The Love-Hate Memoir of One Churchgoing Gal

A Review of Rachel Held-Evans’ Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving and Finding the Church

searching-for-sunday

“Searching for Sunday.” Rachel Held-Evans. Nashville, Tenn.: Nelson Books, 2015. 269 pp.

In her latest book Searching for Sunday, popular blogger and author Rachel Held-Evans is at her best: as a mouthpiece for evangelical Christians wearied by the culture wars of their forebears, Held-Evans has written a book that reintroduces the relevance of the church and the Christian faith for a growing segment of Americans that either self-identify as “spiritual but not religious,” or have left the church because of their disillusionment there, or both. Indeed, Searching for Sunday answers the need for a winning, instructive articulation of “church” and why church, warts and all, still matters—not just to Held-Evans, in her own personal meandering of loving, leaving and finding the church, but to our postmodern generation, at a time when faith itself (or at least traditional expressions of it) may be in crisis.

Held-Evans handles this task deftly. She reacquaints her readers with seven sacraments that historically have defined the church, by including a section on each of these with short, corresponding chapters that translate that sacrament’s appeal for our time:

  • The church tells us we are beloved (baptism)
  • The church tells us we are broken (confession)
  • The church tells us we are commissioned (holy orders)
  • The church feeds us (communion)
  • The church welcomes us (confirmation)
  • The church anoints us (anointing of the sick)
  • The church unites us (marriage)

The fact that Held-Evans embraces all seven sacraments of the Catholic Church is an indication of just how far she has traveled from her own church upbringing. Like mine, her largely evangelical, non-denominational origins exuded very little in the way of sacramentalism—(and also involved weekly AWANA classes and a regular dose of overtly political conservatism). So it is striking that Held-Evans attributes her return to church (and in particular, to the Episcopal Church) to the sacraments.

In Held-Evans’ words:

When my faith had become little more than an abstraction, a set of propositions to be affirmed or denied, the tangible, tactile nature of the sacraments invited me to touch, smell, taste, hear and see God in the stuff of everyday life again. They got God out of my head and into my hands. They reminded me that Christianity isn’t meant to simply be believed; it’s meant to be lived, shared, eaten, spoken, and enacted in the presence of other people. They reminded me that, try as I may, I can’t be a Christian on my own. I need a community. I need the church.

Held-Evans’ (and others’) very real need for the church and for a “true” version of the Christian faith—as opposed to merely a “hip” one—is as on display in this book as Held-Evans’ aversions to certain expressions of Christianity, especially those that would discriminate against gays and women. In this sense, the book may be too much of a lightening rod for some potential readers (but no more so than Held-Evans’ blog already is).

True to form, Held-Evans is smart, well-informed and refreshingly honest in her engagement of the Bible (and in particular, passages that have often been used to prop up particular agendas in the church). She refuses to dodge Scripture’s unanswered questions. Take, for example, the story of the woman caught in adultery in John’s gospel. The religious leaders have brought the woman to Jesus in order to see whether Jesus will condemn her in accordance with the law. After Jesus sends the religious leaders away, he turns to the woman, absolving her from condemnation with the perplexing command, “Go and sin no more.”

Here Held-Evans voices my own questions about this passage and its contemporary conscription by those who believe the church needs to take a more hard-line stance towards sin (or at least towards certain perceived sins). Held-Evans writes, “To this I am always tempted to respond: So how that’s working out for you? The sinning no more thing? Because it’s not going so well for me.”

I want to cheer when I read these sorts of truthful confessions throughout the book—not just because they are also my own, but because they poke holes in contemporary manifestations of the early church heresy known as Pelagianism (which espoused the belief that human beings could attain moral perfection in this life).

Elsewhere Held-Evans makes bold, thought-provoking declarations about the very nature of God. Within the context of a discussion about the sacrament of marriage, for instance, she reckons that “what each of us longs for the most is to be both fully known and fully loved,” and that “God, too, wants to be fully known and fully loved.” This connecting of the dots, between our erotic longing and that of a God who desires full, naked intimacy with us, is one that I had not come across in quite the same way until Held-Evans’ daring articulation of it.

This book is not without its flaws. At times the organization of chapters within sections seems forced and unclear, so that I am left wondering why, for example, in a section on healing and the anointing of the sick, I am reading about the church growth antics of one mega church pastor and ways to interpret the church’s present-day decline.

Such small gripes notwithstanding, Searching for Sunday is worth a read—not just by those who have yet to apprehend their need for church, or who struggle to understand the essence and relevance of the institution, but by those looking to fall in love all over again.

Kristina Robb-Dover is an Atlanta-based writer, author and minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)., having served in various ministry settings. Her latest book project, The Recovery-Minded Church: Loving and Ministering to People with Addictions (InterVarsity Press) will hit bookstores this winter. She is also the author of Grace Sticks: The Bumper Sticker Gospel for Restless Souls (Wipf & Stock, 2013), and her articles have appeared in a number of publications, including Touchstone, The Christian Century and The Washington Post. You can find her regularly musing at the Beliefnet blog, “Fellowship of Saints and Sinners.”

