Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Book 12 of 2016 -- Aging, Spirituality and Pastoral Care

Edited by: Elizabeth MacKinlay, James W. Ellor, and Stephen Pickard (Binghamton: Haworth Pastoral Press) [Co-published simultaneously as Journal of Religious Gerontology Volume 12, Numbers 3/4, 2001]

This is a collection of papers related to the topic of the title. And as one often finds in such a work, some papers are more enjoyable than others. It is in two sections.

Section 1: Ethical, Theological and Ethical Dimensions
There are 5 papers in this section. The first looks specifically at ethical issues. It is very dense and was not my favourite. The other 4 were much more readable and accessible. In particular I liked the fourth, a paper co-written by a philosopher and a theologian discussing what wholeness means in relation to ageing – particularly in a culture where frailty and failing health tend to contradict understandings of wholeness. The third essay was also a very interesting read. It dissected a section of 2 Corinthians as a way of discussion “outward decay and inward renewal. The one issue I had with it was that there was relatively little overt discussion of ageing...which seemed odd given the topic of the book. The second paper challenged us to create a new way of looking at aging and gerontology, pointing out that much of the current work is based on biology and medicine and therefore misses some of the less tangible pieces of the puzzle.

Section 2: Issues of Ageing and Pastoral Care
This section has 7 papers. These tend to be a bit more practical in nature than the first section. They address issues as varied as isolation to sexuality to ritual to spiritual development to parish nursing. There are two authors who have submitted 2 papers each in this section. One talks about a dialogue between faith and dementia followed by a discussion of the importance of ritual in the life of faith. The other is a series of two articles relating to spiritual development and ageing (though it appears that these two are in the wrong order). I found both these sets of papers quite useful, though in terms of practical use the first set were more helpful. The last article, dealing with parish nursing (or as termed in this book “Faith Care Nursing”) reminded me of discussions in the United Church about 20 years ago. It struck me as an intriguing idea then bu one that would be harder to sell in financial terms. Still on the whole these papers have planted some seeds about how a faith community can provide optimal support for an ageing population – and in the process provide more support for all generations.

One of the gifts that faith communities have to offer to life is that we are one of the few places in society that are truly intergenerational. There are few places where people can share the energy and wisdom of multiple life stages. If we do it well we will all benefit.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Book 11 of 2016 -- Studying Congregations

edited by: Nancy T. Ammerman, Jackson W. Carroll, Carl S. Dudley, and William McKinney (USA: Abingdon Press) 256 pages

This book was recommended by a classmate 15 years ago. So I guess it was time to read it.

One of the realities of ministry is that in order to provide leadership you need to constantly be gauging who and where the congregation is (both in their self-understanding and in reality – because those two are not always the same thing).

This book gives tools and perspectives on how we do that analysis. Sometimes you do it intentionally to deal with a specific issue or problem (or “mess” as one quote in the book suggests we do not solve problems – we handle messes). Sometimes you do it intentionally as part of a visioning/re-visioning and mission/goal setting process. You are always doing it at an unconscious level.

I liked that the authors gave a variety of frames or lenses to use in this process of studying. How we look at a situation will often change what we see. Years ago, in my first year theology class I remember the prof saying that the questions are far more important than the answers. Same with choosing what way you will look at a situation. Those things shape the answers we gain. I also appreciated the constant reminder that this sort of study is NOT best done by one person. You need a variety of eyes to get the clearest look at the picture.

But I have a major concern. It is my sense that organizations, perhaps particularly the church sometimes tend to act unreflectively. And so taking time to reflect and study is a good thing. But organizations, and certainly churches, sometimes swing too far the other way. Study and reflection can become the endpoint. We go too far into navel-gazing and never quite get to the action portion (admittedly I recognize this because it is a trap I personally can fall into). Sometimes it feels that the study has not quite given us the magic information that we need to know exactly what action to take.

This book is helpful in giving tools and methods and perspectives as to how we study our congregations. But at the same time I am not about to put it into practice immediately (at least as a formal study process). Sometimes we need to act so that we have something new to reflect upon....

