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Review: After the Funeral

After the Funeral
After the Funeral by Agatha Christie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was a wonderful diversion during a very full schedule of meetings in this past week. Agatha Christie always seems good for that and why I chose her for a break from serious reading during some serious discussions.

Leaving aside the personal stuff, the relatives of deceased estate owner Richard Abernethy are gathered for the reading of his will following his funeral. He had been ill but nevertheless had died rather suddenly in his sleep. Entwhistle, the family lawyer has just announced that the proceeds will be divided in six equal shares among the family when Cora Lansquenet, a daffy niece known for saying what she thinks, pipes up and asks, “But he was murdered, wasn’t he?” The fuss dies down until the next day when Cora is brutally hatcheted to death, in what appears to be a break-in. At this point, Entwhistle’s suspicions are aroused and his informal discussions with family members only deepen the impression that any of them could be involved in this murder, and presumably Richard’s. And so he calls in Poirot, an old friend.

Tension deepens when Mrs. Gilchrist, Cora’s housekeeper and companion, suffers a serious poisoning incident with an arsenic-laced piece of wedding cake. It appears there is a desperate killer set on wiping out anyone who might have a notion of who committed the murder. When Helen Abernethy realizes who is responsible, she is struck on the head and knocked out, just on the point of revealing the truth to Entwhistle.

Poirot deduces the true killer from what she did say and reveals the killer in one of those typical library scenes where the whole family is gathered. Of course, I will leave the fun of discovering the murderer to your reading. Having read some Christie, I would say that it was a bit of a surprise, and yet not a surprise at all. Have fun with that!

I came by this book as a free giveaway as part of World Book Night, which has suspended operations for lack of funding. Even if you have to buy this, I think you will find it a diverting and worthwhile read.

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Review: People-Pleasing Pastors: Avoiding the Pitfalls of Approval-Motivated Leadership

People-Pleasing Pastors: Avoiding the Pitfalls of Approval-Motivated Leadership
People-Pleasing Pastors: Avoiding the Pitfalls of Approval-Motivated Leadership by Charles Stone
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

No well-adjusted person likes to displease people. But allowing the approval of others to unduly shape what we do and why we do it can be harmful both to our sense of self and to the life of the organizations and groups of which we are a part. This is a particular danger for pastors of churches. In many cases, pastors are hired by the local congregation, and as a volunteer organization, the effectiveness of pastors rests on the goodwill and support of church members. In addition, church boards may be peopled by those who view their position as a personal fiefdom of power and influence that pastors may be reluctant to challenge.

Charles Stone’s book is based on research conducted by Lifeway Ministries with thousands of pastors. He integrates research findings, biblical material and knowledge from the world of neuroscience to help pastors understand the dangers of people-pleasing, the tendencies in one’s own life to do so, and strategies to deal with these tendencies. He contends that our tendencies to people please are driven by the emotional parts of our brains and that when we grow in emotional maturity, we are less apt to fall into this pitfall.

Stone advocates a seven step approach to this growth, summarized in the idea of becoming a PRESENT leader. This consists first of “Probing your past”–discovering the past patterns in your life, your family and your church that shape your emotional responses. This is followed by “Revisiting your values”, so that these serve as the basis of responses when you are tempted to people-please. Third, he advocates “Exposing your triangles” so that we understand both the normal triangles of relationships in our lives and avoid being triangled, a situation in which we become tempted to fix an unhealthy relationship between two others. “Search your gaps” involves recognizing the particular kinds of people-pleasing patterns to which you are most prone. This is followed by learning to “Engage your critics” by learning calm presence with anxious others. Sixth, you “Nurture your soul through mindfulness”, which involves becoming fully attentive to God and one’s situations through biblical meditation and practices of mindful attentiveness. Finally, he urges “Taming your reactivity”, the ways one might keep their cool under pressure, avoiding the disastrous outbursts that make conflict resolution more difficult.

The book concludes with an interesting exploration of the danger of being a placebo pastor, looking at the early use of “Placebo” in Chaucer as a “yes man” who made others feel better. Stone advocates for living to please God in faithfulness to one’s call.

Three appendices include a seven day devotional resource to included biblical mindfulness, a study guide for using this book with a board or leadership team, and a description of the research methodology undergirding the book.

