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APC Forum Resource Reviews October 2019

APC Forum, October 2019, Vol. 21 No. 6

As Kingfishers Catch Fire

Eugene H. Peterson (Colorado Springs, Colorado: Waterbrook, 2017, 372 pages, hardcover, Ebook)
A keyword that Peterson uses in the preface to "As Kingfishers Catch Fire" is that of Congruence (xvii), by which he means that he hopes to co-discover with his audience the person of Christ and his work within everyday humanity. The title is drawn from Gerard Manley Hopkins’ same-titled sonnet, and Peterson has collected in this book a series of sermons that he considers to be “kingfisher sermons” (xx). He hopes to (re)invigorate the imagination with what it could be that makes “the word become flesh.”
The intended audience seems to be pastors who are preaching and providing pastoral care, with particular attention to pastors who feel that they are hounded by “running a church.”
His anecdotes and quotations sprinkled throughout his sermon texts often mix with his reflections on nature, society, and just plain wonder.
As such, I found myself realizing that because this is a set of sermons (each of which is about 10-15 pages long at best), there was not, after 372 pages, a real sense of “fleshing out” his understanding and his thesis, but more of an accumulation of ideas, thoughts, and images. This is broad treatment.
On the whole, Peterson’s book is certainly a remarkable collection of sermons from a remarkable, watchful theologian. He achieves, by and large, his hope through these sermons by illustrating an infusion of the unremarkable with the Remarkable, and vice versa. But I do not see a direct correlation to chaplaincy or pastoral care as such. Furthermore, I am not convinced that this would be a strong continuing education resource, but rather a repository for personal reflection, for more general theological enrichment.
When reflecting on Isaiah 61:1-4, a comforting passage that has often been about exchanging one’s mourning for “the oil of gladness,” Peterson offers this pastoral thought:
But I have a pastoral admonition to offer you when death or accident or betrayal occurs in your family or among your friends: don’t use clichés; don’t gloss over suffering with greeting-card sentiments. Be with the one who suffers, the one who grieves, the one rejected. Say little but be there as a silent, patient witness to God’s insteads. (130)
In reading this book, I have found my biblical imagination stirred in ways that I cannot yet measure. But I suppose a chaplain that has been thus stirred may slow down and notice, with an appreciable, gentle authority, the ways the Divine may be present in the lives of patients, families, and staff. And may stirred imagination further spur us on toward new ways of being and doing.
Reviewed by David J. Ro MDiv BCC, Staff Chaplain at Providence Regional Medical Center, Everett, WA. 

The Death Gap: How Inequality Kills
David A. Ansell, MD (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017, 240 pages, hardcover, paperback, Ebook, audiobook)
Your ZIP code has a greater impact on your life expectancy than your genetic code.  That is the thesis of David A. Ansell’s "The Death Gap: How Inequality Kills."  Ansell, a physician makes this argument by drawing on public health data, civic history, and his own personal experience at three major Chicago hospitals.  Ansell’s narrative ought to scandalize those of us who spend most of our time working in and for health care institutions.  Just as one might go home and do research after a doctor gives a new diagnosis, The Death Gap begs us to look deeper into the root causes of the shocking health disparities that exist in our communities and demands that we make radical, systemic changes.
“The death gap” is a term that specifically refers to inequalities in life expectancy based on where one lives.  Take New Orleans, for example: in the French Quarter, people die around age 55, on average.  Just 3.5 miles away in Navarre, people die around age 80, on average (38).  That is a 25-year difference--entire communities, dying a generation early.  Additionally, Ansell makes it clear that if we focus only on life expectancy, we miss the point.  Diabetes, hypertension, chronic kidney disease, cancer, etc.—the same communities are suffering from unacceptably higher rates of these chronic, costly diseases.
The death gap (and other gaps like it) clearly break along historic racial fault lines.  Ansell provides an overwhelming amount of data to back up his claim.  In particular, African American and Latinx communities suffer health inequalities to the greatest degree.  It is at this point that Ansell points to civic history, especially the federal and local housing policies, that served to hoard wealth and wellness in white communities, and to artificially concentrate poverty and poor health in black and brown communities.
Ansell’s ultimate diagnosis is a provocative one: the death gap is but a symptom of a cultural “empathy gap” (44).  Until now, those with entrenched power haven’t cared enough to change the housing and health care systems that have perpetrated violence against generations of black and brown communities.  The death gap won’t close until empathy is converted into political action.
"The Death Gap" is a valuable and challenging book for any audience.  Reading as a chaplain, I found myself asking defensively, “How could I be suffering an empathy gap?”  After all, don’t chaplains hear into speech our patient’s stories and advocate on their behalf?  Ansell’s challenge is that we take some of those same empathic skills we use with our patients and minister to the whole community.  Personally, that might mean increasing our engagement in local racial and economic justice issues.  Institutionally, it might mean helping our patients’ stories or systemic injustice find a larger audience.  Professionally, national chaplain organizations might unite to call for bold changes in our healthcare system.  Ansell’s challenge is that we become a force that helps to close the death gap, for doing nothing allows it to persist.
Reviewed by Paul Goodenough MDiv BCC, Palliative Care Chaplain, IU Health Methodist Hospital, Indianapolis, IN.

