Monday, November 30, 2015

First Monday of Advent: Rest

Last year was the busiest Advent season I can remember since starting in ministry.

It used to be that I was amazed at people's perception of how pastors move through this season vs. my own experience: I hadn't ever felt burdened down by the sheer weight and volume of extra activities that come during this time.

Yes, there are special events that come, but those are balanced out by people not wanting to have a lot of extra meetings or interactions due to their personal holiday preparations. What results, from my point of view, was a season surprisingly devoid of busyness and stress, as I'd plan what I needed to plan but not feel too rushed while doing it. That was always my happy little secret about this time of year.

Last year, that changed somehow. There wasn't necessarily anything terribly different from what I've done before. In addition to leading worship on Sundays, there was Blue Christmas, caroling to shut-ins, the youth program, and for the first time for me personally, two Christmas Eve services rather than one. I'm not in charge of the youth program and I'm only marginally involved with planning the caroling, so with the exception of one extra service, there wasn't any reason to feel any more overloaded than in years past.

But I did. Maybe having to organize even one extra service and sermon can do that. Maybe the activities just stacked on top of each other in just the right anomalous way so as to get me to feel out of sorts. Maybe this year will be much more breezy and I'll go back to the leisurely pace I've enjoyed.

All I know is that by the time Christmas morning came, I was glad it was all over. I munched my cinnamon roll and watched my kids open their presents, grateful that I could finally just sit and take in the spirit of the day for myself, while also kicking myself for using up all my vacation time already. A longer respite after such a busy time would have been nice.

 I've always found December to be restful, where I can take time to linger in the sanctuary and enjoy the decorations and allow "O Come O Come Emmanuel" to seep into my bones without my worrying about the next event marring the experience.

Since this is a week to think about hope, this feeling of rest is what I hope for the most.

Friday, November 27, 2015

November 2015 Pop Culture Roundup

A few extra items for November, because some months are like that. It helped that I had a week's vacation in there. Anyway...

1. This month I read Beyond Resistance by John Dorhauer, General Minister and President of the UCC and contributor of the foreword to my book. Dorhauer takes the reader through a brief tour of the issues facing the institutional church these days, among them being the rise of postmodernism, and explores possible responses to them. He introduces the concept of "church 3.0," which will look radically different from the versions before it (in case you're wondering, 1.0 was pre-Reformation and 2.0 was Reformation to present day). Essentially, he argues that many churches entrenched in the 2.0 way of doing things should just carry on as best they can, while also making room for 3.0, which may have none of the features that many love about 2.0, including Sunday worship, buildings, and professional seminary-educated clergy. I don't read many books like this nowadays, but this was a welcome foray back into the genre with fresh information and an encouraging take on where we may be headed.

2. I also read An Introduction to Womanist Biblical Interpretation by Nyasha Junior this month. I know Nyasha through Twitter, the subject matter is a bit of a blind spot for me, and I wanted to support her while learning more. This book offers a brief overview of the history of womanist thought, a contrast to feminism, and names notable figures and their methods within the movement. One of the most interesting points to me was how difficult womanism is to define. While there exist several definitions that people have ventured and to which many refer, there have been so many nuances to it that Nyasha argues that one must pay attention to the particular scholar than anything else. I found it an informative read, and it gives plenty of leads to other works in order to learn more.

3. I've been watching and enjoying the first few episodes of Ash vs. Evil Dead, where Bruce Campbell reprises his role from the films--chainsaw hand and all--to combat the forces of darkness summoned by the Neconomicon, aka the Book of the Dead. The show retains all the gore and humor from the movies, and is an incredibly fun and faithful return to that world. It also has the benefit of vastly improved special effects and Lucy Lawless as Ash's no-nonsense foil. I was excited when this show was first announced, and so far I haven't been disappointed.

4. I finally got around to seeing Inside Out this month, starring the voices of Amy Poehler, Mindy Kaling, and Lewis Black among others as the various emotions inside a young girl's head. I would rank this among Pixar's best offerings, as it combines humor and more touching moments to portray the joys and struggles of growing up, moving, adjustment, and relationships. The artistic imagining of how the brain processes feelings, thoughts, dreams, and memories was creative and well done, and the room got a little dusty for me more than once.