This book is part of the InterVarsity Press Praxis series and is indeed a very practical resource for pastoral practice. It asks but does not answer the important question of one’s values in pastoral work, something hopefully shaped by one’s sense of calling. In this regard, I might commend Eugene Peterson’s many books, but especially his Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity and his Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work. These might be helpful if one struggles to “revisit one’s values” as Stone recommends.

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Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Keeping Cool

Maybe I’m thinking of this because it is a warm day and I’m grateful for our air conditioner. I’m reminded of the fact that growing up in working class Youngstown, almost none of our homes had air conditioners, so we had to find other ways to keep cool. Here’s ten ways I can think of that we kept cool:

1. Swimming at the local pool. For me it was Borts Pool on the West Side–for others it was Pemberton or North Side. We could get in for a dime for the whole afternoon. If your family was a bit more mobile, places like Yankee Lake or Pymatuming provided relief from the summer heat.

2. Your basement. Most homes had basements that were below ground and were considerably cooler.

3. A movie theater. Back then the theaters often advertised their air conditioning, especially in the summer. An afternoon double-feature, no matter how bad was often a cheap way to buy several hours of cool.

Newport Theater

Newport Theater

4. A ride in a convertible with the top down. Yeah, you felt a bit road grimy afterwards, but sailing along with the breeze in your face felt great!

5. Your front porch. Lots of homes had front porches. Our had big green awnings that kept the porch shady all day and bushes on our western exposure to keep out the late afternoon sun. If there was any breeze at all, it was comfortable. Most evenings, that’s where you’d find my folks until the late night news.

6. A big electric fan often kept the house cool at night. Many of the older homes had windows that allow for decent air circulation. In our house, we’d have a fan on that would suck the hot air out a back window, pulling in the night air through the front.

Box fan

Box fan

7. The DQ, Isaly’s or Handels would at least cool off our mouths.

8. During the day, there were popsicles which did the same thing. Double popsicles were great, except that if you split them and planned to eat both, you had to eat the first really quickly! I always like grape.

Popsicles!

Popsicles!

9. Most of the downtown stores were air-conditioned, and there were always Strouss’ malts in their bargain basement!

10. Often while waiting to pick up newspapers for my paper route, we’d hang out at a nearby gas station with a pop machine–one that dispensed bottles. As long as we drank them on site, we didn’t need to leave a deposit–just drop them in the wood trays for the bottling company to pick up.

Air conditioning was a major expenditure that was beyond many of our family’s budgets back then. To replace the old heating systems in most of our homes with a heating and A/C unit would have been costly, and most of our homes weren’t insulated very well and so cooling would be costly. But we still found ways to stay relatively cool.

What were your favorite ways of staying cool?

Reviewing and Reading Deeply

Earlier in the week, I reviewed Dallas Willard’s last book, Living in Christ’s PresenceIn this post I included Willard’s advice for readers:  “Aim at depth, not breadth. If you get depth, you will have breadth thrown in. If you aim at breadth, you will get neither depth nor breadth (p. 149).

I’ve been chewing on what Willard said. As is apparent, I read quite a few books–some for enjoyment and some to go deeper in my understanding of life and the world. Doing a book blog that includes reviews is a bit of a double-edged sword in this effort to “aim at depth.”

One the one hand, the reason I began writing reviews and continue to do so is simply to both remember and engage what I’ve read. This happens in several ways for me. One is, knowing that I will write a review, I pay closer attention to the plot or argument, because usually I will want to summarize it and do so accurately. Also, while I’m reading, I’m thinking about my evaluation of the book, the soundness of the logic and evidence, the plausibility of plot and characters, and how I am reacting to the writing style. Being an introvert, I do this mentally rather than spending a lot of time writing in margins or journalling about the book. I’m like this with presentations I do as well, where I work out in my head my thoughts before I write (yet I’m also surprised by the act of writing and the insights that come as I write, something that has arisen from blogging). All this means I go deeper with a book than I might otherwise. And I remember it better.

