I mentioned on Facebook the other day that I was speaking to a group of clergy, doing a little informal show and tell for their ministerium meeting, offering some new books that I thought they might appreciate. Which led another friend to ask what books I was sharing at that little gig.
I thought you’d like to hear about some of the ones I cited, but don’t forget: when I do these sorts of things I really try to find books that are both theologically and spiritually helpful and relevant to the particular group I’m working with. Sometimes I slip in some odd-ball stuff — conservative Reformed theology for liberal UCC folks or progressive social justice manifestos for straight-laced conservatives, meaty Christian philosophy for kindly Sunday school teachers, old-fashioned, un-hip Bible commentaries for energetic and creative college kids. Like to keep folks on their toes, you know.
But, still, curve-balls notwithstanding, this jam-packed hour show and tell, with me rambling about an author I like or reading a moving few pages from a memoir or two, was designed for my small town, small church, very mainline pastors. I can’t list everything I mentioned (let alone everything I took to display.) But here are a few I thought you should know about. These are each really, really good. Enjoy.
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Any Day A Beautiful Change: A Story of Faith and Family Katherine Willis Pershey (Chalice) $14.99 I read a few pages of this to the group and wanted to just wow them with how great this prose is, how beautifully rendered some of it is, what a great, great memoir this is. And to thereby help them discover how it is an important book — fun and urgent; not a bad combo. Not everyone appreciates memoir as Beth and I do, so I told them that I think wise pastors would read a lot of this sort of thing, learning how self-aware people construe their lives, how people tell their stories, how they see God’s hand in the stuff of the unfolding of a life. I always offer memoir to clergy, and this is absolutely my favorite one so far this year; I speculated that it is going to be hard to top — it is that good. And it is about a fellow clergy person. Older pastors might enjoy hearing how a younger one sees her work. Men should certainly consider how their female colleagues are weaving together their callings as mothers and ministers. It gives a great glimpse into the calling and lived experiences of parents. So, I recommended this boldly for all those reasons. And I do so now, with you.
Mostly, though, I just loved reading it. I took pleasure in the reading. I was really moved by it. For starters, she had me, as they say, from the title alone. It is a line from a great Innocence Mission song. Older mainline clergy probably don’t care about cool and artful bands like Over the Rhine, let alone The Innocence Mission, but I bet some BookNotes readers will dig that. This young Disciples of Christ clergy woman must have been a young romantic from the start, and was, we find out, quite a poet. Her use of that song lyric in the remarkably moving forward struck me as a very nice touch.
The short version of this tender story is that Pershey is a thoughtful young pastor in a small older church, and she narrates her being pregnant and accepted in that ordinary little parish. Below the surface is heavy stuff about pain and heartbreak, hurt and healing, hard times and good times, too, understood profoundly as unfolding under the merciful presence of a loving God. Yes, this is a spiritually rewarding book, about God and grace and goodness.
But, as Lillian Daniels notes of it, Pershey “writes beautifully about hard things.” And it is “sanctimony-free.” That is for sure; it is more than a little snarky and at times, sometimes a little crass, and it is down-right hilarious. So it sure isn’t sanctimonious.
But what it is about? More concretely, she tells of the nitty-gritty, daily life of a struggling young married woman whose wonderful husband is clever, fun, a scholar, and a recovery alcoholic.
And she tells of the nitty-gritty of daily life as a struggling young mother.
Who is a pastor and preacher.
And when I say nitty-gritty, I mean to say that she writes vividly about about birth plans gone south — how many spiritual memoirs do you know that talk about episiotomies? — about maddeningly bad pediatricians, and, quite vividly, about the pain and joys of breast feeding? And there are heinie jokes — well, at least she uses the word once. And there are beautifully told episodes about dear Juliette, her beloved first daughter. Yep, this is a real-world book about motherhood, and it nearly had this old dad in tears at times. She writes eloquently, with clarity and humor, about the quandaries of making one’s way in the world with children, combating pressures from the stupid consumerist culture and the traditional values crowd, wanting to be beyond all that, wanting to parent in sane ways that are good and beautiful and true. She is frank, touching, and wise.
I cannot tell you how we loved this stuff, retelling about the kinda crunchy baby-rearing and child-raising and marriage working, and sermon writing and pastoral care-giving, all while a part of a old-school mainline Protestant congregation in sunny Southern California. A region which she grew to hate, not incidentally, the freeways and hectic lifestyle. Part of the story, in fact, is her moving from a congregation that loved her well, and whom she loved back, as she responded to a new call, taking a church back in her beloved mid-West.
Jason Byassee (who himself wrote a killer book about some of this context of a small church called The Gifts of a Small Church) says “I expect a good memoir to be wise and funny. A good pastoral memoir should bear witness to God’s goodness…. The glory of this one, in particular, is its incarnationally shaped bodiliness. We have a new writer to whom we must pay attention.”
