See guest reviewers Sherry Owensby-Sikes and Tracy Paschke-Johannes
In thinking on how worshipers can use their vocations and related abilities in worship, it is natural and salutary to begin with and frequently return to baptism. Kirsi Stjerna, a professor of Reformation church history at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg, offers concise, accurate, and mind-renewing assistance regarding baptism in No Greater Jewel: Thinking about Baptism with Luther (Augsburg, $11.99, 2009), which is part of the Lutheran Voices series.
Stjerna begins with a chapter on the beginnings of baptism but devotes most of the book to Luther's theology of baptism. She draws extensively from Luther's writings and the Confessions. She underlines important points, such as that Luther's understanding of baptism emphasizes "the invisible spiritual and the visible material" (p. 46); that Luther regards baptism as transforming us Christians internally in a way that demands external lifestyle changes; and that, through baptism, we receive Christ's "alien righteousness," from which arises our "proper righteousness."
Controversies swirl around baptism, and Stjerna addresses the major ones. With intelligence and respect she discusses the Lutheran understanding of being "born again," as well as Luther's rationale for embracing infant baptism. She avers that, for Lutherans, being born again is being baptized and that infant baptism is welcome because God reaches to all to receive God's grace, including the little children. Stjerna explains the Lutheran position in detail without denigrating opposing views.
She goes on to address the question of whether baptism is necessary for salvation. She contends that, according to Luther's logic, while God may have other ways of offering the saving grace — who are we to put limits on God's grace? — baptism gives us Christians certainty of salvation and of a new relationship with God.
Stjerna concludes her sparkling, multifaceted book with a call to proper stewardship of the jewel that is baptism. Baptism is a treasure that we believers are to respond to in a way that glorifies God. So then, we are to respond to baptism by embracing our vocations in a way consistent with the grand vocation God announces to us in our baptism.
Another important starting and returning point as we consider how to incorporate vocations into worship is the Bible, and the Lutheran Study Bible (Augsburg, $34.99, hardcover; $24.99, paperback; 2009), which we can use to also serve the ELCA's Book of Faith Initiative, provides useful guidance for the student of the Bible. With the New Revised Standard Version as its translation, this Study Bible stands out from others because of its Lutheran focus. In addition, the book contains a subject guide, charts, a plan for reading the Bible, a list of 60 key Bible stories (30 from each Testament), prayers in the Bible, and 15 maps. This Study Bible also contains thorough introductions to sections of the Bible as well as to each book. Throughout, the margins contain notes that provide useful information such as historical context, explanations of obscure references, and, most intriguing of all, a Lutheran understanding of a passage or of an issue related to a passage.
For instance, toward the end of Genesis 1 is a note in the margin about creationism and evolution. The note indicates that there is a variety of positions among Lutherans, although the Confessions do not mandate that one adhere to a particular position. The note ends with, "Whatever the case, all Lutherans are united on the confession that God created it all" (p. 50).
While some Lutherans will disagree with the marginalia and other helps the book offers, on the whole Lutherans will find the Lutheran Study Bible to be a resplendent guide. This Study Bible is a gem that can illumine a person's understanding of the Bible and so, ultimately, a person's use of the Bible as a tool for helping to incorporate vocation into worship.
While we church leaders recall our baptism and grow in our understanding of the Bible, it will be valuable for us also to recall over and over our identity and purpose, that is, our own vocation. Frequently we, in trying to serve the church's many demands, lose sight of our true vocation. In his eloquent and witty book, The Pastor as Minor Poet: Texts and Subtexts in the Ministerial Life (Eerdmans, $18, 2009), Presbyterian pastor and professor M. Craig Barnes leads church leaders by the hand to a strong and clear sense of vocation (although the book is addressed to pastors, much of what it says applies to other church leaders as well).
Barnes contends that church leaders are to be "minor poets," that is, interpreters and proclaimers of the major poets and their texts (including the Bible). Minor poets also help people to see below the mundane to read the subtext of human behavior. Finally and most importantly, minor poets help people to see the holy profundity of God that swirls all around us but that most of us fail to see. We may get so caught up in the nuts and bolts of running the church, that we forget about or become myopic to God's beautiful activity and the subtexts of human behavior. Barnes' book reminds us of our true vocation, which includes being minor poets who help people to see, not just the facts, but the truth, including the truth of vision.
If church leaders have greater clarity about their own vocation, we will be more effective at worship leadership and at helping our parishioners to be clearer about their vocations. Sermons, for instance, advance beyond fingerwagging and how-to guides tinted with a little God to be proclamations that help people to behold the mystery and grandeur of the Almighty. Such proclamation can go on to help empower people to hear, feel, and live out holiness in their work. Such proclamation can help people to understand that their work and talents arise from and contain callings.