Re-enchanting the Activist: Spirituality and Social Change
Keith Hebden (London and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2017, 176 pages, paperback)
How do social activists find the energy to persevere in the face of myriad forms of resistance?  This questions lies at the heart of Keith Hebden’s latest book, "Re-enchanting the Activist."  Hebden’s question arises from his experience as an activist with a unique set of commitments.  He is an urban priest in a post-industrial city in an increasingly secular United Kingdom.  He helps organize pro-peace demonstrations at military drone bases.  He leads public fasts that protest cuts to food welfare.  Consumerism, war, government policies that punish the poor--these are massive historical problems that dwarf individual efforts and will undoubtedly challenge humanity for generations to come.  When Hebden noticed fellow activists becoming “totally disillusioned and embittered,” he realized he needed a set of practices that would help him avoid burnout (13).
The answer Hebden suggests, as you might guess from the title, is that spiritual practices are vital to sustainable activism.  Dorothee Soelle, Simone Weil, and Bhimrao Ambedkar (among others) exemplify the spiritually-grounded activism for which he advocates.  These heroic figures had every reason to become disenchanted with the work in which they engaged.  Yet they shared an important resiliency trait: the ability to link their private mystical practices with social action.  Mystical practices “re-enchant” the seemingly endless grind which activists undertake.  The seven chapters that follow illustrate Hebden’s own attempts to re-enchant his own activism.
Will this book enchant you?  That may partially depend on how much you connect with the causes for which he fights.  Chapter 6, “Enchanted by Affliction,” provides the best illustration of a spiritual practice galvanizing a diverse group of people to change public policy.  The public fast he helped organize put what he calls “symbolic compassion” into action (133).  The story is not only helpful for its spiritual insights, but also for the reminder of the painstaking (often boring) work that has to be done for such a social intervention to be successful.
I found myself reflecting on some of the aspects of chaplaincy that connect with activism.  Chaplains might consider themselves spiritual care activists within their institution.  Chaplains might also be compelled to join movements that bring resources and dignity to the marginalized populations whose stories they come know and care about deeply.  I’d venture to say that every chaplain, including myself, will at some point experience a disenchantment similar to what Hebden describes.  I’d also venture to say that most chaplains already have a plethora of spiritual practices available to them for re-integrating their passion with their profession.
Overall, the book left me wanting more.  There were intriguing mentions of other activist movements and other interesting spiritual practices, but they lacked a compelling narrative.  Some of the sections with a more theoretical orientation could’ve used editing for clarity.  I welcome any opportunity for re-enchantment, and I commend the effort he shows to help others.  I just don’t know that this book provides the re-enchantment of which it speaks, at least not for a general chaplain audience.
Reviewed by Paul Goodenough MDiv BCC, Palliative Care Chaplain, IU Health Methodist Hospital, Indianapolis, IN.