Tending the Tree of Life (Richard W. Voelz) - A Review

NoteRichard Voelz's book Tending the Tree of Life first appeared as an e-book. The review appearing below was written with that format before me. In a conversation with Rich at the Disciples General Assembly we talked about his desire for a paperback version, and I suggested he might let me publish it in the Academy of Parish Clergy's Guides to Practical Ministry series published by Energion Publications. Rich agreed and the book is now available through Energion Publications. I believe that this book can be of great help to clergy seeking to minister to those who have experienced reproductive loss or who have pursued adoption. I invite you to read the review, which led me to pursue the publication in our series.   

There are some life experiences that people have traditionally kept private. The church for its own part has often remained silent about such experiences or simply avoided dealing with them. Those days are ending and we who serve in the church find ourselves faced with new opportunities for ministry. At the same time many of us find ourselves unprepared for these opportunities. Such is the case with reproductive loss and adoption.  I recently found myself faced with this very reality. I had missed signals, and failed to respond. In the end I was able to provide at least some pastoral support for the family. It was a learning experience. As the conversation began I discovered that a significant number of the women in the church had experienced a miscarriage or some other form of reproductive loss. If only I had read Tending the Tree of Life earlier in my ministry, I would have been better prepared to care for these and other members of the congregation.

                Richard W. Voelz is a Disciples of Christ minister and preaching scholar (he has a PhD in homiletics and practical theology from Vanderbilt University). He writes as a pastor and as a scholar. He also writes as one who has experienced reproductive loss and adoption. As he opens this book, which comes only in e-book form, he shares the story of how he and his wife had attempted to have children only to discover that they couldn’t. They attempted to use medical support including IVF, but to no avail. In the end they decided to adopt. This story of loss and welcoming a new member into the family forms the basis of this thoughtful and practical book that is first of all directed to those tasked with preaching and leading worship. Voelz wants to end this silence and avoidance that we’ve allowed to fester in the church so that the people of God might find support and comfort within the congregations they inhabit.

                Richard writes out of personal experience with both reproductive loss and adoption, but he acknowledges that he writes as a man. His experiences, especially with reproductive loss are different from that of his wife and other women. As he notes: "I do not try to speak in the place of female experiences. Still, I invite readers to use what I write here as a jumping off point for their reflections in the particularity of their experiences, noting the similarities and differences along the way" (p. 13).

Because preaching involves dealing with the biblical text, Richard’s own experience with reproductive loss helped him hear in a different way texts that speak of miracle births. In the season of Advent stories of Elizabeth and Mary took on a different connotation and produce within him a sense of frustration.
Nowhere were these stories related to the experiences I was having. The difficulties of conception were not acknowledged, nor were the real losses of fertility loss or the miscarriages my friends were experiencing. Miracle births were treated as acceptable and understandable occurrences built into the consciousness of faith(p. 10).
Even as he began hearing these stories differently, the same was true for adoption stories, especially as he and his wife began to pursue adoption.

From this frustration come a book written for other preachers. He had discovered firsthand that the church and its preachers are not fully prepared to handle such realities. He wrote the book in the hope that it would help open conversations that lead to healing and wholeness. The question then is why preaching and worship? Shouldn’t we handle such matters in smaller conversations, perhaps therapy? While such conversations are needed, Voelz’s believes that we need to address these realities from the pulpit.  

The church’s preaching and congregational worship are two of its most public “faces,” and the opportunity to engage in communication and communal liturgies intentionally structured toward meaning-making, healing, and developing a community of care should not be avoided simply because the topic is deeply personal and difficult (p. 17).

One powerful reason to address the question in publicly in preaching in worship is that some texts, will be experienced as “texts of terror.” This is true of passages that celebrate miracle births as divine blessings, but also texts that treat reproductive loss, including miscarriage and the inability to conceive, as signs of divine judgment. These need to be addressed or people will find themselves living under a cloud of guilt and embarrassment.

When it comes to adoption, the issues are different. In fact, there is increasing openness about adoption. At the same time many of the passages that speak to adoption are positive in orientation. Remember that Moses was adopted by Pharaoh's daughter, even as Paul celebrates our own adoption as children of God. Nonetheless, it is important to interpret carefully texts.

In encouraging preachers to break the silence, he invites us to do so both pastorally and prophetically. He invites us to find a variety of ways to take up the conversation, not just when a member experiences loss but on a regular basis. It can be when lectionary passages present themselves. Or it might be a decision offer a sermon series dealing with loss and healing. He notes that there are times and seasons throughout the year when reproductive loss is addressed. These events can provide opportunity to focus a worship experience on the issue. Mother's Day and Father's Day may provide other options as well. In an appendix Voelz offers us with excerpts from two sermons, one dealing with reproductive loss and the other with adoption. He also includes prayers that can be used worship, and a service of entrustment (used in adoptions).

As I noted in the beginning, I only wish I had access to this book earlier. If I had I would been more aware of the silence present in the church. I could have addressed the needs of members both pastorally and liturgically. I am now better equipped as a result of reading Richard's book! I highly recommend Tending to the Tree of Life  to all my clergy colleagues, so that we might break the silence and allow healing to take place in the lives of the people who have experienced hurt and loss. 


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