But I’m also thinking of the transition from a casual reviewer to something more. Now, I sometimes receive books for review, which I will do if they interest me. The transition has been from simply writing reviews to remember and crystallize in my mind what I’ve read to reading in order to write reviews and have these engage others. To be honest, it tempts me to try to read more and even think, what kinds of books would those who follow the blog like to see reviewed? As I ask this I’m reminded that I’m reading a book on people-pleasing, and it occurs to me that this might be a version of people pleasing.

I think what I’m coming to are a couple questions to keep in mind as I engage in this process. One is, am I still enjoying reading?  If it just becomes work in order to produce reviews, forget this, especially since this isn’t a paying gig! A second question is, am I reading deeply enough, and listening carefully enough to not simply comprehend the book and to be able to review it but to be changed by it if I am convinced by its conclusions or “re-oriented” by what it shows me of reality?

Does that mean I’ll read fewer books? I have to say that I don’t know the answer to that. I think if I can truthfully say “yes” to my two questions, the number of books will take care of themselves.

I’d love to know what other bibliophiles think about reading widely, reading deeply and the number of books you read!

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

It’s a hidden reality that is a grief some of my friends carry, and something some of my colleagues and I have been talking about this week. It is the challenge many of our friends who are believing graduate students and faculty face. It is that they are understood neither by their departments in the university nor the people in their churches. Universities often don’t get or actively challenge the “believing” part. And the church often doesn’t know what to do with the “faculty” or “graduate student” part.

The university’s response can be somewhat puzzling given the emphases on “tolerance” and “open inquiry” and “pursuit of truth”. Sadly, there is often an intolerant edge to tolerance, an a priori decision to rule out certain beliefs from discussion, and a reluctance to admit the possibility that if some things are true, others may not be.

While I could do a blog just on this (and may at some point) I want to focus on faculty in the church. Often the sense faculty get in the church is that the university is “the enemy”, and therefore they are a bit suspect. Sometimes the rigorous process of questioning that goes on in every academic discipline arouses suspicion that secretly they are at work undermining the faith of students. Sometimes faculty are thought of as simply these really smart people who do things that are incomprehensible to the average parishioner. Then there are the times that faculty hear discussions of science or technology drawn more from talk radio programs than serious research that they know are based on erroneous notions. This is most difficult when they hear these things from the pulpit.

On this matter of questioning, questioning is at the heart of academic work. The posing of questions is seen not as a means to undermine belief but to pursue greater understanding. On the incomprehensibility of academic work, there is an element of truth in that as you read some academic papers. The truth is that none of us has the technical knowledge to understand everything in the research world. But I’ve been amazed that many of these people are the kind of good teachers who can take complex things and explain them on a level where I can get at least a basic idea of their work if I’m willing to devote the attention. And how interesting it could be if pastors and others consulted with faculty who have expertise in certain areas when those areas arise in sermons, classes, or board discussions.

One of the things to be considered is that believing faculty and graduate students are part of the body of Christ.  When the faculty and grad student part of the body is hurting, it affects the rest of the body. And when the gifts of the faculty part of the body are welcomed and received, including the gifts related to their academic calling, the rest of the body is immeasurably enriched.

Perhaps one of the greatest challenges is growing in our understanding of what it means to say “all truth is God’s truth”. The difficulty is that we don’t always see how truths in the Bible and truths uncovered in research connect. It seems that part of the problem is how uncomfortable it is when the connections aren’t apparent. Our faculty and grad students can help because many often spend years or entire careers seeking to resolve research questions. In the church, we often seem uncomfortable if we can’t resolve a question in 45 minutes. Yet not all of life’s and the world’s big questions are that easily resolvable.

By the same token, when researchers see something that doesn’t immediately square with their understanding of the Bible, that doesn’t mean the Bible is messed up or wrong. I would propose that we say, “that’s an interesting question, but let’s not jump to conclusions but work on our understanding of how these things connect”

I’d love to hear your experiences of the intersection of church and academia. What’s been hard? And what’s been good?

 

 

Identity Theft

No, I’m not talking about getting your credit card or personal information hijacked or your email hacked. That is a pain, and sometimes a costly one.

Rather, I’m thinking about identity as something more fundamental having to do with who at our core we understand ourselves to be. It seems to me that one of the challenges of our wired world and the multiple situations we find ourselves in is the loss of a sense of self in the myriad of identities we maintain and it may even be that we come to believe that our identity is this ever shifting, situational “something” that lacks any conscious rootedness.

