Review: The Mystery of Suffering and the Meaning of God

As a pastor, it is probably one of the most received questions that I hear, “Why to bad things happen to good people?” This age old question is known as theodicy. Laytner goes to the depths of this theology through his own personal experiences.

Anson Hugh Laytner retired from a career in nonprofit and academic settings. His reflections are from the lens of a liberal rabbi, thus venturing deep into the book of Job is a natural descent into the suffering found within the Hebrew Bible. He attempts to shed some light on the subject for those that are challenged by the concern of God’s presence.

Laytner’s story begins with enough pain and suffering that it would be understandable to turn away from God and yell at the top of your lungs in anger. He continues to weave his story in and out of the narrative from Job. Interpreting Job in the way of mid-rash, he comes to his own way of dealing with struggle that could assist others that have encountered suffering like Job or even Laytner himself.

The Mystery of Suffering and the Meaning of God will give you a new perspective into living a life that can find a deeper relationship with God. The vulnerability that is shared is also a great example of being open to where healing may occur.

Thanks to Speakeasy for a review copy of this book.

Book Review: Seculosity by David Zahl

Secul… what?

David Zahl presents a lively discourse on what we turn our attention to in the present time. What is it that leads us away from God and what do we treat as our priorities today.

If you have never heard of the term seculosity before, it is because it is of Zahl’s creation. “What’s more, there does seem to be a discernible difference between grounding your hope in something material and something spiritual. Blanketing both groups with such a loaded label could come off as patronizing. Which is why I am proposing a fresh term seculosity. I’m using it as a catchall for religiosity that’s directed horizontally rather than vertically, at earthly rather than heavenly objects” (xxi).

As we get overwhelmed in our daily lives, there are many areas that get prioritized over our dedication to Christ. Zahl ventures into the areas of parenting, work, technology, politics, and much more as we have turned these into our own type of religion. He even ventures into how we co-opt the church and what we have made it to be that is far from the vertical faith that God has originally called us.

Zahl includes a great sense of humor that brings the discourse to heart and one that the reader can relate. While he points to the things that create seculosity, he does conclude the book with “What to ‘do’ about it.” His argument is not that we are less religious than we have been in the past, in fact, we may be more. We have just turned our religion to things that are not the God of creation. He points to the unique position we have as offering the grace of God. However, amid the grace, we are also sin and are broken. To repent of this and be awash of the grace of God is a hope that nothing in the secular world can offer.

Book Review: Dear Church by Lenny Duncan

Let me start out by saying that I feel ill-equipped to offer much of a commentary on the topic of race. Yes, I have attended a multi-day anti-racism training and I have read various books on race relations, but I will never know what it feels like to be a person of color in the church or in our nation. I grew up in a predominantly white town and have lived for a majority of my life in predominantly white towns. The two congregations that I have served have each had one person of color as a member.

The congregations that I have served are exactly the ones that Lenny is writing to in Dear Church: A Love Letter From a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the U.S. I know that to do anything I must stop and listen to those that have experienced discrimination and told to go back to where they came from. I can be present with them and attempt to be a representative of God.

Lenny’s call for a revolution will make many in the church uncomfortable and we will begin to hear the denials of racism stack up. I believe that everyone has at least a bit of racism within them and to begin this conversation we must repent of it. Lenny has allowed himself to become vulnerable in the sharing of his own experiences and his call to action. He is a pastor on the front lines that is truly willing to put his call on the line to do exactly what Jesus.

There are parts in the book that I do not fully understand and yet I am willing to listen and change my own practices if it means that I am able to preach a more inclusive gospel. As he states time and time again, Jesus loves everyone, and if we are to live into our true calling as Christians, we should too. This is a must read so that we can come to an understanding of where the church is today so that we can move into the future. If the ELCA, as the whitest denomination in the U.S., does not confront our heritage and enter the conversation, we vary well may not be around in the near future.

The Gospel of Inclusion by Brandan Robertson, Book Review

There are many books available on the market that explore what it means to be part of the LGBT+ community in the Church of Christ. Those that are opposed to full LGBT+ inclusion often use scripture to make their point known for all that will hear. In the process they often neglect that everyone is created in the image of God.

Brandan Robertson presents a well-researched proclamation as he advocates for a full inclusion of LGBT+ people in the church today. He brings to the forefront that we are all called to be in relationship with God and it is of great importance how we live out that relationship in the rest of our lives. He addresses the six “clobber” passages that have been used time after time to berate the LGBT+ community. These passages have always been taken out of context when used in this manner and as people of God, we have learned a lot as we grow into relationship with one another. Robertson writes, “Any relationship centered on a consensual commitment to sacrificial love for the good of another is a holy relationship, and any attempt to break that commitment is seen as less than God’s desire for humanity.”

This resource compliments his previous offering, True Inclusion, which discussed what it truly meant to be a welcoming church in the world today. Doing such, requires change among our thought patterns and the denigration of those that we see as different. This is not just true for the LGBT+ community, but also for immigrants, gender, race, and any other way that we as broken people decide to divide.

