop.  I didn't count but it seemed like at least sixty to seventy percent of the daily devotions were from Cardinal Bernadin, Pope John II and Benedict. I only counted two or three from Gordon Lathrop a very well known liturgical pastoral theologian, and maybe two or three from Thomas Merton. There were two from John Chrysostom and then a few others.

Yet within the Christian Tradition, both ancient and modern, Catholic and non Catholic are a whole host of wonderful sayings from so many other writers that could have been included but were not: Ignatius of Antioch, Gregory the Great, Augustine, Frank Senn, Eugene Peterson, Will Willimon, and others. They have wonderful insights and sayings about pastoral care which pastors would enjoy reading. Perhaps this is a book that Liturgical Press could put together for the future.

For more information about this book click here 

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Book Review: Resilient Ministry

Once in a while  book comes across my desk that I know I have to read. Resilient Ministry: What Pastors Told us About Surviving and Thriving (Downers Grove, InterVarsity Press, 2013)  is one of those books. This is a book that all pastors both young and old need to read, especially those who are coming right out of seminary. It is that good, trust me.

The co-authors: Bob Burns, Tasha Chapman, and Donald Guthrie are well seasoned pastors and academics in the field of ministry and are well equipped to publish a book such as this. Resilient Ministry is chock full of information about the ups and downs, joys and sorrows of pastoral ministry. As I read through it the first time I knew that at some point I'd have to return again and re-read key sections as well as use the questions included in each chapter as key points for my journaling time.

The book originated out of the Pastors Summit which was a series of conferences on the life of the minister and his family. Included in the back of the book are a series of appendices such as research methods, questions, and various checklists that were used. It is great information since some of the information can be used by the reader such as creating your own Genogram as well as various checklists about emotions and other best practice type things.

Resilient Ministry is not a quick read. I generally read fast but I found that the organization of the book requires slow meditative reading especially since the authors include many quotations from pastors themselves about the parish life, the pastor and his family, and the challenges and choices that we make in congregational life. As a pastor who has served a single parish for fifteen years I really enjoyed reading many of these comments since so many of them validated either what I have experienced myself for what some of my co-pastors have experienced. These quotations stirred up a lot of memories for me, many that were not so good!

The book is organized into fifteen short chapters many of which are based on various themes such as: pastoral formation, self care of the pastor, marriage and family life, and leadership issues.  I found each chapter engaging, informative and really solid. As I was reading I thought, "Where was this book when I graduated seminary, I could have used it!" Alas, I realize that things come to us when we need them. I guess Resilient Ministry was meant for me now as I passed through my own desert experiences questioning my own vocation as a pastor. Not only have I survived but through the course of the years I've learned how to thrive.

I highly recommend Resilient Ministry for pastors who want to not only survive but thrive.

For more information about Resilient Ministry click here 


Thursday, October 23, 2014

Book Review Eager to Love

Father Richard Rohr is one of my recently favorite authors. A friend of mine suggested that I read two of his previous books, Immortal Diamond and Falling Upward. I read both in two days! They are great books for personal reflection, small group discussion, and for sermons. So when I saw his latest offering, Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi (Franciscan Media, 2014) I knew I had to read it too.

Father Richard Rohr is a Franciscan priest and the director of the Center for Action and Contemplation in New Mexico as well as the author of over twenty books on Christian spirituality. Do yourself a favor and if you have not read anything by Father Rohr yet go out and get a few books, you won't be disappointed.

Eager to Love certainly does not disappoint. In the every-so-noisy world in which we live it's hard to hear God's small gentle voice. Father Rohr recommend that we listen to God's voice in the Bible (this is always the best place to start!) but also through the words of St. Francis.

Eager to Love is not a biography of Francis. You are more than welcome to read one of those on your own. However the book is a primer on what I guess we could call Franciscan spirituality a spirituality of poverty of spirit and of continual love. The book is divided into thirteen chapters which are not too long as well as two appendices. Each chapter includes teachings of St. Francis as well as some good stories by Father Rohr. I found myself underlining almost every other sentence so I can go back and re-read and reflect on it for future sermons and teachings in the parish.

The sub title of the book is also meaningful since it is "the alternative way" of Francis. Francis was a reformer and in many ways a revolutionary and a reactionary towards what he considered an abomination of the institutional Church with all its money, materialism, power, control, and authority. Francis reminded folks that the Jesus way was the humble way, the poor way, the way of the neighbor and unconditional love and support. Many folks called Francis a fool because he walked around Assisi begging and wearing simple clothes and preaching a gospel of peace while the wealthy bishops and priests lived in mansions and ate gourmet food! Ironically in many ways the Church has not changed much. That is perhaps one of the reasons why the new pope, Pope Francis, is beloved by many, because he is a simple man who seems to live the life of Francis while at the same time serving as the spiritual head of the Catholic Church.

I've never met Father Rohr but judging from his simple writing style, singular thematic approach to the subject, and story telling abilities he must be a good preacher too! The one thing that shines throughout Eager to Love is the continual calling to question what it means to follow Jesus, especially those of us who are pastors. It's too easy to get sucked into the ways of the institutional Church that are often sinful and not worthy of Jesus. We fall into the trap of success in the eyes of the world (butts in the pews, bucks, and budgets) rather than on success in the eyes of God (love, mercy, and forgiveness). We tend to focus on rules rather than on love, on the proper protocol versus the person who stands right in front of us.

I could go on and on about Eager to Love, but I won't. I'll let you, the reader, see for yourself how the ancient words of a crazy foolish vagabond named Francis changed the Church and hopefully will help change us.

Go out and get yourself a copy of Eager to Love!

For more information about Eager to Love click here 

For more information about the Center for Action and Contemplation click here 



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