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Book 10 of 2016 -- The Guardian

I first met Jack Whyte's writing 20 years ago when (along with much of the rest of my family) I read through the Dream of Eagles cycle (his series positing how the Arthurian myth could have begun in post-Roman Britain). And then years later I read the three parts of his Templar trilogy. Then I have worked through this trilogy.  The first one was about the formation of William Wallace, the second was about the upbringing of Robert the Bruce, and then this one is about Andrew de Moray (or Murray), the partner of William Wallace at the Battle of Stirling Bridge -- which, by the way, looked NOTHING like how Mel Gibson portrayed it in his movie. [Which did surprise me a touch since I was expecting the trilogy to close with the Black Douglas, I am sure I had read that somewhere]

I really enjoy historical epic fiction. To be fair I really enjoy straight on history as well. But historical fiction in an interesting genre.  You can't outright contradict the historical record. But you can't just reiterate it either. Luckily official historical records often have lots of holes. Enter historical fiction, the chance to play "what if" and fill in the holes. It is sort of like the Jewish practice of midrash.

The first two books ended at roughly the same point in time. This book starts where they ended as we continue into the Scottish war of Independence (or rebellion if you follow the English logic of Edward).  And for a novel of Andrew Murray, there are about a dozen chapters before we actually cross north of the Forth and head up to Moray and meet the supposed protagonist.  Really, as with the book about Wallace, we are reading the account as told by Father James Wallace, cousin of William, seeing the events through his eyes.

I like Whyte's writing.  It serves as a nice escape from time to time.  I wonder what he might take on next....

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Book 9 of 2016 -- Volume 5 of Les Miserables

It is Finished.

And I am so glad I chose to read it (and persevered as I waded through the heavy bits).  Then again the musical is one of my favourite shows ever so I was predisposed to push myself through the text.

The ending of the musical, with Cossette and Marius rushing in to Valjean just before he dies is touching.  The original scene as written by Hugo is far more deeply moving.

This version included as an appendix a letter from Hugo to the publisher of the Italian version of the book.  In this epistle he explains why the book is not just a French historical fiction. He explains that it touches on social issues that are universal across Europe.  So the book is, at least in Hugo's vision, a social commentary (and a fairly powerful one at that). Some (or even much) of this comes through in the Musical, but not nearly as deeply.

THere are books that deserve to be read more widely. This is one of them.  On the other hand, I suspect that in its full form many current readers would give up in those long descriptive and extraneous parts. Which is a pity (though I still believe there could have been a bit more heavy editing--because I still don't know why we needed  long in-depth description of Waterloo just so we can meet Colonel Pontmercy and see him rescued by Thenardier).  Some of those long descriptive passages are truly beautiful. And without some of them the depth of understanding of the characters would be lost.

There is one other thought. Hugo writes assuming that we have a deep knowledge of the history to which her refers, refers in great detail.  The novel works without that knowledge. But I suspect there are bits that would make far more sense and have far more meaning if I were much more familiar with French history of the early 19th century.

If you have the time....I encourage the reading of this book.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Book 8 of 2016 -- Caring for Yourself While Caring for Your Aging Parents

Caring for Yourself While Caring for Your Aging Parents: How to Help, How to Survive
Claire Berman (New York: Henry Holt Publishers) 255 pages.

Statisticians and demographers keep telling us that we are going to have a massive number of frail elderly in a few years. The oldest of the Baby Boomers are now 70. What does this mean for us as a society? What might it mean for the church?

It means that there are going to be more and more people developing diseases and conditions of old age. It means that there are going to be more and more family and friends challenged with the task of helping to care for someone who was, once, a caregiver him or herself.

This book (published in 1996) was given to me some years ago. Insides there is a note that reminds me it came from one of my “more mature” moms. [One of the benefits of having grown up in one congregation is that I have a number of surrogate parents, and as we were the youngest family in that particular circle (mainly choir families) all the surrogate parents are “more mature”]. I had never made myself read it. My official reason is that I have never gotten around to it. Unofficially I suspect it is because it is always challenging to think of one's parents (surrogate and actual) as getting to that point of needing care.

The beauty of this book is that it does not grow out of some “expert” deciding to tell people what they need to know. Instead it grows out of the author's own experience, buttressed by research and interview both with caregivers and with professionals in the field. It is inherently practical and down to earth and honest. It names tasks but also talks about the emotional and mental toll that comes with this new way of being with your parent.

