He Descended into Hell: a book review

Suicide is a hard thing for us to talk about. Someone has died, the circumstance seems unnatural and we don’t know what to say. We feel the stigma and the sting. Personally, I haven’t been really close with anyone who died by suicide but I’ve seen from a distance, the way a suicide can wreck those left behind. I’ve seen people shoulder the grief, shame and anger of suicide after they lost a child, a friend, a pastor. It is hard to sit with them in their pain. Harder still to know what to say. Our pronounced platitudes, which really bring no comfort to grieving people anyway, come off as cruel and tone-deaf after someone has taken their own life.

bruised-and-woundedRonald Rolheiser has written a helpful little booklet, Bruised & Wounded: Struggling to Understand a SuicideRolheiser is a priest, renowned speaker and author of books on Christian spirituality. Here, he approaches the topic of suicide with grace and pastoral sensitivity. I generally would not advocate throwing a book at hurting people, but this is one that I think would be appropriate, welcome and helpful for those in the wake of losing someone they love to suicide.

There several features of this book which commend it. First, it is brief. It is a small book that fits in the palm of your hand and it is just 77 pages long (including table of contents and front matter). People grieving a suicide do not need a complicated theological treatise and this is not that. Second, Rolheiser is careful throughout this book to avoid victim blaming.  Often people react with anger and judgment on the suicidal for their selfishness in taking their own life. But Rolheiser observes:

Just as with physical cancer, the person dying of suicide is taken out of this life against his or her will. Death by suicide is the emotional equivalent of cancer, a stroke or a heart attack. Thus, its patterns are the same as those of cancer, strokes, and  heart attacks. Death can happen suddenly, or it can be the end product of a long struggle that slowly wears a person down. Either way it is involuntary. As human beings, we are neither pure angels nor pure animals, but we are always both body and soul, one psychosomatic whole. And either part can break down (10-11).

Later, he writes:

Many of us have known victims of suicide, and we know too, that in almost every case that person was not full of pride, haughtiness and the desire to hurt anyone. Generally, it’s the opposite. The victim has cancerous problems precisely because he or she is wounded, raw, and too bruised to have the resiliency needed to deal with life. Those who have lost loved ones to suicide know that  the problem is not one of strength but of weakness—the person is too bruised to be touched (20).

and again:

Suicide in most cases, is a disease, not something freely willed. The person dies in this way dies against his or her will, akin to those who jumped to their deaths from the Twin Towers after terrorist planes had set those buildings on fire on September 11, 2001. They were jumping to certain death,  but only because they were already burned to death where they were standing (28-29).

By framing suicide as emotional cancer destroying the person instead of as a self-centered volitional act to ends one’s life, Rolheiser doesn’t minimize the tragedy of suicide, but he does give the victim back to us. Their struggle can be honored and life celebrated.

Third, he doesn’t describe suicide, per se,  as ‘sin.’ So where the Catechism of the Catholic Church  says “‘suicide contradicts the natural inclination of the human being to preserve and perpetuate his life’ and is thus ‘gravely contrary to the just love of self'” (38), Rolheiser draws a distinction between the ordinary suicide —where a sensitive soul is “overpowered by the chaos of life”and the killing of oneself. by the “pathological narcissist acting in strength” to freely end their life (39). It is  the latter, that Rolheiser sees as condemned by the Church, though he notes that the victims of suicide he has known have been ‘the very antithesis of the egoist, the narcissist, or the strong, overproud person who congenitally refuses to take his or her place in the humble, broken structure of things” (39-40).

Fourth, Rolheiser emphasizes throughout the grace of God and the way Jesus comes to meet us in our alienation and brokenness. Reflecting on the line of the creed, He descended into hell, Rolheiser writes:

To say that Christ descended into hell is to, first and foremost say something about God’s love for us and how that love will go to any length, descend to any depth, and go through any barrier in order to embrace a wounded, huddled, frightened and bruised soul. By dying as he did, Jesus showed that he loves us in such a way that his love can penetrate even our private hells, going right through the barriers of hurt, anger, fear and hopelessness (14).