This is not an easy step for the church to take, because of the damage that has been done over time. The Gospel has been co-opted by humanity to use to its own advantage in various times and places. It is time to speak up and be bold in our proclamation. Robertson shares, “We must know that our silence is being complicit in oppression. Silence is opposed to the gospel. We must, in Christ’s name, speak up. We must be willing to sacrifice our positions of privilege, power, and comfort in order to lift up the oppressed and give the voiceless back their voices.”

There is redemption to be found in Christ and we are not called to get in the way of the Holy Spirit working among the people of God. We are called to love and inclusion. Brandan Robertson’s book shares this in a way that is full of wisdom as well as from a full heart that has experienced many things. It speaks boldly and calls us forth in love.

Here is Real Magic by Nate Staniforth: A Review

I first heard about this book on Rob Bell’s podcast, the Robcast. He interviewed the author and I was compelled to read it.

What is it about wonder and mystery that draws us in? What is it that curates our desire for something that moves us to a point of seeking more and wanting to explore the unknown?

Nate Staniforth has lost himself. His life as a magician has left him exhausted, and yet it is all he has ever known and he cannot imagine doing anything else. While reading many books on magic, he recalls hearing of the stories of magicians in India that truly went to the depths of wonder and left people wanting more. This is what he desired for his own magic. Not just simple illusions that he has mastered, like card and coin tricks, but true magic that leaves all in awe.

I’ll have to admit that while reading his memoir, I was left wondering where God was present. While God is never named, mystery and wonder is. Can God be found in the mystery and wonder of magic tricks or illusions? To simply say no to this, would leave us discounting a God that is present in and among everything.

Nate’s journey toward self-discovery leads down some interesting roads where he meets some very interesting people and encounters an India he never would have imagined in the poverty and trash, and yet many of the people seemed very happy. There is a poem that is given to him by someone he has met which he shares. Perhaps it could begin to give a glimpse into what magic truly is.

Bless the magician for knowing something I don’t. The appearance and disappearance of the artifacts of this material world give me an island moment of unknowing, A mystery that gives me relief from the consuming need to question everything, and then to answer it.

Book Review: Shameless by Nadia Bolz-Weber

In her latest book, Nadia Bolz-Weber, opens up a topic that many in the church attempt to stay clear from. While the entire basis of our life on earth is contingent upon our ability to have sex, it has often times been a taboo subject within the church. Many times the church has went to extremes to steer clear of the topic or at its worse, to speak of the evils of it.

I did not grow up in the church and therefore was not too aware of the purity movement that happened within it. I heard a few things along the way, but at that time it didn’t affect me so I did not pay too much attention. It is the purity movement that she directly addresses in the beginning of her book and bringing to the forefront the harm that is has caused over the years.

Like many of her other books, she brings in many stories from her parishioners that help support her thesis. She also speaks of the holiness of being with God and each other. As she compares the two she says that “holiness is about union with, and purity is about separation from.” I believe that it all comes down from this as we are a holy people that are called to live with union with one another.

To attempt to say what is holy and not holy of others is in direct competition with God. God has created each of holy. Every sing part of our bodies. To be with another person in being welcomed into a holy experience. There is nothing that we should be ashamed of. We should not let others make us feel any less.

There is no shame to be felt in our bodies. “God is made known: in the miracle of our infant bodies, so recently come from God that you can smell God on their heads; in the freedom of our child bodies as they were before shame and self-consciousness entered into them; in the confusion of our pubescent bodies and the excitement of our teenage bodies as they become familiar with desire; in the fire and ice of our young adult bodies as they connect with each other; in the goddamn mind-blowing magic of our baby-making bodies; in the wisdom in our aging bodies; and in the so-close-to-God-you-can-smell-God beauty of our dying bodies.” God wants us to be one with our bodies and to know them intimately as they are created in the image of God.

This is a tough message to share as we have avoided the conversation for far too long. It is about time that someone like Nadia brings it the forefront. She has also included some great resources for individuals and congregations to reach out and learn more.

Book Review: Confessions of a Funeral Director by Caleb Wilde

“…the room went from tears to laughter at the drop of a snot.”

It is quips like this that make Caleb Wilde’s book so real. I had purchased it almost as soon as it came out last year and I am sorry that it took me so long to read it. 

As a pastor, I too see death on a regular basis and hear all of the misleading phrases that are meant as comfort and honestly do more harm than good in the long run. As he states in the book, death is real, and grief is real. The narrative that we place around death and dying is really what shapes us as humanity. To be healthy, we must approach it from a positive narrative, however, we are more prone to approach death from a negative narrative. 

The funeral director and the pastor both have a vital role in shaping this for families of the dead, and unfortunately, not all look at death as something to embrace. The stories that are shared are real. They are situations that I have personally experienced as well. They are not unique to Parkesburg, Pennsylvania. They are the stories that we live as humans and ones that are repeated time an time again. 

Overtime, our view of death has been shaped by faulty theology and ill-conceived intentions. I agree with Wilde that death is a sacred experience and not something that we can bring closure to. It is real and our family and friends that have died surround us daily in a great cloud of witnesses. His book is a way into the conversation the breaks us open to love and learning how to just be.

The book reveals how he has found life in the midst of death. How he has grown into his family business and how he has learned to walk with families at their most vulnerable moments. It is a read that may reshape your own preconceived notions of death and the life that emerges from it. 

You can follow Caleb Wilde on his blog.