Hospitality and healing

Thistle Stop Cafe empowers women

“The Way of Tea and Justice: Rescuing the World’s Favorite Beverage From Its Violent History.” Becca Stevens. New York: Jericho Books, 2014. 240 pp.

“The Way of Tea and Justice: Rescuing the World’s Favorite Beverage From Its Violent History.” Becca Stevens. New York: Jericho Books, 2014. 240 pp.

“The Way of Tea and Justice” (Jericho Books, 2014) by Becca Stevens is the story of dreaming a cafe into existence. In 1997, Stevens founded Magdalene, a residential community for women who have survived abuse, trafficking, prostitution, addiction and prison. Thistle Farms is an outgrowth of Magdalene, a social enterprise that offers employment to women making natural bath and body products as they learn business skills. Thistle Stop Cafe opened in June 2013, another social enterprise of Magdalene and Thistle Farms that offers hospitality to the community as well as employment to women.

Stevens, the Episcopal chaplain at Vanderbilt University and author of several books, outlines the principles that guided the vision of the cafe: hospitality, healing, chado – or the way of tea, leading to harmony – and story.

The book is written as a journey toward opening the cafe: a spiritual journey through the calendar and liturgical years, through memories and stories, through the healing and recovery of women who have been abused, trafficked, addicted and imprisoned. Stevens’ passion for her work is evident. For her and her women, love heals. “We are not serving tea to strangers just because we love tea,” she writes. “We are serving tea because we love women, and the way to continue loving women is to serve tea” (p. 109).

Stevens describes her concept of the Shared Trade Alliance, a plan that she wants to launch with the café. The intent of the Shared Trade Alliance is to go beyond Fair Trade to focus on the workforce as the primary mission: “a coalition of organizations focused on women and dedicated to bringing women permanently out of poverty through sustainable employment” (p. 77).

The priority of Shared Trade is to increase the wages of working women by closing the gap between producers and consumers. Tea pickers, she writes, are traditionally women with no political or social status. “Even in fair trade operations, workers live on land owned by companies … the people still live in poverty” (p. 79).

Stevens’ goal is both to foster healing for women survivors and to create conditions where these women can increase their economic leverage.

The subtitle “Rescuing the World’s Favorite Beverage From Its Violent History” announces an ambitious and not entirely successful vision for the book. Stevens has attempted an overview of the history of tea growing and distribution, how the tea industry has taken advantage of laborers, as well as accounts of visits to tea plantations, enterprises in Africa devoted to the tea business and sustainable employment, personal memories related to tea, stories of her fundraising efforts for her social programs, and the frustrations and obstacles to opening the cafe. I found the book uneven, the writing repetitious and sometimes puzzling. Each chapter begins with a tea recipe. Some of them are charming; some of them are difficult to follow. I would read a chapter such as “Medicinal Tea” with its poignant stories behind the many teacups donated to the cafe, and then turn the page to discover that ginger and ginseng have been confused in the recipe at the beginning of the next chapter.

“Practicing the way of tea” is an oft-repeated phrase. For Stevens, the way of tea is a way to overcome fear, find a new path, know we are loved, find community, find gratitude. There are some beautiful and inspiring thoughts: “I want our teas to heal the mind, body, soul, spirit, and heart. These kinds of teas … also heal human inequality” (p.115) is typical. Yet tea as a metaphor for everything becomes tiresome. The stories of the women involved in the cafe are the best part of the book: “It is not just the way of tea that is precious; it is the women in all their stunning blessedness serving it” (p. 110). As I read, I yearned for more stories, less vague tea wisdom.

All of that said, the book does make the reader long for a cup, or a pot, of tea. I wanted to sit at a table and chat with friends or strangers over a pot of tea, to drink spiced hot tea by a warm fire in winter, or iced tea in a garden in summer. The book made me remember tea with my grandmother and my mother’s bone china teacups. I wanted to help with the dream of the cafe, to host a fundraising tea party at my parish, meet the women at the Thistle Stop Cafe.

Becca Stevens wants tea to nourish the cafe’s guests and servers, and the women who harvest tea all over the world. Hospitality, healing, chado and story nourish and empower us all.

 

(Susan Butterworth is a Master of Divinity candidate at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass. Her area of special competency is Anglican, Global, Ecumenical and Interfaith Studies. She is a professional writer and teaches English at the college level. She is interested in university chaplaincy and sings with the Threshold Singers, a group that sings at bedside in nursing-home and hospice settings.)

An Artist’s Lenten Journey

Burleson offers new perspectives on traditional Stations

“The Soul's Journey: An Artist's Approach to the Stations of the Cross.” Kathrin Burleson. Cincinnati: Foreword Movement, 2014. 94 pp.