Rolheiser also gives the example of Jesus in John’s gospel, penetrating walls and locked doors to meet the grieving disciples (15). Speaking of one victim of suicide, Rolheiser writes:

I am sure that when the young woman . . .awoke on the other side, Jesus stood inside of her huddled fear and spoke to her, softly and gently, those same words he spoke to his disciples on that first Easter day when he went through the locked doors which they were huddled and said: “Peace be with you! Again, I say it, Peace be with you!” (16).

The book concludes with reflections on God’s prodigal, forgiving nature, his power to raise the dead, his understanding and trustworthiness (76-77).

Finally, this book is endorsed by Kay Warren and Marjorie Antus, both of whom lost a child to suicide and find comfort in Rolheiser’s prose. Rolheiser never diminishes the difficulty, anger, and grief of those left behind, but he does offer words of consolation and hope.

I’ve read other books on suicide and pastoral care for the suicidal (notably Albert Hsu’s Grieving a Suicide and Karen Mason’s Preventing a Suicide, both from IVP). This is the book I would recommend for those picking up the pieces at ground zero in the aftermath of a suicide. This is hopeful and gracious. I give this five stars –

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from Paraclete in exchange for my honest review.

 

Pastoral Care and Politics: a book review

Pastoral Care is often thought of on a purely micro level—counseling congregants through a crisis, walking alongside families in grief, or shepherding local congregations. Political theology, on the other hand, describes political, economic, social structures and practices, examining the issues at a more macro level. But what if there is a deep link between the political and the personal? What if the best way to care for souls, is to care for the polis—providing a framework for the flourishing of both individual persons and the common good?

9781498205214 Ryan LaMothe is professor of pastoral care and counseling at Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology.  In Care of Souls, Care of Polis: Towards a Political Pastoral Theology(Cascade Books, 2017), LaMothe develops “a hermeneutical framework for analyzing systemic issues.” Rather than conceptualizing pastoral care as an individualized discipline, LaMothe places pastoral care within the frame of care and justice, describing and understanding its import as a political concept.

In the first 4 chapters, LaMothe describes a conceptual framework for pastoral political theology, in chapters 5-8 he examines the macro issues of empire, neoliberal Captialism, class, and related issues which erode care and justice. He also suggests ways for the church to be an alternative polis.

In chapter 1, LaMothe provides an overview of the polis (society) and politics in political theologies:

[P]olitical theologies, generally speaking, are concerned with how human beings organize themselves in time and space, as well as with how human beings survive and flourish. The political theological activities of reflection and action presuppose not only a particular religious mythos but also other knowledge systems (e.g. philosophy, human sciences) used to examine and critique political institutions, realities and issues of a particular societal context and era (22).

LaMothe notes (following Daniel Bell) that if all theologies are political than pastoral theologies are as well, and he notes a number of ways political-economic realities impact pastoral care, “Domestic violence, adequate medical care, food insecurity, widespread incarceration and economic poverty and numerous other areas of concern, reflection and care are intertwined with political-economic factors, though these issues may not be in the foreground of pastoral theological focus” (22).  LaMothe argues that the lens of care—not just for individual souls, but for the polis—enables to more readily see the political implications and connections in pastoral care.

[A] political pastoral theology, grounded in the Christian mythos, aims to understand and assess current political-economic narratives, issues, institutions and structures, and to develop programs and policies that are themselves assessed and critiqued. A central interpretative framework for these aims is the notion of care, informed by the Christian tradition and the human sciences and aimed at the survival, flourishing and liberation of individuals, communities, society and the earth. Care of the polis necessarily includes a cooperation of diverse others, and thus a political pastoral theology must attend to the communicative practices of a society (29).

In chapter 2, LaMothe considers the relationship between care and politics. He argues that care is aimed not just at a person’s survival, but at the flourishing of communities and families—the common good (47).  He draws on the notion of kenosis (Christ’s self-emptying) as a model of care for the Other, and posits that for communities and society to flourish, the notion of care (whether pastoral care, government, NGOs, etc) is a necessity.