And, I like what Carol Howard Merritt (herself a young mom and mainline pastor) said: Katherine Willis Pershey walks alongside all of us who delight in Eat, Pray, Love, but yearn for a reflection on a different sort of path. With theological depth and insight, Pershey struggles with the passions of life, the heartbreaks of relationship, the worries of parenting, and the truths of vocation. Through all the twists and turns of her emerging marriage, ministry, and motherhood, she leads us to glimpses of reconciliation and wholeness.”
This thin book is the second in a series called The Young Clergy Woman Project (TYCWP) which features writings from a young adult clergy women. The first was the fabulous Living the Sabbath in the Suburbs: A Family’s Experiment with Holy Time by MaryAnn McKibben-Dana (Chalice Press; $19.99.)
Does This Church Make Me Look Fat: A Mennonite Finds Faith, Meets Mr. Right, and Solve
s Her Lady Problems Rhoda Janzen (Grand Central Publishing) $24.99 I raved about this before, told these pastors that I had listed it on our Best of 2012 list — you have a book review blog!? argggh — and exclaimed that it was one of the most fun books Beth and I read all year last year. Hope you recall our yapping about it before, as it has been fun to describe. What other book combines discussions of Anabaptists and Pentecostals, talks candidly about life as a Christian college professor in a fairly liberal setting? Talks about prayer and sex and guns and fashion? This Janzen gal gets around, making this as painless (except for the pain in your side from laughing so much) a way of being ecumenical as you’re going to find. You will learn something, I am sure, as Ms Janzen surely did.
This new memoir is the sequel to the beloved, mischievously funny Mennonite in a Little Black Dress. It is a love story, a coming-to-deeper-faith story, a wacky journey into an open-minded embrace of a new faith tradition, and a cancer survival tale. This book will make you howl, and everybody deserves some astute, humorous, snarky writing, just for the fun of it. And, I believe, there is much, much wisdom here, and we should all be attentive to the stuff Janzen experiences. This is a wonderful memoir, energetic, clever, and amazingly well crafted. How does she think to use words like this, to create sentences and paragraphs and pages like this? She has the gift and aspiring writers could learn much from her tales. Preachers, too.
The God of the Mundane: Reflections on Ordinary Life for Ordinary People Matthew B. Redmond (Kalas Press) $12.95 Okay, here we go again, sort of a memoir, sort of a collection of essays, sort of a journey to a new, more healthy way of life, sort of a stellar rumination on the essence of a grace-filled Christian life. Again, this is very well written, funny, but deadly serious, too. Matt Redmond offers a great set of essays about ordinary life, lived out with humility and quiet contentment. That is, he helps us come to realize that we don’t have to ramp up our overly zealous passions for Jesus. We don’t have to overdo the zippy, flashy stuff for God. God wants us to be human, after all. We can have permission to be, well, mundane.
This is a book, the publisher tells us, “about pastors, plumbers, dental hygienists, and stay-at-home moms. It finds grace and mercy in chicken fingers, smiles from strangers, and classic films.” And, I might add, in the songs of Bruce Springsteen. Not every pastor writing these days says he was inspired by Darkness on the Edge of Town.
Redmond is mature theologically (he has written for the Gospel Coalition.) He is writerly — he even quotes Updike! And, gladly, he knows that God is for us, is with us, and that the risen Christ sanctifies the seemingly mundane, making holy the daily grind, as His redemptive work trickles into all areas of life.
This short set of well-written pieces does not display a shallow sort of pop spirituality, though, or take shortcuts, offering a cheap approach to the complexities of daily life East of Eden. He grapples with the hard stuff, curious about how to practice the presence of God in a fallen world. Yes, there are hardships, and yes (of course) we are at times called to respond with vigor and courage, taking up the cost of discipleship.
But the God of creation and recreation has made room for us all. We do not all have to be superheros for the Kingdom. We can deal with the drudgery of the daily, and we can rejoice in the mundane. (Redmond opens the book with a rumination on his boring and undramatic work as a bank teller.) This is a quiet little book about ordinary life and ordinary people with ordinary tasks. Some might even think of it as an anti- “Christian book” book. As it says on the witty cover design that brings to mind an old-time circus-show poster or handbill, “Ladies and Gentleman, we are pleased to present…A breathtaking Escape from the Fantastical.” Ha. This is quite counter to the huffing and puffing of so much “do more for God” exhortations being published these days. And certainly different than the promises of fantastical spiritual ecstasy or blessing found in some popular quarters.
The God of the Mundane is a book you should read — I wish more pastors knew how to articulate this gracious approach to ordinary life and to help us ponder these themes. I think, at its heart, this is a very profound, distinctively Christian insight. We do glory in the creatureliness of daily living. Learning how to do that, in kindness, in quietness, in faith, hope and love, and good humor, too; that is an extraordinary calling. Redmond can help.