“The Soul’s Journey: An Artist’s Approach to the Stations of the Cross.” Kathrin Burleson. Cincinnati: Foreword Movement, 2014. 94 pp.

In “The Soul’s Journey: An Artist’s Approach to the Stations of the Cross” (Forward Movement, 2014), Kathrin Burleson presents each of the 14 Stations of the Cross with scripture, meditations and original art to guide individuals and groups through the season of Lent.

Burleson is a writer and award-winning artist, and a founding member of Saints Martha and Mary Episcopal Mission in Trinidad, Calif., in the Diocese of Northern California.

In her introduction, Burleson explains that this book was intended to invite readers “to walk the Stations of the Cross in new ways. Consider the passages from scripture, reflect upon the meditations offered by leading theologians, bishops, and priests, and explore the winding path of an artist as I share the deep soul searching and inspiration that led to the creation of each of these fourteen stations” (p. i).

Contributing writers include the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop and primate of the Episcopal Church; the Rt. Rev. Barry Leigh Beisner, bishop of the Diocese of Northern California; the Rev. Alberto Cutié, television and radio personality from the Diocese of Southeast Florida; the Rev. Canon Scott Gunn, executive director of Forward Movement publishing; Friar Leo M. Joseph, of the Order of St. Francis (OSF), and priest-in-charge of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Lakeport, Calif.; and Sister Teresa Marie Martin, superior of the Community of the Transfiguration (CT).

Each chapter presents a Station of the Cross and includes a beautifully reproduced original watercolor painting by Burleson. In developing this series of paintings, Burleson decided that instead of relying on traditional, narrative depictions of the stations, she would explore more meditative, metaphoric images. By doing this, she offers viewers a way into the paintings, but without telling them, specifically, what to think; it is a journey she shares with the viewer.

One of the great strengths of this book is the warm rapport that Burleson establishes with her readers. As she clearly describes her own journey, it’s easy to begin to feel as if you know her. She is an interesting and likable companion on this journey.

In addition to her compelling writing, as an artist, Burleson handles her medium masterfully. The washes in her watercolors create a flowing, organic quality with lovely fading and variations of color and light. Her choices of colors blend beautifully and differ from station to station. And although she is more than willing to superimpose some realistic, narrative elements into her paintings as she needs to, the overall effect has a dream-like, meditative quality – soothing, even when the subject matter is not.

“My hope,” Burleson writes, “is that in reading these mediations and reflecting upon the images, that you will relate the Passion of Christ to your own walk, to the soul’s journey that shapes each of our lives” (p. xiii).

The original watercolors reproduced in this book are on permanent display in the Chapel of Our Merciful Savior at Christ Episcopal Church in Eureka, Calif.

 

— Rebecca S. Johnson is a cradle Episcopalian and active member of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Leavenworth, Kan., in the Diocese of Kansas. She has a bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts and a master’s degree in Art History from the University of Kansas and has taught art history at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan., and at Kansas City Community College. Her daughter, Sarah Johnson, is a writer and editor for the Office of Mission Communication of the Episcopal Church.

Scandal in a 19th-century convent

Wolf balances detail and drama in historical account

 

“The Nuns of Sant’Ambrogio: The True Story of a Convent in Scandal.” Hubert Wolf. New York: Knopf, 2014. 512 pp.

“The Nuns of Sant’Ambrogio: The True Story of a Convent in Scandal.” Hubert Wolf. New York: Knopf, 2014. 512 pp.

“The Nuns of Sant’Ambrogio: The True Story of a Convent in Scandal” (Knopf, 2014) is a new English translation of the 2013 work “Die Nonnen von Sant’Ambrogio” by German church historian Hubert Wolf. Wolf is a professor of ecclesiastical history at the University of Münster and one of the first scholars to have been granted access to the Vatican’s archives on the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith.

While searching through these archives, Wolf discovered the files of the Roman Inquisition’s investigation and trial of the convent of Sant’Ambrogio della Massima. This book is an attempt to report on and give proper context to the astounding story of the secrets uncovered during the Inquisition and tucked away in the archives for over 100 years. Wolf systematically builds a story that is compelling and keeps the reader’s attention, yet is often inconsistent in its language and lacks clarity about whether the book is meant to be understood as a history text or a mystery thriller.

The investigation of the convent was sparked in 1859 after one of its members, German princess Katharina Von Hohenzollern, managed to smuggle a letter for help out of the convent to her cousin, who was a bishop and close confidant of Pope Pius IX. With her escape from the convent, she began to tell stories of secret practices among the nuns and their attempts to murder her when she became a threat to them. The Inquisition soon uncovered evidence of the convent’s involvement with worshipping false saints, false prophecy, embezzlement, lesbian initiation rites, sexual proclivities and the exiling, poisoning and murder of nuns who threatened to reveal these practices to the outside world. Much of the investigation focuses on the novice mistress and madre vicaria, Maria Luisa, a beautiful young nun who worked her way into power and coerced many of the other nuns into worshipping her, following her commands for sexual acts and threatening any opposition.