In these pages we find tips and resources, a “where to look” sort of thing (though as a US publication these “where to look” type tips are of less direct use for us in Canada). We find stories that show us where some of the greatest rewards and challenges come from. We find warnings about what could go “wrong”. We find reassurance that there is no right way to do this caregiving. And at the end of each chapter we find a bulleted summary of what was just discussed.

In the future the church is going to be filled with both the “frail elderly” and the family and friends who are helping them. As leaders in the church we need to develop tools to help support these people. Or maybe redevelop/reawaken those tools and skills because I think once upon a time we (as a community) had them. With each new generation there are new wrinkles – distance between family members in a much more mobile culture being a big one. But we have the tools within our communities to do it.

My biggest quibble with the book was that, being 20 years old, it was missing a big piece of the resource side – the online world. Then today I was looking at the Chapters website and found that the bookhas been reissued in 2005 with that piece added in.

Our parents will age. (So will we). Most of them (and us) will lose functioning to one degree or another for one reason or another. Some faster, some slower, some sooner, some later. We (and those who will care for us) will all have to adapt to a new reality. It is good to have resources that will help us make the shift.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Book 7 of 2016 -- The Abundant Community

John McKnight and Peter Brock (San Francisco: Barrett-Koehler Publishers) 170 pages

What does it take to build a strong community? What gets in the way of that happening?

It occurs to me that these are two key questions that we, as churches and as communities in general, need to take seriously as we try to imagine what sort of a society we want to live in. Because, to be brutally honest, I am feeling more and more that the idea of community is falling more and more by the wayside with each passing decade. Maybe it is because of the drive to be “productive”. Maybe it is because we have decided to over-schedule ourselves. Maybe it is because we don't trust the people around us anymore (although arguably that is also a result of not having strong community-mindedness – bit of a chicken/egg spiral there) and so often believe that we are to live in a level of fear all the time. Maybe it is because we are so much more of a mobile (or even transient) society – building strong community often takes time and rootedness. Maybe it is because, as McKnight and Brock claim, we have moved from being 'citizens' to being 'consumers'.

At any rate, it is harder and harder to find people who live in a truly encompassing and supportive community. 20 years ago when I was working in a crisis nursery I quickly learned some of the costs of that lack of community. When I was growing up there were a number of people (largely from the church congregation in our case) who could care for my sister and I in case of emergency (or in the case of a planned trip) or people who could share each others' struggles and offer wisdom and support. The people I was talking to on a crisis line had no-one. The lack of community put them into an even deeper crisis. And even then, in the 1970's and 80's I think we could see that community was different than it had been for my grandparents' generation.

In this volume McKnight and Brock begin by outlining the difference between living as 'citizens' where we take ownership for issues, where we live in a more community-building mindset and living as 'consumers' where we go out to buy goods and services to resolve our issues (or possibly to hide from them), where we rely on professionals rather than the community. They suggest that in following the path into consumers we have put much of the strength and wisdom of the community behind us, that maybe we have even lost much that used to come naturally to us as people. They then lay out an alternative way of life, and start to give the readers a map that would take us back to living in the “abundant [and competent] community” where we re-learn that we have the gifts and tools and skills within our communities and associations to live healthy productive lives.

Over and over as I was reading this book two thoughts occurred to me. One was that this is the sort of book that municipal politicians need to read. If we want our communities to be stronger than our leaders need to see a different way of building them. The other is that these are the sorts of things that communities of faith should be doing almost automatically. The church can be a force for modelling a different for of interaction. Much of it we still do just because that is how we are. I fear that we are, even in the church, starting to lose the full sense of what community can be and accomplish.

One of the challenges of following this approach in this century, I think, is going to lie in how we define community. Is it the neighborhood in which we live? Yes, and much of what McNight and Brock talk about works well in that milieu. Is it the groups of which we are a part? Yes (they talk of these as our associations). BUT community today is also something different and broader when we consider the on-line world. In many ways the whole on-line phenomenon is a product of the consumer mindset. But can it also be placed into the paradigm of the abundant, caring community? And how? It would be interesting to ask the authors that question....