5. We saw Mockingjay Part 2 this past weekend, the final installment of movies based on the Hunger Games book series. Since the last book was split into two movies, it picks up where the last left off with Peeta recently rescued yet brainwashed by the Capital, and Katniss and the rest of District 13 wondering how to finally topple the oppressive regime. While each book and its film adaptation has been intense in its own way, I think this was bound to be moreso given what the group has to do and events near the end of the story. It shows the horrors of war without romanticizing it, and how easily the ones advocating revolution can quickly become the new oppressors. It was at times painful and gut-wrenching to watch, but people who have read the books know that going in.

6. So I was driving someplace minding my own business when the local community station played a song called "One Time" by Marian Hill, and I've been listening to their whole debut EP, Sway, ever since. They're a duo of a singer and electronic musician in the vein of Phantogram, but their songs tend to be lower key and more sultry. It's the perfect album for sinking into the couch with wine and your special friend. Here's the song that got me hooked:

7. This week Five Iron Frenzy released an EP titled Between Pavement and Stars, which is a collection of B-sides from their Engine of a Million Plots recording sessions. It includes the provocative "God Hates Flags," which had been previously released, and a remixed version of "Blizzards and Bygones," which is particularly haunting. I pretty much love everything that Five Iron does, and this is no exception. Here's a live performance of the title track from a couple years ago:

Monday, November 23, 2015

Programming Notes

This time of year always brings a few special features on the blog, and as usual I wanted to let readers know about them beforehand.

First, the beginning of Advent will bring my "Mondays of Advent" posts, where I offer reflections on my journey through the season in the hope that they may be meaningful for your own.

Then will come the Year-End Pop Culture Roundup, which is my summary of what I read, heard, and watched throughout the year, and my top choices for each. I always have fun putting that one together.

So that's what you can look forward to seeing here over the course of the next month. In the meantime, I hope you are filled with peace and surrounded by love this Thanksgiving.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Vintage CC: I Can't Fix You

This post comes from October 2012. I've been trying to live by what I say here, remembering that I can only do so much in the face of individual or church-wide problems. I'm not called to fix people's issues, but to walk with them as they deal with them.

When you try your best but you don't succeed 
When you get what you want but not what you need 
When you feel so tired but you can't sleep 
Stuck in reverse 

And the tears come streaming down your face 
When you lose something you can't replace 
When you love someone but it goes to waste 
Could it be worse? 

Lights will guide you home 
And ignite your bones 
And I will try to fix you

Every once in a while, a movie is made featuring an unlikely, unorthodox mentor figure who transcends him or herself in order to help another character see how they can be more than they are. The title character of Mr. Holland's Opus used unconventional ways to get through to certain difficult students, having heartwarming talks with a clarinet player to feel the music rather than read it and taking another to the graveside of a former student to show him what music can do. And, in simple Hollywood fashion, these kids would understand. He broke through. In a way, he fixed them.

I also think of Sean McGuire in Good Will Hunting, who took on the arduous task of getting down to the core of the title character's troubles, connecting with him in a way that everyone else failed to do. He ended up teaching him about life, love, regret, and ways to channel his gifts into something good and productive.

It's not really a newsflash to anybody that life hardly ever resembles Hollywood. Stories and problems aren't solved in an hour and half. The lead character in our narrative doesn't always win the game. And at least when it comes to ministry, but in many other vocations as well, he or she doesn't always have the right answer for the person he or she is trying to help.

At any given time, a pastor may be called to minister to people with such a diverse range of problems: cancer, depression, financial hardship, difficulties that come with aging, loss. It would be nice to be able to say the right thing in all of these cases, or do the right thing that would make these problems go away. But I don't always know the right thing. Sometimes there is no right thing. The problem is what it is, deeper or more chronic or beyond what I can do. Sometimes it's more a matter of the person needing to realize something about him or herself before things can change. Other times, things just seem to have little hope of changing.

As badly as I often want to be the one who fixes everyone around me, as often as I want to be everyone's savior, it is an important lesson for me to realize that someone already took the title of Messiah, and it wasn't me.