Wolf is systematic in detailing the proceedings of the trial, testimonies and evidence uncovered. He carefully explains the historical context for decisions made and clarifies what the views of 19th-century Italian clergy would have been concerning sexual ethics, the war between God and the devil in people’s daily lives, and women’s roles of authority. There are a great many characters involved in the story, which spans several decades, and it would be difficult to keep track of the details without Wolf’s meticulously constructed biographies of almost everyone.

This is where Wolf finds himself in a precarious balancing act. He is trying to craft a story that is engaging and dynamic about the secret actions of a convent that have been hidden away for years, yet he also wants to faithfully report on his many findings in a thorough and scholarly manner. Too far in one direction and the result is a “ripped-from-the-headlines” thriller that is too dry and unwieldy for the casual reader; too far in the other direction and the result is a historical dissertation that is too sensationalized to be taken seriously by academic readers. Wolf manages to strike this balance for the majority of the book, making it approachable both for readers looking for an exciting story and those looking for a scholarly resource.

Where the book falters are in the sometimes-jarring transitions from one format to the other. Sometimes the drama of the investigation is abruptly severed by long explanations about the church’s doctrinal developments on a specific topic. Sometimes a paragraph explaining the biography of a character reads as if from a textbook, only to be followed in the next paragraph by English idioms and colloquialisms that seem out of place (although it is difficult to determine how much of this is the work of the translator, Ruth Martin, and how much is Wolf). The impression is of a book that was written to include meticulous details and also to be dramatized, yet it suffers from poorly edited transitions from the details to the drama.

A word of warning: The sexual content of the book is quite explicit. Without trying to sell the book as a lurid romance novel, Wolf includes the testimonies of the nuns of the convent concerning their specific, detailed and frequent sexual practices with their fellow nuns and with others.

In the end, Wolf tells a compelling story in “The Nuns of Sant’Ambrogio.” He carefully crafts it as a sort of detective novel, leaving the evidence to build and the reader to draw conclusions as the story unfolds, all the while reminding the reader that the incredible tale is true. It is a remarkably easy book to read given the great amount of historical information included, but unfortunately, these details frequently interrupt the flow of the drama. Technical language and colloquialisms vie for control of the story, creating an inconsistent book that nevertheless captures the reader’s attention throughout.

 

(Steven M. Balke, Jr., is a senior at Virginia Theological Seminary and a postulant in the Diocese of Indianapolis. His current concentrations in school are comparative theology and the pedagogy of preaching. When not playing the role of seminarian, he spends most of his time with his wife, getting acquainted with their infant son.)

Sermons on the Christmas Mystery

Husband-and-wife clergy team offers sermons for Advent through Epiphany

Love in Flesh and Bone: Exploring the Christmas Mystery. Amy E. Richter and Joseph S. Pagano. Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2014. 138 pp.

Love in Flesh and Bone: Exploring the Christmas Mystery. Amy E. Richter and Joseph S. Pagano. Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2014. 138 pp.

“Love in Flesh and Bone: Exploring the Christmas Mystery” (Wipf & Stock, 2014) by the Rev. Drs. Amy E. Richter and Joseph S. Pagano offers a variety of beautiful homilies for Advent, Christmas and Epiphany. As rector and assistant rector of St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Annapolis, Md., wife and husband, and seasoned writing team, Richter and Pagano are a remarkable duo.

Richter’s warm, often humorous narrative voice is complemented by Pagano’s gentle, grounded sincerity; together they offer readers an entertaining and enlightening exploration of the lectionary readings for the seasons around Christmas.

The first section of the book, “Preparing Our Flesh to See God in the Flesh” focuses on Advent. The sermons in this section include themes of pathways and fatherhood, as well as a funny and thought-provoking sermon in the form of a dialog with John the Baptist in all his “brood of vipers” glory.

“God With Us,” the section of sermons for the season of Christmas, includes Richter’s moving Christmas Eve sermon “Up All Night.” The other stand-out in this section is Pagano’s sermon for the Feast of the Holy Name, in which he recounts an experience with a family’s request for an exorcism. Although, in the end, he offered a blessing instead of an exorcism per se, his description of the power of Jesus’ name is this situation is unforgettable, and likely to leave readers with goosebumps.

The Epiphany sermons, “A God We Can See, Hear, Taste, and Touch,” are examples of God’s glory made manifest during the weeks of the season of Epiphany. For example, the sermon for the Fourth Sunday After the Epiphany, “What Love Does and Doesn’t,” touches on 1 Corinthians 13:1-13, which has become a popular reading for weddings. To illustrate the personal nature of this passage, Richter writes:

“I once heard this passage read at a wedding as if it were a personal address from the older sister who was reading it to her younger brother. She clearly thought her kid brother, who was about to become a husband, needed some special guidance that she was not sure he was capable of receiving: ‘Love is patient, Larry. Love is kind, Larry. It’s not envious or boastful, or rude, Larry’” (p. 82).