When Spiritual But Religious Is Not Enough: Seeing God in Surprising Places, Even the Church Lillian Daniel (Jericho Books) $19.99 Lillian is a pastor in the same denomination as my little clergy gathering the other day, so I had to remind them of her stature in their circles, well deserved, not least for her truly spectacular writing, her amazing wit, her strong word-play, and, now, this must-read, contender for 2013 Book of the Year. I don’t know if this is a direct response to the hand-wringing about the state of the ordinary church these days, and in some ways I think it could be read in tandem with the heavier, but also enjoyable, Christianity After Religion by Diana Butler Bass (HarperOne — just now out in paperback for $14.99!) Rev. Daniel says, to those about to embrace the “spiritual but not religious” schtick, firmly and with a high degree of holy snark, not so fast, buster. Well, she puts it better than that, and the first long chapter dissecting the culturally comfortable silliness of those who avoid church to worship God in nature or read the Sunday Times, is about the best thing I’ve yet read on this thorny batter of post-Christian culture. She nails it, and brings a huge smile as she invites us to expect more from true religion and the truly spiritual. She is a moderately liberal mainline Protestant but has no tolerance for what passes for insight from this gang who condescendingly rejects Christian claims and ordinary faith communities — for finding God in rainbows? Give us a break.
As it ends up, ordinary faith communities are where it’s at, and she makes the quirks and strains, commitments and stories, of typical churches sound down right attractive. Yes, she shows us how to find God everywhere, including outside the church. She is a heck of a writer, on par with, say Barbara Brown Taylor, if a bit more edgy and light-hearted. So she is an ideal person to point us to the light, to gospel truths, to good news, understated and real. And some of that Light — yep! — can be found in mixed up, messed up churches. Churches that knit prayer shawls and know how to offer “honest prayers.” I love this kind of stuff, and you will too!
Interestingly, though, the book isn’t mostly about congregational life, although some of her stories about her work in church are great. Many of the pieces are, in fact, about finding God outside the confines of the local congregation, in the world at large. This book holds together well, but it could be understood as a collection of essays, grouped by theme.&n
I loved this book — from the gut-wrenching chapter about speaking in Sing Sing prison to the hilarious confession about her yoga class — and am on a mission to tell folks about it. By the way, if you are not fond of mainline denominational church traditions, and you don’t know her from the Christian Century, say (or her earlier co-authored book on the life of pastors on Eerdmans or the one on practices of giving testimony published by Pilgrim Press) this would be a good time to reach across that isle, take a deep breath, and read a writer from the UCC. UCC pastors read evangelicals and Catholics (at least the ones that allow me to sell ’em books do) so you, proper, conservative, evangelical that you are, should loosen up and enjoy one of the great religion writers from the mainline world. Agree or not, it will be an enjoyable, helpful read.
I am not the only one extoling the insight and writing of When Spiritual But Religious Is Not Enough. Here are a few of the many great endorsements:
“This is the wonderful, essential Lillian Daniel at her best-earthy,
perceptive, devout, tough-minded, angry and laugh-out-loud funny, all in
one. Daniel’s easygoing style is just right for revealing her great
gift of finding God in the everyday. Sometimes she is biting. Sometimes
she is tender and often what she says is stunningly beautiful.” Bob Abernethy, Executive Editor, Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, PBS
is why I love Lillian Daniel’s writing: it is honest; it is funny; and
it teaches me about Mary and Martha via a yoga class. The church she
describes is the place that has sustained my spiritual life when my own
interior sense of God’s presence has faltered; and it is the place that,
as often as not, is where I am sitting when my sense of God’s presence
reignites.” Lauren F. Winner, author of Girl Meets God and Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis
read some things because you have to or need to or ought to. You’ll
read Lillian Daniel for the pure pleasure of pitch-perfect writing-she
has the rare talent of a “natural.” Along the way, you’ll discover
enrichment and insight that you needed and wanted … Lillian cooks up a
delicious and nourishing feast for readers. Don’t miss it!” Brian McLaren, author of Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?
Resilient Ministry: What Pastors Told Us About Surviving and Thriving Bob Burns, Tasha D. Chapman, and Donald C. Guthrie (IVP) $17.00 For leaders in parish life, pastors, ministers, clergy folk of all sorts, this is perhaps the best thing I have ever seen that lays out the data on what healthy resilience looks like. We all know that clergy burn-out and ineffectiveness is at an all time high. What does it take to have a fruitful, sane, ministry over the long haul? What are the dangers and what are the traits needed to counter the troubles? L. Gregory Jones of Duke calls this important work “wise, insightful, and intensely practical” and you can bet I’ll take it to every pastors gathering at which we sell books. It is that good. And that important,.