When I served as a hospital chaplain for a summer, my CPE supervisor would talk about "feel good visits." These were the visits with patients who didn't have something seriously wrong with them, or were especially personable, or seemed to have a positive outlook, and so on. These were the easy visits, the ones that made you feel competent and like you were making a difference; even like you had helped fix something. But of course there were the other visits: the ones where someone didn't feel like talking, or couldn't discern whether God was present or cared, or had given up hope. These are the ones where a way to help, a way to fix the problem, wasn't as clear-cut or apparent at all. They're the visits that sent me trudging back to the nurse's station wondering whether I'd just done anything worthwhile at all.

In ministry, there are feel-good moments and there are the other kind. And a big part of wanting to fix someone else's problem is really a result of making the problem about us: we want to feel good, or competent, or like Jesus' stand-in. When we make fixing others' problems about us, we'll likely be even less of a help than we would be otherwise.

As much as I'd like to be Mr. Holland or Sean McGuire or Jesus, I can't. I'm not. I don't have the perfect solution for everything. I can't fix others. I can barely fix myself most of the time.

But I can at least walk with you, pray with you, cry with you, sit in the ashes with you.

That is, if I can get out of my own way. I hope I can at least do that.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Writing as Constant Existential Crisis

Being a writer is weird.

One minute, you're working hard on something. You get past the block, you're tuned in, and the words just seem to flow out of your fingers faster than you can generate them. You're in the zone. It comes naturally.

Then you set it aside for a day. An hour. Ten minutes. And the next time you look at it, you think, "What have I done? What is this pile of filth that I am looking at on the screen? Everyone is going to hate this and I hate myself for thinking otherwise. I need to start over."

And in the moments when you have the courage, or the absolute gall, to release what you've written into the world, and you realize maybe it isn't that bad after all, maybe then you can breathe again. Or not. Because someone who will hate it might still be out there. A few of them might actually make themselves known. And it might cause you to work harder to make your points clearer and your imagery more vivid.

Or it might make you want to throw your laptop out the window. If you're lucky, it will land on one of the people criticizing you.

Lately, my problem has been comparing myself to others. Someone I deeply admire and respect just released a book on a topic similar to mine. And my first reaction was to think, without reading it, what an absolute gift he had just given the world. The fact that it took him so long to write such a work is mystifying, but now others may benefit from the wisdom of his prose.

My second thought was, "His book is going to be way better than mine. I should just quit. Game over, man."

Being a writer is weird. And it makes you think weird things about yourself. And it makes you think weird things about yourself in relation to other writers.

But their voice is not yours. Their life experience is not yours. Their style is not yours. And yours is not theirs either. You wouldn't do things the way they do it, or they you, and that's what makes each of you who you are as writers, let alone human beings.

So I think I've moved past my latest bout of self-loathing. I remember that I write as me, and people might benefit from it and others might hear the same point better from someone else. That's okay, so long as I stay true to how I best can say what I want to say.

And so I press on in the way I know, hoping that it's clear. Hoping that someone will hear it as I intended. Hoping that I can let go of the doubts and the unfair comparisons and just write as me. And I can sit back, look at what I've produced, and be satisfied.

But ten minutes later, who knows?

Being a writer is weird.

Monday, November 09, 2015

8 Reasons the Worship Dichotomy Is Killing Worship

I end up reading a lot of online articles about worship. Every so often, one seems to capture the attention of a decent cross section of my social media newsfeed, usually in service of the same basic point: purporting to lift up the value of "traditional" worship over and against "contemporary" worship based on allegedly objective criteria.

The latest in this vein that has picked up steam the past few weeks is one entitled 8 Reasons the Worship Industry is Killing Worship. Like so many before it, it presents a list of reasons why contemporary praise music is the worst thing to happen to Christian worship in the past century (which is what people said about organs and hymns when they were first introduced...but I digress).

This article includes reasons such as "its sole purpose is to make us feel something," "it hijacks worship," "it's derivative of mainstream commercial music," and so on. While generally these points are worth engaging and do offer some valid critique of the temptation and tendencies that one form of worship offers, it also exhibits some temptations and tendencies that one who fights so hard to ridicule the thing one doesn't like chooses to ignore about what they do like.