“Love in Flesh and Bone” is sure to be a source of inspiration and joy for readers throughout the year, but especially in the days leading up to and following Christmas.

 

(Sarah Johnson is a writer and editor for the Episcopal Church’s Office of Public Engagement and Mission Communication.)

New daily prayers for The Episcopal Church

The Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music presents beautiful new prayers

“Daily Prayer for All Seasons.” The Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music and the General Convention Office. New York: Church Publishing, 2014. 164 pp.

“Daily Prayer for All Seasons.” The Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music and the General Convention Office. New York: Church Publishing, 2014. 164 pp.

The psalmist may call upon us to “sing to the Lord a new song,” but we Episcopalians tend to prefer singing the same old tunes we remember from childhood – Cranmer’s childhood. And so I admire the courage of the consultants who produced this excellent addition to our common prayers,“Daily Prayer for All Seasons” (Church Publishing, 2014).

They have taken the familiar rhythms of the Daily Office, added back some of the traditional monastic hours and arranged them to emphasize particular elements of the church year. In Advent, the night prayer begins “Even in the waiting, God is with me”; in Easter, with “Alleluia! O risen Christ, watch with me. Alleluia!”

While the Book of Common Prayer offers some seasonal variety, this book deepens the bench, with prayers, scripture, quotes – even new creeds appropriate to the seasons.

I love variety, so I welcome these new additions to our life of prayer together. Those who seek the more familiar prayers of their childhood might be appeased by the fact that these are written by some of our foremost liturgists, many of whom worked on the Book of Common Prayer 1979. The services are therefore predictably well thought out and beautiful.

I am particularly drawn to the additional hours, the ones beyond our usual Daily Offices of Morning Prayer, Noonday, Evening Prayer and Compline. The authors associate a particular type of prayer with each one. The morning begins with Praise, as in the old monastic hour of Lauds. Mid-morning is for discernment, followed by wisdom. At midday, the prayers are for perseverance and renewal, for the feeding of the soul at the time when we feed our bodies. In the afternoon, they call us to love and forgiveness, and ultimately to trust as we prepare for bed. They even include an hour for watch in the middle of the night.

This re-naming – or more often, translating the Latin names into clear, comprehensible English – of the offices helps those praying to orient themselves. While St. Paul might encourage us to pray without ceasing, most of us appreciate having some direction for our prayers. Just as the seasons of the church year call us to prepare, rejoice, wonder, repent and stand in awe in turn, these hours allow us to set aside time particularly focused on one type of prayer. It also reminds us of types of prayer we don’t do so often. How many of us pray for perseverance and renewal on a regular basis?

Perhaps one of the most successful additions to our regular prayer life included in this book is also what will undoubtedly be the most controversial. A creed, or “affirmation,” is not included with every service, but each season features a different one.

I grew up in the United Methodist Church, and we frequently used the United Church of Canada’s “We are not alone; we live in God’s world” creed in our worship. I am pleased to see it included here in the season of Epiphany, a time when we celebrate God-with-us.

The creed for Lent appears to be original, and is particularly striking in that it mirrors each statement of belief with a statement of commitment. Because “we believe that Jesus took the form of a slave,” this creed says, “so we commit ourselves to serve others.”

I know that some, perhaps many, will protest that the point of the creeds is to be unifying, and therefore always the same. But the Council of Nicaea never intended their statement against Arianism to become the One True and Only Declaration of Faith, much less for it to be read in worship weekly – or daily! There is nothing heretical in the new creeds – indeed, the creed for Easter is a direct quotation of Philippians 2:5-11 – only a changed place of emphasis or a new wording for an aspect of God that is attested by all catholic faiths.

If I had one quibble with this book, it would be with the preface. In it, the authors lay out what they believe to be the purpose of their project: to offer prayers for those who do not currently have time to pray. That is not at all who this book is for.

Those who do not have time to pray the Daily Office, or even the one-page Daily Devotions for Individuals and Families will not turn to this book. The services here are no shorter. This book is not for those who cannot find time to pray. It is for those who are already praying the Office, who seek a wider variation on their prayers – meditations from saints old and new, seasonal focus to help guide their praying.

If I were someone who felt too busy to pray, this book would not convince me to start. As someone who is something of a “professional pray-er,” however, I delight in the new prayers in this book, as opportunities to guide my own prayer, or to help guide the youth I teach in their prayer lives.

For those who make it a habit to pray daily, and for all who seek a deeper knowledge of God, this book is highly recommended.

 

(The Rev. Jordan Haynie Ware is parochial associate for Youth and Young Adult Ministry at All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Fort Worth, Texas.)