This comes into sharper focus in chapter 3. LaMothe relates the concepts of care and justice in political pastoral care, drawing on black liberation theology and South and Central American liberation theology. Lamothe takes the emphasis in liberation theology on (1) attention to the community, (2)the preferential option of the poor and (3) responsiveness toward oppression and argues that political pastoral theologians be mindful of and respondent to the systemic oppression and marginalized in society (83). LaMothe argues that while both justice and care are necessary for human flourishing, a viable, and thriving polis depends on a rigorous ethic of care—where all members of society are recognized as valued (92). Justice is necessary to correct wrongdoing and repair relationships, but in creation itself, notions of care precede justice (and enemy love and forgiveness are expectations):

An ethic of care is grounded in the ontological reality of creation, and human beings are cocreators particularly through recognizing and treating Others as persons. This cocreation of the space of appearances ideally occurs in parent-child relations, family relations, communities and societies. A viable polis, then relies on an ethics of care, and it is an ethics of care that grounds an assessment and critique of political-economic institutions, structures and policies (92).

Chapter 4 argues for a civil and redemptive discourse both in political and pastoral speech.  LaMothe notes, “a polis begins to shrivel and die when civil discourse is replaced with self-certain, self-aggrandizing, intransigent monologues that aim at coercing the Other into acceptance of one’s singular vision of the world” (95). He warns against totalizing speech, and urges us to follow Jesus’ kenotic example of self-emptying (Phil 2:7), and discover ways of speaking in civil (and pastoral!) discourse which are both humble and hospitable:

Kenosis is the difficult discipline of clearing the psychic room to make space for and welcome the Other in reverence and this psychic room is related to the space of appearances of the polis. The fruits of a kenotic discipline are humility and hospitality, which are key to redemptive discourse and its aims of inviting, revering, respecting and understanding the Other. This is redemptive because it seeks to overcome alienation by inviting the possibility of real meetings between persons in the midst of disagreement (123).

This recovery of redemptive speech is necessary if we are to find ways to care for our increasingly fragmented world. “We need a redemptive discourse that rejects the facile pleasures of self-certain total explanations that opts for the belief in and practice of just and caring speech in the face of hostility and hatred” (127).

Chapters 5-8 describe overlapping macro, political issues and how they relate to pastoral care. In chapter 5, LaMothe examines the way empire is part of our U.S. cultural DNA. U.S. history exhibits the imperial and expansionist aims of empire, and as an empire in decline, it has become increasingly violent (131). LaMothe describes the emergence of the U.S. Empire, its carelessness and injustice. He argues that the church ought to provide an alternative narrative to Empire, not in the sense of being anti-imperial—as in the polar opposite of empire in every respect—but by providing an alternative version of what it means to be human:

While Jesus grew up in a world where Roman imperialism was daily fare, his ministry, his way of being in the world, was not based in opposition to empire. In other words, Jesus’s public actions were not anti-imperialistic, but were alterimperialistic in the sense that Jesus offered an alternative, and this alternative is represented by the term kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is not in opposition to the imperium, at least in the direct sense. Rather, it is an alternative polis that has nothing to do with imperial practices. Indeed, imperial policies and practices are inconceivable in a kingdom based on love, compassion, care, mercy, justice and forgiveness (152-53).

And so LaMothe describes ways for the church or other communities which oppose empire, of being an ‘alterempire.’ 

Chapter 6 describes the contributions of neoliberal capitalism to suffering in the polis and the subsequent distortion of Christian theology (à la the Prosperity gospel). Classically, Max Weber envisioned a robust Protestantism as both enabling the development of capitalism and restraining its acquisitiveness (173). That is, capitalism was subordinated to Judeo-Christian values and anthropology. However, under neoliberal capitalism, the engine of acquisition drives and distorts our theological understandings instead. Material wealth and success are seen as the signifiers of divine blessing.

Here too, LaMothe commends us toward an altercapitalism:

As a small polis, the ecclesia promotes, through liturgy, preaching, retreats, classes, and stories, the standards Christian virtues of faith, hope and love—virtues necessary for the care and justice. Indeed, the very notions of care, justice and the common good are tied to these virtues so that the notions do not become distorted by the values associated with the market society (i.e. with the commodification of care). Living as an altercaptialist community necessarily includes being deliberate about nurturing interpersonal relations and fostering a critical reflective stance toward the larger society so that community members and leaders are not co-opted by the hegemonic discourse associated with the values and expectations of the market. An altercapitalist community serves, then, as a countercultural entity by developing subjects with capacities for a type of critical thinking connected to caring virtues and for the kind of social relations that are personal. (196).