Last year, I wrote at some length about this in response to another such article. But because articles written in list form have become so popular and engage these topics in a different way, I'll go ahead and give this a shot.

So, here are 8 reasons the usual worship dichotomy needs to be let go:

1. It ignores that every form of worship employs or appeals to emotion. One of the oldest and most tiresome talking points in the worship wars is that contemporary worship only appeals to emotion, whereas traditional worship engages the intellect. This argument mainly appeals to the words and structure of praise music vs. hymns, but inevitably spills over into other elements that each form includes. At the same time, it conveniently ignores that traditional worship includes poetically crafted prayers and songs, sanctuaries and altars specially decorated according to the church calendar, and artistic images such as stained glass, i.e., elements that engage the senses. Every form of worship appeals to emotion, just in different ways.

2. It breeds elitism. It's a short jump from the first point to this one, where traditional worship gets set up as being for the intellectually engaged while contemporary worship is for the consumeristic unwashed masses. More than once have I heard criticism of the latter as being the kind where one is able to "leave their brain at the door." But again, this ignores elements common to all forms of worship even if they manifest differently. And more to this second point, it demeans people who don't share one's own tastes. Just like Jesus would do. Or not.

3. It downplays the fact that a single form of worship doesn't engage everyone in the same way. Can we just be honest that not everyone likes organ music, and no amount of exposure to it is going to change their minds? What you may hear as carefully-crafted verses beautifully played on an instrument that has been the church standard for centuries (but again, not as many centuries as one presumes), others will always hear as dirges played on that thing that sits in the corner of Grandma's living room. Meanwhile, they may see that another church is utilizing the same instruments and style that they listen to the entire rest of the week, and that speaks to them. Why can't we give people permission--without looking down our noses at them, mind you--to embrace that for themselves?

4. It assumes that one form of worship is performance-based and another isn't. Years ago I attended a service at a very tall-steeple church. They had a full brass section that played during the hymns, and the last one in particular was so soaring and majestic with that added component that many were stirred to applaud after it concluded. But contemporary worship is the style that gets criticized for having the band up front "performing." Think of a time when the choir sang a piece so well-harmonized and moving (there go those pesky emotions again). How often are you objectively thinking about how they added to the worship moment as opposed to how beautiful you found it personally? As with other points discussed so far, performance elements transcend specific styles.

5. It sets certain liturgical elements as absolute criteria for what is worship and what isn't. In the Reformed tradition, there are four basic components to worship: Gathering, Hearing the Word, Responding, Sending Forth. It's a logical, well-reasoned pattern that many churches use with tweaks and caveats. Some churches put preaching at the forefront, others especially lift up the sacraments. The criticism offered in the linked piece above worries that music is made too central in certain forms of worship. And yet that might be what people most connect to; where they most find God. They might not experience it most fully in a sermon or prayer or even at the communion table, at least at first. Insisting that certain elements in worship are more crucial than others may deny someone else an encounter with the divine.

6. It's willfully blind to the preferred form's shortcomings. It may be hard to believe, but your favorite worship form has some blind spots. Not everyone is into hymns and sermons that sound like academic theology lectures. And not everyone is into 20 to 30-minute sets of praise songs followed by 30 to 45-minute TED talk-like expositions. And the people who don't like your style will tell you why. That's okay. Maybe there's something worth learning from the critique if it's offered constructively, and if you can handle the thought that more than one form can help connect people to God.

7. It's willfully blind to the criticized form's strengths. It also may be hard to believe the exact opposite of what I just said. Not only might there be some ways your favorite style could improve, there are also ways the style you don't like is actually doing okay. But again, handling the thought of more than one form connecting people to God, etc.

8. It offers a compartmentalized view of worship in general. We're in a cultural moment in American Christianity where distinct services don't matter as much as they used to. Sure, many still love their candles and incense and many want their guitars and drums. But we're past the point where starting a "contemporary" service as a complement to the "traditional" is no longer ground-breaking or sought after the way it used to be. Many worship communities are finding a blend of the two, taking the best of what each has to offer, or foregoing both entirely for something more contemplative and allowing for silence and reflection. The old traditional/contemporary argument is passe for many, as more realize that there are multiple ways to seek a connection with God beyond the old dichotomy.