The Christian compass

Finding our way with soul, mind, strength and heart

Living Compass“Your Living Compass” (Morehouse, 2014) divides a compass into four quadrants: soul, mind, strength and heart. Scott Stoner, an Episcopal priest and licensed marriage and family therapist, presents this new kind of compass with Christian faith pulling the needle.

Stoner divides each quadrant into sections: soul contains spirituality as well as rest and play; mind contains vocation and organization; strength contains care for the body and stress resiliency; and heart contains relationships and handling emotions. For each of the sections, he provides five reflections. These essays are thoughtful and conversational in tone, and offer memorable images and anecdotes. Each reflection concludes with practical ways to enrich this aspect of our life in thought, word or deed.

Completing the simple Living Compass Self-Assessment Tool allows an individual to obtain scores for all eight sections. A score significantly lower than the others indicates an area that has gone relatively unattended and may require attention.

Stoner identifies “wholeness” as our very essence, what God has already given us. In contrast, “wellness” refers to the choices we make to manifest that wholeness at any point in life. An essential first step to a better life is to recognize that the gift of wholeness, the gift of love, has already been bestowed upon us.

A major strength of “Your Living Compass” is the way diverse aspects of human living are addressed. Our lives are accurately presented as complex and organic, with the various sections influencing one another. The wellness that is advocated and advanced here is not something simplistic, but reflects the rich texture of real existence.

The entire volume amounts to a retreat characterized by flexibility. “Your Living Compass” can be used by groups or individuals. It can be used within brief or extended time frames. It can be used repeatedly, as we will bring to it a somewhat different self each time we engage it. After an initial encounter with the entire compass, some users may choose to focus on specific portions.

The Living Compass website offers resources for adults, parents, youth, congregations and even summer camps. Some materials are offered in both Christian and secular versions. Perhaps this compass will also be a bridge linking Christian spirituality with the non-religious spirituality of many of our contemporaries.

“Your Living Compass” may become part of the standard kit for many pastors, counselors and spiritual directors along with such tools as the Enneagram and Myers Briggs. Characterized by understatement, “Your Living Compass” provides a useful schema for exploring the mystery of our lives and welcoming grace wherever it shows up.

 

(The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is rector of St. Paul’s Parish, Baden, Md.)

An ‘Unusual’ Bible study

Adam Thomas brings fun and focus to the Gospel of John

“Unusual Gospel for Unusual People: Studies from the Book of John.” Adam Thomas. Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon Press, 2014.

“Unusual Gospel for Unusual People: Studies from the Book of John.” Adam Thomas. Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon Press, 2014.

“Unusual Gospel for Unusual People: Studies from the Book of John” is a DVD-based Bible study series developed by the Rev. Adam Thomas, an Episcopal priest in the Diocese of Massachusetts.

“Unusual” is the word the Thomas uses to describe the Gospel According to John and also 21st century American Christians. As Thomas explains, in an increasingly secular society, “many Americans profess a belief in God and identify as some sort of Christian, but there’s a big difference between checking ‘Christianity’ on the census form and living your life as a follower of Jesus” (p. 7). This distinction, for Thomas, means that those who truly embrace a Christian way of life “are once again the unusual ones in society” (p. 7).

Thomas connects this outsider quality with John’s gospel, which is conspicuously different from the synoptic gospels in many key aspects. Studying the “unusual” gospel can help today’s followers of Jesus understand why we have returned to being the underdog in society, to being “unusual.”

This DVD series consists of three modules: “Unusual Healings,” “Unusual Questions” and “Unusual Names.” The study is designed so that each module can be used separately for a four-week course or in combination with the others, in any order, for an eight- or 12-week study. Leader Guides and Personal Reflection Guides accompany each module, and daily email supplements provide additional discussion material.

This Bible study is playful and light, providing an engaging entrance into the Gospel According to John. Its pop-culture references make it particularly suitable for a young adult audience, although older participants will probably enjoy it as well. For example, in Session One of “Unusual Names,” Thomas uses a line from the Beatles’ song “I am the Walrus” to illuminate Jesus’ use of the phrase, “I AM.” This leads into silliness with chalkboard writing, a line from Gilbert and Sullivan, and ultimately leads into a “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” reference. If a participant is not familiar with pop culture, however, these references could be problematic – and conservative or more traditional congregations might find that the humor distracts from the material.

The 5- to 7-minute video clips that accompany each session are one of the strengths of this series. The setting is simple: Thomas sits in front of a green chalkboard on which important points are written. Thomas’ humor shines through, as does his love of the Gospel of John and his passion to empower others to understand and live out the gospel. One slight flaw in these video segments, however, is the color of Thomas’ shirt. It is so similar to the color of the chalkboard behind him that sometimes the screen may appear washed out.