Chapter 7 extends this political-economic analysis with a critique on classism, pointing to the example of the early church attempting to live as an alterclass community where all members were mutually cared for. “Yes, they failed, at least with regard to perpetuating this kind of community. But they succeeded in imagining a community that did not depend on or reproduce class” (229).

Chapter 8 closes the book with a look at several relevant issues for a political pastoral theology: climate change, education, healthcare, the judicial system, the politics of exclusion.

LaMothe writes as pastoral theologian teaching in a seminary; however, the notions of care for the common good, and the focus on macro issues which erode care and justice, makes much of what LaMothe says applicable to any community resistant to the dominant voice of U.S. Empire. LaMothe’s chief interlocutors are the gospels, Paul and Liberation Theology, but the concept of being alterempire (promoting an alternative to imperial and expansionists aims and advocating justice and care) is a word for activists of all stripes, faith traditions, and ideologies.

While this book was published in 2017, and many of the issues raised here are relevant to Trump’s America our damaging long pedigree and the examples of U.S. Empire, Neoliberal capitalist distortions, classism, exclusion, etc,  LaMothe cites are from an earlier era (Obama and before). Still, LaMothe’s discussion of self-aggrandizing totalizing speech and the need for redemptive discourse struck me as a particularly appropriate warning against our current polarizing political speech.

 LaMothe is sympathetic to radical politics and doesn’t interact as much with Protestant political theologies (briefly O’Donovan and Volf, no James K. A. Smith). Certainly, there are evangelicals that see a broad overlap of politics and pastoral ministry (e.g. David Lane, Mike Huckabee, Jerry Falwell, Jr), though they often are not as cognizant of the socio-economic impact of empire, class and economics which LaMothe highlights here.

LaMothe points pastoral care practitioners toward a greater awareness of systemic problems which complicate care. This will be a helpful resource for pastors and congregational leaders, as well as theological instructors and students. I give it four stars – ★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from Wipf & Stock books in exchange for my honest review. Cascade Books is an imprint of Wipf & Stock.

 

Embodying Hope for Those in Pain: a ★★★★★ book review

There are a number of recent treatments on the problem of suffering. Christian writers and theologians have reflected on losing loved ones, trying circumstances, diagnoses of debilitating, chronic, and terminal diseases, and natural disasters. Many of these theologians seek to trace the place that suffering has within the purposes of God.  In Embodied Hope, Kelly Kapic offers his theological and pastoral meditation on pain, prompted by watching his wife battle chronic pain and fatigue for several years. He doesn’t guess at the ‘why’ behind suffering but describes the reality of pain, and the resources available to those of us who suffer.

5179Kapic is professor of theological studies at Covenant College (Lookout Mountain, Georgia) and an author of several books. He stands firmly in the Reformed tradition, but unlike some of his Calvinist friends, you won’t find him tweeting about ‘God’s greater purpose’ in the wake of profound tragedy. Embodied Hope doesn’t attempt a theodicy—a defense of God in the face of evil’s existence. His first chapter opens, “This book will make no attempt to defend God. I will not try to justify God or explain away the physical suffering in the world. Instead, I wrestle with nagging questions about our lives, our purpose, and our struggles. How should we live in the midst of this pain-soaked world? How do we relate to the God whose world this is?” (7-8).

In the pages that follow, Kapic examines the reality of pain, wrestling honestly with the experience (part 1), before examining the resources we have in the midst of suffering: Jesus (part two) and Christian community (part 3).

In part 1, Kapic takes an honest look at the problem of pain, describing its debilitating effect on our spirituality. In chapter one Kapic notes how the problem of pain causes us to ‘think hard things about God.’ In chapter two, he discusses the need for Christians to develop both pastoral sensitivity and theological instincts (24), by not attempting to untangle the ‘why’ behind suffering but instead seeking to love others well, even in our theologizing (26). In chapter three, Kapic advocates the place of lament and grief in Christian spirituality. He notes:

We will only discover hope when we are ruthlessly honest about what lies between us and that hope. At least such truth telling is required if we are ever to know the true hope of the ancient Christian confession. The church denies the power of the gospel when it trivializes grief and belittles physical pain, overspiritualizing our existence in such a way as to make a mockery of the Creator Lord. Faithfulness to the gospel requires the Christian community to deal with the messiness of human grief. Biblical faith is not meant to provide an escape from physical pain or to belittle the darkness of depression and death but rather invite us to discover hope amid our struggle (41).