With all three of these books, the contributors and authors demonstrate through their work on these books the act of bringing vocation into worship. What these authors and contributors provide in response to their vocations, readers can carry into worship, including by imitating their example. Soli Deo Gloria.
David von Schlichten is pastor of St. James Lutheran Church, Youngstown, Pennsylvania, and the book review editor of Lutheran Partners magazine.
Robert Marsden Knight, author of Balanced Living: Don't Let Your Strength Become Your Weakness, writes in the engaging language of storytellers. His honesty and authenticity are apparent from the words of the introduction, in which he makes a point of writing that his approach is descriptive and interpretive. He writes from the perspective of a Christian pastor who is also a pastoral counselor and teacher. Although he is not Lutheran, his approach is filled with enough grace that one might think he is solidly entrenched in the perspective of law and gospel.
His book illustrates the fluid nature of trying to balance an individual's functioning as a unity of body, mind, and spirit. Achieving balance and developing healthy boundaries are seen as central to healthy functioning as an individual, as a family member, and as a member of a given society, whether in one's place of worship, one's workplace, or as a member of any group.
Knight, while well-educated, has written a book that is readable and useful for laity as well as people who have studied theology at the graduate level.
Further, the book is as much for people of faith as it is for secularists. Knight himself is unapologetic for being a Christian pastor with strong roots in the Judeo-Christian tradition. He acknowledges his limited knowledge of other religions and expresses his openness to learning from them. He offers grace-filled information from his perspective as one who has spent much time getting to know himself. In the language of pastoral care, he uses "living documents" (people he has come to know) to get to know his subject of healthy, balanced living from a much broader perspective than can be found in either religious or intellectual, scholarly writings.
Knight told me that he thought his book might be too religious for secular people and too secular for the religious ones. I found it to be well-balanced — acceptable to both and offensive to neither. This book is a keeper.
Sherry Owensby-Sikes is the chaplain at the Franke Home, Mount Pleasant, South Carolina.
In MySpace to Sacred Space: God for a New Generation (Chalice Press, $19.99, 2007) authors Christian Piatt and Amy Piatt attempt to understand how cultural shifts have changed young people's perceptions of religion and spirituality. The authors argue that as culture changes, the ways people come to understand God also change and the church's concepts of God, as reflected in traditions and rituals must evolve with the culture or risk being rejected as irrelevant. They do not argue, however, that rituals and traditions must be tossed aside in order to encourage youth participation in worship. Instead, churches must build a culture where people's stories can be shared and validated.
The authors conducted online survey research asking young people (18-40) about their perceptions of God, church, and Christians. Among other findings, they discovered 80 percent of young people have a desire to grow spiritually, but only half see the church as a necessary component of spiritual growth. In addition to survey research, the authors discussed social issues that lead to isolation among people of all ages — family strife, addictions, and broken relationships.
The authors do not offer a simple textbook solution to encourage young adult participation in church life. Instead, they encourage intergenerational conversation to reevaluate "what it means to experience the sacred."
While many authors are attempting to find new ways to welcome young, vibrant members, few texts focus on the destabilizing effects such changes have on long-time members. Gordon MacDonald addresses this issue in Who Stole My Church: What to Do When the Church You Love Tries to Enter the 21st Century (Thomas Nelson, $21.99, 2008). Using a fictionalized New England congregation as his case study, MacDonald invites readers to a weekly meeting of middle-aged, committed members who feel their church's attempts to become inclusive have led to their marginalization. The characters express the isolation they have experienced and how change has led them to feel forgotten and discarded by the church they love. They long for confirmation that the gifts they bring are valuable to the church's ministry. Though the struggles do not disappear, the fictionalized characters come to a real conclusion: The world may be changing, but the mission remains the same — everyone is called to spread the message of Christ's saving power to the world.
MacDonald includes chapter-by-chapter discussion questions, which may be the most tangible tool in the book. Using the questions as a guide, leaders may find the book a helpful resource to begin conversation among members who feel forgotten in this ever-evolving time.
Though Who Stole My Church and MySpace to Sacred Space focus on different populations, they both come to the same conclusion: No matter the age, background, or level of church participation, all people have a deep need to belong. Our culture is one in which people of any age can feel isolated and marginalized. Church should be a place where community becomes communion and water becomes word for all.
Tracy Paschke-Johannes is the interim minister at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Muncie, Indiana.
This article appeared in the September / October 2009 issue of Lutheran Partners (vol. 25, no. 5).