So the question becomes: can we celebrate that there's more than one way to worship? Can we let go of our own preferences enough to wish others well on their own journey rather than insist that they walk the same path? That seems much more productive than going round and round in the same way on this.

Thursday, November 05, 2015

Small Sips Is Hunting Unicorns

File under: nice things that will never happen.  Jan at A Church for Starving Artists has been one of my favorite bloggers for many years now. I like reading her because she's constantly needling the church's sacred cows and pushing the church to think about things in new, often radical ways.

So here's a recent post she wrote about members' attendance habits, and whether that might be afforded to pastors, too:
Seminarians considering professional ministry in church contexts are not only choosing to give up their weekends for the foreseeable future, but the realities of professional ministry will also require giving up most evenings and weekdays as well. One stellar pastor I know recently announced to his congregation that he is giving up professional ministry to seek secular work – and not because he was an unsuccessful or unloved pastor. He wants his weeknights back. He wants his weekends back. He wants to be the Dad on the sidelines at soccer games on Saturday or in the kitchen making Sunday pancakes. He wants to be able to travel on weekends to see his extended family – sort of like everyone else. 
I get this. But I have an idea: What if pastors were not expected to be worship every Sunday either? 
I know some seasoned pastors who finagle one Sunday a month “off” and we all call them slackers (or geniuses.) But what if we gave every pastor one Sunday a month off for self-care or family time or the ability to feed her/his own soul in another church’s worship gathering? A rested/emotionally satisfied pastor = an effective pastor.
Confession time: sometimes I think like the pastor referenced above. I dream of having a job where I come home around 5 or 6 at night and then...stay home. And then I do whatever I want on Saturday and Sunday, including maybe take a trip somewhere for the whole weekend. But then I remember what's great about being a pastor and I put those thoughts aside until the next time they sound enticing, which is usually when I'm feeling frustrated about something. But Sundays off are one of my unicorns: they're rare, and I rejoice once I finally find one.

I suspect that many pastors would love Jan's idea and many congregants would not. I suspect that many pastors at least occasionally have feelings similar to what she describes, but the real entertainment of such a notion would cause many to exclaim things like, "They chose this profession and thus they chose this life schedule," or "Worship is the most important church activity of the week and thus our pastor needs to be there," or "For all the money we're paying you, you should take part no matter what" (this one I've actually heard).

But it remains that pastors need rest in order to be effective, and churches need to take an intentional role in helping assure that pastors get what they need so that in turn the church can get what it needs from the pastor. Jan's is one of many options, and honestly it sounds wonderful. But it'd take a lot of convincing.

The church is not a building. But it kind of is. Sometimes. Sort of. Have you been reading the UCC's New Sacred blog? If you aren't, you should be. There are many talented writers contributing there and they let me hang out with them sometimes. One recent example of the thoughtfulness that you can find there is by Emily Heath as she reflects on how churches use their buildings:
I pastor a congregation with a beautiful, historic building from the late 1700s, one that inspires people to walk in off the street to explore it. 
While we value our history as a congregation, the members of my church have been adamant about this building being more than a clubhouse for ourselves. We have our Sunday services of course, all held in a sanctuary that is both beautiful and functional. 
But we also open our doors to AA three times a week. We host community lectures and events. We open our columbarium for all who wish their ashes to be buried. We grow vegetables in our community garden. And we host whiffle ball games out back in the summer and pass out candy from the big front doors on Halloween. 
I will never willingly pastor a church that loves its building more than it loves Jesus; but I will always jump at the chance to serve where the people are willing to use every resource they have in creative ways to serve God and their communities. Including their building.
I have kind of a love/hate relationship with church buildings. On the one hand, one of my favorite spiritual practices is sitting or walking in empty sanctuaries and I'm energized by churches that constantly steward their facilities for groups inside and outside the church. On the other hand, buildings can suck up a lot of a congregation's time, energy, finances, and anxiety to the detriment of ministry and mission.

Emily proposes a healthy way of looking at the building as part of a congregation's ministry rather than a gate to be guarded and the sum of a church's purpose. That's unhealthy. Seeing the building itself as part of the mission? Healthy. Would that more churches could loosen their protective stance over the building in order to see this.