This book was launched as the first book in a new imprint called IVP Praxis, which will offer titles designed to equip leaders for ministry. It offers key insights gained as the researchers tracked a cohort of ministers for nearly a decade. I do not know if such longitudinal research has been done to this extent before, but this is huge. Their method included some qualitative hunches — they started with pastors who were considered healthy, from healthy churches, whose lives and theological commitments were reputable. And then they took of, trying to figure out what causes these traits and how these pastors sustained them. The insights that arose and which were deduced from these extensive transcripts are remarkable. These are the points pastors and church leaders need if they and their families are going to stay afloat.
By the way, there are tons of fascinating quotes (nicely set apart) of actual pastors interviews that are, some might say, the heart of the book. And there are some really useful appendices, lots of good take-away points, and a splendid bibliography. These scholars are that put this together are among the best in their field, amazingly knowledgeable and experts in adult learning and the like.
It is really interesting what came to the surface in this research. Resilient, effective pastors truly need to attend to their own interior lives. Many of the best have spiritual directors. Also, the best have high social skills (skills and instincts that the research indicates many clergy and leaders should work on.) Having cross cultural skill is important, having strong boundaries that allow for strong family development is crucial. (Pastors cannot be thriving and effective if they are drained by their own unhealthy family lives.) Some of this is obvious, some a bit surprising, all of it critical to know and apply. Resilient Ministry: What Pastors Told Us… is a gem, and a much-needed one. I bet you know somebody you could give it to.
Christine Pohl of Asbury (who wrote the excellent, essential Making Room and Living Into Community) writes of it, “Highly practical, spiritually substantive, and rich with examples and suggestions, this book offers much needed insight into factors that are crucial for long-term flourishing.”
Psychologist and author Diana Langberg says “Isolation, relentless demands and little nurturing result in many ministry leaders abandoning their posts. The authors have exposed much of this to light along with a solid understanding of what is needed for pastors to thrive as faithful servants.”
Straining at the Oars: Case Studies in Pastoral Leadership H. Dana Fearon III with Gordon Mikoski (Eerdmans) $18.00 I read the first chapter of this well-written and excellently conceived collection of case studies of pastoral quandaries, and I was hooked. (The grieving parents of a still born baby wanted the deceased child baptized. The pastor, naturally, suggested this wasn’t necessary, nor particularly proper, theologically speaking. As you might guess, the parents were deeply hurt, and, in retrospect, Fearon wondered how he might have handled it better.) From learning to preach to a particular congregation to vexing matters about boundaries and use of time, from case studies about the proper exercise of power to examples of serving the unexpected needy, this is just loaded with real-world examples of pastoral care perplexities. Yet, these aren’t odd-ball curiosities, but the daily stuff of ordinary ministry. Who hasn’t gotten flack for being involved in community affairs? Who hasn’t wondered how to better equip and call forth the gifts of the laity? Each of these stories are followed by excellent and thought-provoking questions, perfect for ministerium groups, or for anyone who wants to talk through pastoral ethics or deepen the theological foundation for determining wise moves of ministry.
Rev. Fearon is pastor emeritus of the Presbyterian Church of Lawrenceville, NJ, and Dr. Mikoski is a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary. You may know him as the editor of Theology Today.
Letters to a Future Church: Words of Encouragement and Prophetic Appeals Chris Lewis et al (IVP) $15.00 Wow, this book is a bargain at twice the price, loaded, as it is, with numerous, remarkable chapters by some of our finest writers — writers who often are not in the same bookstore, let alone the same book! In what is essentially a collection of letters to the churches — think of those letters the apostle John wrote to seven churches from his prison in Patmos — inviting them to ponder what the Spirit might be saying to the churches today. Lewis’ “Epiphaneia Network” asked these questions, and did they ever get some amazing replies.
Here you have Walter Brueggemann, Andy Crouch and Ron Sider, Soong-Chan Rah, Sarah Lance, and Makoto Fujimura. There is a fresh chapter by Peter Rollins. You get to read the Gospel Coalition blogger Tim Challies and the very different Rachel Held Evans. Radical critiques come from the likes of David Fitch and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and brilliant ruminations come from many others, from Shane Claiborne to William Willimon to Gardner Taylor. Holding it together is the tender and yet spunky voice of Janell Anema, who pens a letter from four different vantage points as she recalls her interests and concerns in four stages of her life. Her first one, written to the church from her youth, is called “You Had Me At Hello” and it almost makes me cry in its simple charity and love for God’s church.
Dare I say it — if you care about the voices from some of the best folks writing today, you need to get Letters to a Future Church. And if you care about what might be considered an “Eight Letter” — a new letter from the Spirit to the Church in North America, you simply must read and ponder these passionate, insightful, and some, even luminous, pleas — “words of encouragement and prophetic appeals.”
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