Chapters five and six invite us to a spirituality that embraces our physical embodiment and the ‘questions that come with pain.

In part 2, Kapic describes the resources available in Christ Jesus for Christians suffering and in pain. Chapter six discusses how Jesus’ incarnation involved God’s self-identification with us in our embodiment. In chapter seven, Kapic explains how Christ on the cross, entered fully with us, into the experience of pain and death. In chapter eight, Kapic explores how we enter into Christ’s resurrection and the hope of redemption beyond our pain and death. Kapic writes, “Christian affirmation of resurrection is not chiefly about escaping this world but righting it. Resurrection is not about denying this world but rather enabling believers to have an honest assessment of their experience and yet to have a real hope for restoration beyond it. Pain is real, but it is not the only reality” (115).

Part 3 describes the resources available for sufferers within Christian community. In chapter nine, Kapic discusses, through the lens of Soren Kierkegaard and Martin Luther, the ways fellow Christians enliven our faith when we are in a weakened state, proclaim hope to us when we are unable to proclaim hope for ourselves, and demonstrates to us the matrix of divine love by walking alongside us in our pain and suffering. Chapter ten reflects (with Dietrich Bonhoeffer) on the resources of confession for those who suffer (e.g. forgiveness, cleansing, healing, restoration, release from shame and condemnation and false images of God that compound psychological suffering, and mediating Christ’s presence). Chapter eleven describes faithfulness in the midst of suffering.

Kapic offers these reflections as a gift to the church. Pastors, pastoral counselors and all who walk along side Christians in pain, will find Kapic’s counsel to be both wise and sensitive. He avoids clichés and offers an embodied hope to those suffering. I appreciate the way he wrestles with the reality of pain and takes an honest look at it. He honors those who are suffering by describing with sensitivity the difficulties they face, but also acknowledges how destructive pain may be for their spiritual lives:

Christians struggling with physical pain often develop defense mechanisms that are destructive in the long run. Denial, for example, can take many forms, like the cultivation of detachment from pain. By deadening their affections and repressing their frustrations, some seek to carve out an inhabitable and safe place. Not only is this strategy partly successful, but the colors of life soon dissolve into the blandness of grays and whites. . . .Although the one who closes off the pain this way may not literally lie in the grave, those who know them whisper concerns about how ‘dead’ they have become (58).

It is only after describing the dangers and realities implicit in pain, and encouraging sufferers to examine themselves honestly, that he describes the embodied hope we have in the midst of pain: the Jesus who took on flesh, suffered, died, rose and ascended and the body of Christ which mediates His presence today.

This book will be a helpful aid for pastors, sufferers of chronic illness and for their supportive community. I recommend this book highly. Five stars: ★★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received this book from IVP Academic in exchange for my honest review

Hello Darkness My Old Friend: a book review

I have not personally suffered from mental illness, but I have loved ones who have. It is hard to understand their pain. In the face of their struggle, I have no words. And the church hasn’t always responded well to mentally ill people. Sometimes this is due to a mistrust of psychology for its secular underpinning. Other times, profound emotional struggle is seen as evidence for a lack of faith. The result has been a good deal of isolation of and insensitivity toward the mentally-ill. Come Lord Jesus.

9781587433726
Darkness Is My Only Companion: A Christian Response to Mental Illness by Kathryn Greene-McCreight

Kathryn Greene-McCreight wrote Darkness is My Only Companion to offer a Christian response to mental illness, especially bipolar, the Illness she herself struggles with. Greene-McCreight is associate chaplain at Yale, a priest and theological writer. Her book is part memoir, part theology and part practical advice for people personally facing mental illness or clergy offering support to those navigating these waters. This second edition has a new forward from Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and has been revised and  expanded to reflect more recent treatment and statistics than the 2005 edition, and to answer questions  readers had of the original edition. Continue reading Hello Darkness My Old Friend: a book review

Suicide Prevention: a book review

‘The World Health Organization has found that for every death due to war in the world, there are three deaths due to homivide and five due to suicide’ (27).  And 84 percent of clergy have been approached for help by a suicidal person at some point in their ministry( 183). Suicide is a significant problem and if you have not encountered it directly, you likely know people who have attempted suicide or loved ones who have died because of it. Personally, friends of friends, classmates and the children of people I care about have committed suicide. I wish that any of their deaths could be prevented.