Monday, May 16, 2016

Book 6 of 2016 -- Volume 4 of Les Miserables

Is this a love story with an uprising along side? OR is it a treatise on socio-economic-political realities? Or maybe the story of a doomed revolution with a love story as a sub-plot?  OR maybe a study of varying characters and how they deal with the vagaries of life?

Or maybe it is all four and more....

In this (long -- 15 books of varying lengths) volume both the revolution and the love story get to the boil, though the outcome of both is left hanging as we move into Volume 5 (the final volume).

And actually, while they are sometimes aggravating and seem less than germane to the furthering of the actual plot, I am quite enjoying some of the diversions. For example, the discussion about the roots of Parisian slang was intriguing. And there is a great deal of political comment hidden in the text. It has made me ponder doing some looking into a biography of Victor Hugo to see where he was coming from as he wrote.

By now the barricade has repulsed one attack but the defenders seem to expect that their cause is doomed. Marius is despondent, thinking his love is lost forever, and Jean Valjean is wrestling with his own demons and fears.  The one character I whose inner life I would like to learn more about is Cosette.  WE see some but not nearly as much as the others.

Book 5 of 2016 -- Already Missional

Note: I have also written a piece for the church newsletter based on my reading of this book, you can find it here.

Bradley T. Morison (Eugene: Resource Publication, 2016) Pp.123.

One of the key ideas in the world of the church these days is that we need to be missional. Rather than sit and wait for people to come and find out what wonderful people we are we need to be out there actively engaging the community around us, Then people will know who we are and have an incentive to find out more about us.

Which is great. And to be honest I am unsure when this was not the case. Certainly my lived experience of the church has been more of sitting and waiting and assuming that our mere presence is enough to draw folks in. I have not noticed that this approach has been all that effective in my life time – maybe we were always supposed to be missional.

There is a question of how we engage the community. Are we talking about being evangelists and proselytizers, knocking on doors asking folk if they have found the meaning of life? That is certainly one way of being missional and engaging the community. I suggest it is not a way that fits well with most United Church folk. I would also suggest that it is not, in the end, exceptionally effective.

There is another way to engage. This is for the church to become active in the community, to become an active part of trying to make the community around it a better place. This is an approach that is much more attuned to the ethos of the United Church as I understand it. But it raises a whole new set of questions.

Traditionally the missional discussion involves trying to decide what new programs the congregation will offer to the community. Or maybe what formal partnerships the congregation will make with existing organizations. And those are fine ideas. But all too often this approach to being missional leads to the congregational leadership saying to the (already busy) members of the congregation “if we want people to know about us we all have to commit X hours and Y dollars to making this new project work”. And there is the biggest hurdle. How many good ideas have fallen by the wayside because of a lack of resources? The other common problem with these discussions is that there is a tendency for them to involve the repeated use of phrases like “well in they ...” or “Years ago we used to...”. Great. Good for them. But is that something that meets the needs of community where and where you are now?

In this book Brad offers a third alternative. Put simply it starts with asking folk what they are already doing. Church folk in general and United Church folk in particular tend to be very active in the community already. Some of that activity is going to grow out of their faith, to grow out of their understanding of how God would have us live. Normally we fail to recognize that as ministry (both as those doing it and as the church). Having offered that understanding of what it means to be missional, Brad asks the reader to explore a series of questions about how we encourage people to live out the ministries in which they already participate, how the church can recognize those ministries as part of the larger ministry of the congregation, and how the church can support people in their ministry.

This is a book the cries to be read and discussed in a group setting. It is an interesting read for an individual but its power is when a group, say a congregational governing body (and/or the power-brokers—who may or may not be the same people), reads it together and talks about how that congregation might put these ideas into practice.

I have known many people in different places who are active participants in the missio Dei. Sometimes this work is through the church, often it is just because they have a passion for it. Maybe it is time we as the church started to embrace what is already happening rather than think ministry only counts when we can guide and measure and contain it?