Some of the challenge may be the pace of life. We may so frantically move from this online conversation to that phone call, to this family crisis, to that work project, to this entertainment experience, that we rarely attend to our inner world. Sometimes this frantic pace can be an effective strategy of muting that voice. And we often mistakenly seek to find a sense of self, a sense of identity in these things–work, family and all–and then are at a loss when these are taken away.

In a way, this leads to a possible definition of identity–what is it that cannot be taken away or be defined by situational factors, and are these generated by oneself or external to ourselves. And where can we go to find an identity that cannot be stolen?

This topic of identity came up at breakfast today at the conference I am attending as we discussed the pressures on students and faculty we work with on university campuses and the challenge of living an integrated life that has a sense of wholeness rather than the fragmented lives we often live.

As people of faith, we talked about our relationship with God as the reference point for our identity that makes sense of our inner worlds, our relationships, our work, and our life in the physical world. But I would be interested in how others who follow this blog think about this. Is it ultimate wisdom or a cop out to look to God for a sense of identity that cannot be stolen? How do you answer that challenging question of “who are you?”

On Liminal Space

One of the ways to impress friends (and maybe gain some sympathy if they understand you) is to say that you are in a “liminal space” in your life right now. I’ve come across this idea more and more in the past few years and particularly this week at the conference I am attending. A liminal space is the undefined boundary between two clearly defined spaces. The threshold to my house (the front stoop and entryway) is a liminal space between outdoors and the indoor living areas of my house.

In many instances, this term is used to describe a life transition. Pregnancy is a liminal space between just being a couple and being parents–between something that was familiar and something that will be totally new. It can be the space between losing a job and getting another one. It can be things like “mid-life”, that odd period somewhere in your forties where you realize you are no longer “young”, where you see changes in your body, and you are asking questions again of what’s it all about?

This is actually a good term for something my wife and I have been experiencing. This is the year we enter our seventh decade, complete with Golden Buckeye cards, courtesy of the State of Ohio. A number of our high school and college friends have already retired. While I’m not there yet, we’ve noticed some interesting changes and new questions we are asking.

For one thing, we are becoming far more ruthless in deaccumulating. I was cleaning out a desk we are preparing to sell and discovered old notebooks from seminary and college that I haven’t looked at in 30 to 40 years. And for the first time, I had the courage to say–I don’t need to keep this. I also recently got rid of several boxes of books I realized I either would never read or never look at again. And I feel like we are just getting started.

In my work I’ve found myself moving from simply thinking about my own goals and career development to nurturing these in younger colleagues. While I still have challenging assignments and great ministry opportunities among the students and faculty with whom I work I am thinking more and more about encouraging and empowering others and handing off to a new generation of people in our organization. I’m really not intimidated by that–I want what we are doing to outlast my working years. I find myself thinking more about not simply ending work at some point but wanting to finish well–something older workers don’t always do. In particular, I don’t want to be the old crank!

I’ve found we’ve begun pursuing more avidly interests we just couldn’t consider during the peak years of work and being parents. And so we go painting, take photographs, write blogs and sing music. We’ve learned you can audit courses for free at Ohio public universities when you are sixty and are thinking about this. Health permitting, we expect to have a life after work and it is interesting to begin cultivating what that might be and asking what that will look like.

One thing about liminal spaces is that one is going from high def to low def. I really don’t know what life after work entirely will be like. One of the things we learned today is that it is very tempting to rush the answers to these questions rather than to spend some time lingering with the questions, which often leads to greater self-understanding and better answers. Low def is uncomfortable yet it can be a place for growth.

One would think we’d have life figured out by this point. Wrong! We’ve never been to this part of life before, other than watching parents and older friends go through it. In my faith, we talk about growing in Christ-likeness, or as I like to speak of it, growing into our “size Jesus” clothes (thank you for that image, Andrea!). I’m so glad I still have opportunities to learn and grow, even if it means new questions and uncertainties. It seems to me the only alternative is stagnation, and to me that would be to die before I’m dead! Liminal space seem far better.

 

 

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