Karen Mason, associate professor of counseling and psychology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary,  wrote Preventing Suicide as a guide for pastors, chaplains and pastoral counselors.  While the book is titled ‘Preventing Suicide’ it does more than just give a few tips on how to help those with suicidal tendencies. This is a pastoral care manual which explores the  issue in all its complexity. Mason examines who commits suicide (and why), myths and misconceptions and the variety of theological positions on suicide and theoretical frameworks. She provides practical advise for counseling those in a suicidal crisis, those who have survived an attempt,  helpers and caregivers, the loved ones of those who have died from suicide and their churches.  While you cannot presume pastoral wisdom from reading one book (and Mason wouldn’t want you to), this is a fairly comprehensive resource which will be helpful for anyone who engages in pastoral care to the suicidal and their families.

Mason eschews approaches to suicide which compound the blame placed on the suicidal.  The causes of suicide are various, and suicidal persons often suffer depression deeply.  Trying to scare them away from suicide by threatening eternal damnation, as some Christian theologies posit, only compounds their sense of alienation. Often the hell that they feel and are trying to escape is more real and visceral than the one they are threatened with. Mason gives practical steps on how to empathize with the suicidal and validate the pain they feel, but she points ways to lead them from despondency to hope.  She  encourages attentiveness, taking threats seriously and dealing with them accordingly, and speaking the truth in love.

This is where clergy and pastoral counselors play a significant role. Discussing spiritual things, giving  people reasons for hope and coping strategies for navigating this life, even as we long for God to come in fullness is a bit of what Clergy do. Mason’s book helps pastors utilize the resources at their disposal to help people through a suicidal crisis (or to pick up the pieces of one). This is a significant pastoral care resource and would be valuable to any pastor’s library. I hope to never need some chapters but I am grateful for the skills and insights that Mason imparts. I give this book five stars. ★★★★★

Thank you to InterVarsity Press for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Pastor Care in a Rural Setting: a book review

As a seminary graduate still looking for a ministry position, I’ve attempted to widen my options of what I think ‘my’ ministry will look like. Before seminary, all my relevant ministry and life experience was distinctly urban. I worked with urban ministries in Atlanta, Miami and did part of my ministry internship with  two churches in urban church in Vancouver, Canada. Three years have past since my graduation and I’ve found myself living in a small border town, far away from the lights of the big city.  I do not know where I will end up, but this is where I am.  Most days I pray some version of, “God what are you doing here?” as I seek to understand what he has in store for my life and ministry (and when I am frustrated I pray, “God what am I doing here?”).

Since no urban churches are calling, I’ve begun looking at rural churches. To that end I picked up Practicing Care in Rural Congregations and Communities to explore the possibility of a rural call. What I discovered is that two of my guiding convictions in ministry, commitment to place and God’s heartbeat for justice, would serve me as well in the country as they do in the city.

The authors of Practicing Care in Rural Congregations and Communities are all highly educated, and currently live in urban settings. However Jeanne Hoeff, L. Shannon Jung and Joretta Marshall all have experience living and ministering in rural settings and share from their wisdom, experience, and learned insight.   Their purpose in writing this book is to enrich the ministry of care in both rural congregations and the wider church.  They have  listened well to the needs of rural communities and the peculiar challenges of that context. However wider applications are possible. They write, “Care is context specific, yet practices and principles are often appropriate across contexts. We believe that the rural context offers wisdom born out of an appreciation for its people’s unique gifts, as well as out of the limitations and peculiarities of what it means to be rural in the United States” (location 92, kindle edition).

Most chapters of this book explore various  case studies in rural ministry which illuminate the challenges rural congregations face.   Small towns and rural parishes are small, tight knit communities, where members are involved in one another’s lives and secrets are poorly kept.  Educated members of many communities move from the country to the big city. To be poor in these environments is to be vulnerable. There are not the same systems of care and safety nets that are available in cities. Beyond this, rural environments also tend to have a greater degree of domestic violence, alcoholism, etc. The gifts and challenges of any rural ministry is tethered to the peculiarity of that place and the gifts and challenges of the people who live there.