Yet another church growth post. Tim Brown posts three reasons people aren't joining your church, plus one more, which ends up being four, so why didn't he just say four...whatever. Anyway:
But it is true (and has become one of my mantras): people will put up with crappy theology for good programming. And they will because, at the end of the day, at the end of the Beth Moore Bible Study where they’ve really only found one thought helpful in the half-hour but tons that they’re not sure they can swallow (though the company was good and the treats were tasty), after that sermon by that pastor where fear of the “______ agenda” (choose your favorite boogeyman, from either side of the spectrum) was trumpeted, they’ll go home and still think what they want to think. 
They’ll still believe what they want to believe. 
When I say “programming,” I know you’re thinking of clubs and initiatives and activities. And that’s part of it. But I’m talking more about a general feeling, a general ambiance, a general approach to life and ministry and the work of God in the world. I’m not talking about struggling churches needing to “do” more, necessarily. I’m talking about struggling churches needing to change the way they are experienced more.
The key to the post is that last line, as Brown outlines ways churches need to change their atmosphere: caring for the grounds, showing energy in worship, giving the sense that joining is worthwhile. There are many churches that slog along looking bored, taking their existence for granted, inspiring no one. A vibrant church is a church that seems worth being a part of.

File under: pop culture references that might give away my age. Alan Rudnick dares to suggest that your church is not meant to be like Cheers:
One of the best part of the television show Cheers is that everyone knew the character Norm! He’d walk in and the bar would shout, “Norm!” The reality is not everyone knew Norm. The main characters knew Norm. What about all those people who came for the first time? Did everyone in the bar call their name out when they entered the door? 
Often in church growth, evangelism, vision or mission campaigns, leaders are afraid to invite others and reach out. The myth about churches is that we have to get everyone to agree. We cannot alienate anyone. This is often the reason why new vision statements fail, new worship services fail, or changes in worship fail: they’ll offend someone. Often that someone is the “Norm” of the church. We have to keep Norm, Sam, Cliff, Carla and Woody happy. If you want to keep the main characters always a small known group, then your church will not reach new people.
The church-as-Cheers argument that I've always heard is that the church should be a friendly place "where everybody knows your name." Does that apply to just the regulars, or do people make an effort to do the same for new attendees? This is part of the vibrancy encouraged in Brown's article. If you want your church to reach out to new people, you need to move beyond just the Norms.

The pep talk you need. I think that all parents at all stages of raising children occasionally need someone to say, "You're awesome. You got this. Now get back in there!" Brant Hansen has written an excellent one especially for new fathers, but I think it's adaptable for parents of any gender or age:
You miss hanging out with other adults. Another family invites you over for a simple dinner, but getting out the door is a logistical nightmare on the order of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Procuring a babysitter requires more energy than a “date night” seems to be worth. You can’t go anywhere, even out for a quick coffee with somebody, without lengthy, Kissinger-esque negotatiating and bargaining over who’s really due the time “off”. 
Dinnertime through bedtime? The Witching Hour. Brutal. You want to bail with your laptop, and let your wife handle things. 
I know how this goes down. 
But it gets better. I’m serious.
What follows is a list of things to keep in mind or to do along the way to help keep you and your parenting partner sane. The whole thing is just a great read.

Misc. Six ways to cultivate a contemplative practice. Emily Scott on her faith community's practice of "dinner church." Thinking ahead to next year, some ideas for your church's Halloween festival. The Internet Monk's Chaplain Mike with a lesson on handling failure according to Martin Luther.

Monday, November 02, 2015

Book Review: Sight in the Sandstorm by Ann J. Temkin

My hope is that Sight in the Sandstorm will contribute in some small way to a healing of the terrible wounds between Jews and Christians, and it will also help other “half breeds” like myself. I hope to offer some comfort, including some to the many who have left a Christian church deeply wounded by an abusive system, injustice, or small-mindedness. Jesus opposed all oppression, abuse, and coldness of heart. And for those who have been and continue to be part of the Christian community, while these pages may surprise and bring some discomfort, I hope they will also delight you. And for readers of other religions traditions, or those who identify with none but are curious about spiritual journeys or about this “Jesus,” I hope you will be both interested and moved. - Ann J. Temkin, Sight In The Sandstorm

Some of my favorite seminary memories involve occasional visits to Central Reform Congregation in St. Louis on Friday evenings. I and several friends would partake of the service, respectfully aware of our status as visitors to another faith's practices, but also perhaps eager to hear a word that would help broaden our sense of the divine presence and help us remember that we were and are part of a larger human community that knows that presence in a different way.