The Leader Guides are another strength of the “Unusual Gospel” series and make it especially useful as a first-time study for lay leaders. Each guide includes not only an overview of the series and detailed session plans for each week, but also explains how to organize and lead a group. Thomas does an excellent job of discussing what makes a good Bible study leader, information that can be carried forward into other Christian formation classes.

“Unusual Gospel” is well designed for both group settings and individual reflection. The Personal Reflection Guides provide excellent space for this, and also highlight the sense of playfulness that makes this series attractive. The questions call for creativity and imagination from participants and encourage doodling as well as writing.

Overall, “Unusual Gospel for Unusual People” is a refreshing look at the Gospel According to John, perfect for summer or Lenten Bible study. Its lightness and humor serve well to open the texts and encourage participants to reflect on their spiritual lives.

(Christine Havens graduated in May 2014 with Master’s of Arts in Religion from the Seminary of the Southwest. She is originally from the Diocese of Iowa, and talking about theology, literature, writing and language in any combination makes her smile.)

More than a martyr

'Strange Glory' confronts Bonhoeffer’s complexities

“Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.” Charles Marsh. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014. 515 pp.

“Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.” Charles Marsh. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014. 515 pp.

Does Charles Marsh’s “Strange Glory” (Knopf, 2014) add anything new to the conversation about Dietrich Bonhoeffer? Bonhoeffer’s life and work is colored by legend. He is larger than life; widely held to be a hero and martyr for his steadfast resistance to the Nazis in Germany and his death in a concentration camp in 1945. Many revere his Christ-centered theology and writings on discipleship and life in community. Much has already been written about Bonhoeffer. Do we need another biography?

I think the answer is yes. “Strange Glory” was well worth the time and attention it took to get through the nearly 500 pages of text and notes in this densely sourced volume.

Charles Marsh is an American professor of religious studies who has served as a visiting professor in Berlin at the same university where Bonhoeffer studied and received his theological degree. He is a Bonhoeffer scholar who spent years in the city library in Berlin sifting through 25 cases of recently acquired Bonhoeffer archives. There is new material here.

For me, the most appealing aspects of this biography, in addition to the primary sources – letters, sermons, notebooks, journals and lectures – are its clarity and its balance.

There is more to Bonhoeffer’s life than his participation in the plot on Hitler’s life and the circumstances surrounding his death at the hands of the Gestapo, and there is more to Bonhoeffer’s theology than the popular reading of the cost of discipleship.

One of the things Marsh does particularly well is explain the conflict between the Protestant liberalism prevailing in the German Lutheran church of Bonhoeffer’s academic years and the orthodox doctrines and beliefs to which Bonhoeffer sought to return. For Bonhoeffer, the church’s doctrines belong to Christ, not to the liberal philosophers as “useful tools for human understanding … subject to modernism’s suspicious scrutiny” (p.177) and above all not to the National Socialists as an expression of national and ethnic ideology. These theological ideals were the foundation of the dissident Confessing Church.

Marsh also makes it clear that the Confessing Church had a dirty secret: “Some of its members were card-carrying members of the Nazi Party” (p. 224) who quarreled with the state’s takeover of the church but not with Hitler’s political authority. The Barmen Declaration, the foundational statement of the Confessing Church, which Bonhoeffer signed, was neither an act of political resistance nor did it address the Nazi persecution of the Jews.

Bonhoeffer’s devotion to a Christ-centered church was so strong that he weathered the collapse of the Confessing Church and went on to become a member of the resistance. Marsh writes: “He would join the struggle that would cost him his life. He would pray, and plot, for the defeat of his country” (p. 285). Again, this was not a political act but a theological one.

In his prison writings, Bonhoeffer struggled with the nature of sin. There seemed to be no course of action that avoided sin: either to comply with Hitler’s policies or to pray for the defeat of his country and plot for the death of Germany’s leader. Marsh is not the first to “temper the heroic narrative” (p. 326) by pointing out Bonhoeffer’s limited and ambivalent role in the resistance.  Scaling down the mythology of hero and martyr of the resistance opens up space for Bonhoeffer’s role as theologian of the resistance. As a theologian, Charles Marsh is well placed to situate Bonhoeffer’s theology within the context of his life and work.

I do have a bone to pick with the publisher about the slack editing. This is an expensive ($35) hardcover book with heavy, deckle-edged paper, a book I underlined and annotated and intend to keep on my shelves. Alas, it is riddled with editing errors. I should be clear that I was working from the finished product, not an advance review copy. An example is the photo on page 5, in the opening chapter on Bonhoeffer’s childhood and family life, of Bonhoeffer’s mother with her eight children. The photo is captioned “Paula Bonhoeffer with her seven children.” Another example of the poor editing is a quotation from a German Christian pastor witnessing the National Synod of the German Evangelical Church in September 1933 – a full paragraph – that I encountered on page 189. Turning the page, I found the same quotation on page 190, and to make matters worse, there was a typographical error – one of many throughout the book – in the repeated quotation.