Hoeff, Jung & Marshall case studies explore various dynamics, including the permission given to pastors to challenge community norms (as an outsider to the community), leadership, diversity in changing communities, socioeconomic  difficulties, violence and health issues.  These issues are not unique to rural environments, but they hit these areas in a different way than city folk experience. For example, the loss of a job in a small community is complicated by how intertwined everyone’s lives are. A woman or man who is no longer able to provide for their family has little recourse, social services are not as readily available. They also experience profound shame and isolation (i.e. a break in relationship between employer and employee is felt more acutely in a town of 35 people than in a city of 350,000).  The authors of this book do a great job of identifying care issues, setting them in context, framing them theologically and offering guidance in how to offer sensitive care in that environment.

Ministers serving in rural context will definitely benefit from the insights in this book. As will those, like me, who are still parsing the possibility of rural ministry. However, the sort of reading of the cultural context that Hoeff, Jung and Marshall do, is appropriate in any ministry context. This is a great book and has helped me be cognizant of several pastoral care issues, but it has also cemented the conviction that wherever I end up in ministry, I need to exegete the place and understand the community I serve. I highly recommend this book. Five stars: ★★★★★!

Notice of Material Connection: I received a digital copy of this book from Augsburg Fortress through Edelweiss in exchange for my fair and honest review.

Healthy Aging and the Older Adult: a book review

Everyone I know keeps getting older.  I am on my march towards middle age and have had no serious worries about my health.  Older adults have  to face the continual breakdown physically and mentally. Often this is the result of poor preventative care and unhealthy habits in earlier stages of life.  As they age, they are dependent on medical professionals, family and church for care of their well being.  Failure to plan ahead means, that seniors may receive expensive treatments they may not have wanted and family members may be forced to make difficult medical decisions for them.

These are some of the issues that Christopher Bogosh addresses in The Golden Years: Healthy Aging and the Older Adult. Bogosh is a registered nurse who  has worked in hospice care. He also has attended seminary and has worked in pastoral ministry.  This dual emphasis on pastoral and physical care pervades the book.

As a nurse who works with an older population, Bogosh is well aware of the  health issues that older people face. His book explores healthy living,  preventative care,  healthcare management,  and common and chronic health problems.  He lays out the resources available to seniors under medicaid and the Affordable Care Act.  He also underscores the necessity of planning ahead (i.e. writing a living will and talking to family members about your medical care before you totally deteriorate).

Physical care and pastoral care go hand in hand. Part of caring for the senior soul is to make sure that their psychical well being is well cared for.  Bogosh says this part really well. He also has an eye for seeing seniors ‘live out “the “golden years’ with the Glory of God in view”  (125).  Bogosh sees Christianity as answering the “then what?” question, as in “What happens  after you die?” At the end of his last chapter he writes, ” Imagine enduring chronic health problems and a sensory disorders for many years only to die and go to hell–awful thought but according to biblical based Christianity we have to face this reality too” (124). So  a big part of Bogosh’s wisdom for pastoral care is focused on the senior’s eternal destination.

I agree with Bogosh that the truth of our eternal destiny is especially poignant when ministering to an older population cognizant of their limitations and mortality. What I wish was more explicit in Bogosh’s book was a section on spiritual health and older adults.  Our seniors need “strength for today” as well as “bright hope for tomorrow.”  I think that the dots could have been connected a little clearer between the physical medical care and spiritual care.

I learned a lot from this book and I think that people who minister to and among the elderly will gain valuable insights.  I have been privileged in the past to work with this population. I  did visitation ministry with a group of seniors in urban Atlanta. As I sat and visited with these seniors, I was privileged to share in their struggles and pray for them. I also heard testimonies of decades of faithfully depending on God through all life’s circumstances. In our care for seniors, we have as much to learn from them as we have to give.  Bogosh’s book does a great job of helping us frame the issues around health care and the elderly.  If we follow his advice we will love our old well in service. But we honor them when we see that they still have gifts to give. Well this isn’t the emphasis in Bogosh’s book, he does share anecdotes of seniors he has known and loved well and learned from.

Good Samaritan Books appears to be Bogosh’s own publishing venture (making this a self published book). One of the problems among many self published books, is that they suffer for lack of an editor.  Not this book. It is well written and well executed. I give this book four stars.

Thank you to Cross Focused Reviews and Good Samaritan Books for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my review.