The Friday night service was a little more informal, with a duo or trio of musicians on acoustic guitars and djembe leading the songs, and the rabbi teaching from the floor, close to the gathered community. We seminarians came to treasure the insight of Rabbi Talve (some of us would eventually take a class on Jewish-Christian dialogue with her co-teaching), as well as her encouragement to us to be at our best in our own faith tradition while also remembering to "get out of the way" of what God wishes to do. The time after the service always featured breaking the challah and enjoying fellowship together. The warmth and peace that I experienced at this synagogue helped shape my sense of God and my relationship with other faiths, as well as my love for St. Louis and the diversity that makes up its population.

In her book Sight in the Sandstorm: Jesus in His World and Mine, Ann J. Temkin invites the reader into a similar journey of shaping and reshaping. Temkin's story is one of living between two worlds: the Judaism of her father and the Christianity of her mother, and all that came with that in the first half of the 20th Century. Her family settled in the United States in 1937, and not only kept up with what news they could find regarding the horrifying events in Germany that would start a few years later, but also dealt with the anti-Jewish discrimination they'd find in their new homeland as well. Temkin's family life was one of mixed faith: celebrating Christmas like many of her friends, yet at the same time cultivating a very different understanding of Yeshua bar Joseph, the man born and raised within Jewish tradition.

This book is Temkin's exploration of some of the stories about Jesus from the perspective of that worldview. Every chapter features at least one Gospel account, fleshed out to give a better idea of what it would have been like for a small band of Galilean Jews to wander the countryside interacting with others, how Jesus might have understood himself and what may have informed his teachings and interactions, and how the disciples and others may have reacted to him. The resulting stories are filled with insightful details regarding customs, dynamics between the factions of the day, and why much of how Jesus approached tradition and relationships would have seemed so scandalous, off-putting, or inspiring, depending on the point of view.

Interlaced with these accounts are snippets from Temkin's own life, the inclusion of which seems to have a twofold purpose. First, she simply wishes to show how her understanding and experience of faith has developed in her own life. Second, the stories she chooses help provide a more contemporary example of the same issue addressed by Jesus. One example is her experience of a plane hijacking and their eventual rescue at the hands of the Cuban government (this was in 1971, a decade after the Missile Crisis) coupled with Jesus telling the parable of the Samaritan, inviting his audience to rethink who one's neighbor could be. Another is a story spanning several chapters of her and a group of friends organizing a vibrant ecumenical evening liturgy in a Catholic church and its opposition by higher-ups coupled with stories of Jesus interacting with Temple authority.

I found both Temkin's own stories and her imaginative re-telling of Jesus' stories well-written, insightful, and enriching. That said, Temkin basically has written two different books, and each seem to distract from the other.

I think that her versions of the Gospel accounts could easily stand alone as a creative piece of historical fiction about Jesus' life much like Alan Green's The Silent Years. She draws so well from what we know about the cultural climate and religious traditions of the day that a separate work could be informative for anyone seeking a greater understanding of what Jesus' time might have been like. The imagery is vivid and would make for a great book for personal or small group use.

Temkin's own life story is equally captivating and would serve as a memoir of diverse faith and family experiences, which could give hope and assurance for many unsure of where to turn next in their own disillusionment with organized religion. Her recounting of the hijacking and her group's clash with church authority were so engrossing that I found myself skipping over the Jesus interludes to read what happened to her next!

The concept of Sight in the Sandstorm is well-taken and worth attempting, but for me the execution didn't seem to work. Ultimately, I believe that anyone who reads it will gain something from each set of stories. If I ever hear that Temkin is writing follow-ups to flesh out one or the other, I'll know enough about its potential quality beforehand to give it a look.

(I was sent a free copy of this book to review by the Speakeasy blogging book review network. My opinions are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.)