Tuesday, May 10, 2016


AS part of the Sabbatical process one is expected to do some form of reporting back at the end. It seems to me that this is actually easiest done if the report is built all along.  Some people start a blog specifically for their sabbatical, but I see no reason to do that when this blog already exists and we have the chance to use the label function.  SO for the period of my sabbatical anything I post that is sabbatical specific will be tagged #Sabbatical.  Most of it will be the annotated bibliography as I work my way through the collection of books I have set aside, but there may also be other reflections, either on the books as they are being read or on other aspects of the rest and recharge period.

Friday, April 08, 2016

Book 4 of 2016 -- How Human is God?

This is one I was asked to read and review for Touchstone.  I actually finished it a few months ago, but just got the review done now.

How Human is GOD? Seven Questions about God and Humanity in the Bible
Mark S. Smith (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 2014) Pp.192.

Mark Smith is professor of Bible and ancient Near Eastern studies at New York University. Previously he taught at Yale University, Saint Joseph's University . . . and Saint Paul Seminary . . . he is past president of the Catholic Biblical Association of America” (back cover). In this volume his deep grounding in Hebrew Scripture and knowledge of the world in which that Scripture was written is evident and is a great gift to the reader. 
In the beginning of our faith story we are told that humanity is created in God's image. Does this mean that God is also in our image? In this well-referenced—of the 192 pages 58 are endnotes and recommended readings—volume Mark Smith invites us to think about God as God is revealed in the words of the Hebrew Bible. To lead us in this thinking Smith offers seven chapters, each of which explores (and maybe even answers) one of the seven questions referenced in the subtitle of the book.

These chapters are broken out into two sections. In the first section we have questions about God: “Why does God Have a Body?”, What Do God's Body Parts in the Bible Mean?”, Why Is God Angry in the Bible?”, and “Does God in the Bible Have Gender of Sexuality?”. The second section explores have questions about God in the world” “What Can Creation Tell Us About God?”, Who—or What—Is the Satan?”, and “Why Do People Suffer According to the Hebrew Bible?”. Obviously many, if not all, of those topics could be a lengthy book (or books) in and of itself, which is why Smith gives such good notes and recommended reading for those who want to go deeper.
The nature and understanding of God is an unending discussion for people of faith. The questions about God never seem to get fully answered, but Smith makes an interesting suggestion in the prologue: “. . . the emergence of the understanding of God within ancient Israel was a redefinition of divinity in its time. . . the change in ancient Israel's sense of God may anticipate changes taking place today.” (xiii). As we continue to re-vision how we understand God we need to remain grounded in the witness of Scripture and this book is very helpful in doing just that.
Of course the challenge in talking about God is that all we can use are metaphors, and when we turn metaphors into literal statements then things can get weird. Smith recognizes this. And so even as he starts to talk about God's body he also notes “what are we to make of anthropomorphism? Is it simply a projection . . .” (5). However, as he points out, we use the language we have. Since we understand God as being personal and in relationship we will end up describing God in some of the same ways we describe other persons. But later Smith points out that “human language applied to God not only falls short; it only makes sense for God when it is recognized as being partial and falling short” (64). Smith pushes us to recognize that the descriptions he is talking about are not all that God is, a helpful reminder for us as we wrestle with our own understandings of God.
While this book is ably addresses some of the easier aspects of God (God's body parts, knowing God in Creation) it also does not shy from taking on some really difficult subjects (God's gender/sexuality, God's anger, why do people suffer). Smith knows that some of what Scripture says about God is challenging and is able to name and explore that challenge. This exploration invites the reader to look deeper. As a person of faith it would be easy to accept simple answers to difficult questions but Smith pushes us to look at what the text really says, even when it may move us out of our comfort with the simple answer. As a whole the book calls us to see God “through the positive lens of creation and through the negative lens of evil and suffering” (128) and so pushes a more complete, more nuanced picture.
Early in the book we read “we may be drawn to images of God that move us or comfort us . . .Sometimes, though, we do not really use our brains very much in thinking about God” (ix). Near the end we read “Human images constitute a starting point for thinking about God. . . This is a beginning, not the end . . . we change—our discovery of who God is changes” (129). This sums up an approach to exploring who God is. An approach that includes our own experiences and feelings but also our logic and reason as well as the witness of those who have gone before us. Which seems like a really good thing to encourage people to do as we try to answer who God is and how God is a part of our lives.