For Bonhoeffer, Christology and ecclesiology were inseparable. Christ is the reality of God entered into the reality of the world. Christ’s church must engage with social reality, indeed with social injustice. This is a message that bears iteration for a new generation. This is a message that sounds loud and clear throughout “Strange Glory.” This is a message that keeps the reader engaged for the many pages of the narrative and the message that returns to the reader’s thoughts when the book is closed.

 

(Susan Butterworth is a candidate for a Master of Divinity degree at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., where she is working on a special competency in Anglican, Global, Ecumenical and Interfaith Studies. She is a visiting lecturer in English composition and literature at Salem State University and a professional nonfiction writer.) 

Essays brewed in the Spirit

Insights and humor from a priest / bar owner

"The Beer Drinker's Guide to God: The Whole and Holy Truth About Lager, Loving, and Living." William B. Miller. New York: Howard Books, 2014. 352 pp.

“The Beer Drinker’s Guide to God: The Whole and Holy Truth About Lager, Loving, and Living.” William B. Miller. New York: Howard Books, 2014. 352 pp.

As both an Episcopal priest and a bar owner, William Miller combines his two vocations into one thoughtful collection of spirited, yet spiritually grounded essays. Miller’s style walks the edge of irreverence as he distills his thinking into the three sections: Wine, Women and Song. While women can enjoy these essays, this may be a rare Christian book that is well suited to a book club that is less into yoga pants and wine and more into cigars and single malt.

Each of the book’s 24 essays mix stories drawn from the author’s life with stories from scripture and thoughts from Christian tradition to come to thought-provoking conclusions. Miller is well traveled, and ports of call from Dublin to Kathmandu make cameo appearances in these writings. Also present on most every page is Miller’s wry wit. As he writes, “We are much too serious in our attempts to understand a God who is far more playful than those who claim to speak on his behalf.”

You will be hard pressed to find another book in the religion section with essays called “A Dingle in My Wingle” and “More Cleavage.” The first is a ditty created on the fly by a traveling companion when making a pilgrimage to Ireland. The second comes from a pastor preaching from the book of Genesis teaching of a man leaving father and mother and cleaving to his wife, who didn’t understand why the congregation laughed when he spoke of marriages ending too easily saying that what we need is “more cleavage.” In every case, the author finds humor and spiritual insight in the ordinary.

Miller works well with metaphor and analogy, and in this, he is in good company. Augustine of Hippo echoed his own theological mothers and fathers illustrating the mystery of the Trinity by talking of the light of the sun or the course of a spring through a river. For Augustine, all of nature bears the stamp of its creator, and this Miller finds distilled to its essence in the brewing of beer and the distilling of stronger spirits. Miller clearly sees all creation as a sacramental universe in which God uses rather mundane material things to be present among people, using this common stuff of life as vehicles of grace.

This sacramental view comes through in the essay “The Angels’ Share,” with its poetic passage describing the casks that permit Scotch to breathe through the barrels in which it is aged. Some of the whiskey leaks through, which is the part that goes to the angels and gives the distillery its heavenly aroma. Miller compares this way of letting two percent of the Scotch leak out (or even 30 percent in the case of American bourbons) to using hermetically sealed canisters to age the whiskey, which would keep every drop in the barrel while resulting in pitifully inferior Scotch. He goes on to compare this to his father, a Church of Christ pastor who was a master teacher in the art of generosity. His father gave freely of both his money and himself. When a parishioner told him that the tithe was an Old Testament idea, Miller’s father retorted, “You’re so right. The ten percent tithe was before God showed us just how much he loved us. …  The tithe is now completely insufficient as a response to God’s incredible generosity.” The essay does a memorable job of telling stories of generosity alongside efforts to hold on to what we have to show that miracles happen when we share freely.

Having a section of essays titled “Women” in a spiritual book crafted on the bounds of the irreverent is dicey territory, but the author pushes bravely along. The women in his life include two Hooter’s girls and a retired high-school teacher turned church librarian that Miller first experienced as “a hypercritical, judgmental, nonhumorous, unforgiving bag of wind.” Here too grace abounds as in all human relationships when we see others through the love of God.

For the owner of Padre’s, a 100-year old adobe building that has been a feed store and a funeral home before becoming a priest-owned bar, this book is perhaps inevitable. He did, after all, spend the eve of his ordination with buddies attending a Village People concert. But there may be something important about the life of faith that needed saying for which this is the right vehicle of that particular grace.

The book contends in its preface that “we have drawn lines in the sand between the sacred and the secular … for approaching the altar rail or bellying up to the bar. … God makes no such distinctions.” The essays then work to break down those dividing walls. This will not be everyone’s cup of lager, but Miller is a skilled essayist whose laugh-out-loud funny writing conveys God’s undeserved love in a unique way that will resonate with many a reader who won’t make their way through most spiritual writings.