On hearing God's voice: 4-29-11
A week of J. Philip Newell: 5-2-11

Books to help your faith: 4-30/5-1-11

New faith-based books keep piling up on my desk, so today I want to introduce you to a small stack of them. Each of them in this group in some way is concerned with how individuals relate to the divine. If you are a seeker, maybe one or more of these volumes can help you find your way.

A few of these books may not have been released yet but will be soon. And you can always preorder them either from a local bookstore or from Amazon.com, among other sources.

Monastery-heart * The Monastery of the Heart: An Invitation to a Meaningful Life, by Joan Chittister. By now a classic herself, Sister Joan Chittister, a Benedictine leader for decades, seeks in this intriguing volume to distill the core of the ancient Rule of Benedict and offer its monastic wisdom as a gift to seekers. As she correctly notes, people today are often simply overwhelmed by life and its choices. In that situation, people often are uncertain where to turn or how to make sense of life. In response, Chittister suggests that it's possible to find direction by doing what Benedict himself suggested, which is to focus on the very ordinary and daily gifts of life. Although the words in this volume clearly are prose, they are printed in poetic form, and the effect is to help readers concentrate more directly on their meaning. Chittister fans -- and they are legion -- will be delighted to have this new book.

A Willing Heart * A Willing Heart: How to Service When You Think You Can't, by Marci Alborghetti.  Just as Joan Chittister draws on the trusted wisdom of St. Benedict, so Marci Alborghetti finds inspiration in the often-silent words (how's that for a paradox?) and work of St. Francis of Assisi to guide Christians into the kind of service that will help the world's needy and wounded people. Service, in the Christian tradition, is not done to earn God's favor but to express gratitude for what God already has done for us. In this book, the author offers ways to get moving to do works of service, especially at times when it's hard to get motivated or hard to imagine how to begin. This book looks like a good candidate for church study groups -- but groups that then want to turn their study into action.

Fragments of Your Ancient Name * Fragments of Your Ancient Name, by Joyce Rupp. Perhaps you know that in Jewish tradition, the name of God is not said aloud. Indeed, many Jews use the term HaShem to refer to God. And the literal translation of that word is "The Name." Drawing on various God-naming traditions, this popular spiritual author offers here daily meditations that, in the words of poet Rainer Maria Rilke, amount to stammering fragments of God's ancient name. The goal is to put readers in some kind of touch with HaShem, The Name, God. And Joyce Rupp draws from a wide range of sources for the meditations. Here's what to do with this book: Get it now and, after you read it through in a couple of sittings, hide it away and give it as a Christmas present to someone who can start with the 365 meditations next January, which is where the book begins.

God-of-me * God of Me: Imagining God throughout Your Lifetime, by Rabbi David Lyon. Judaism's central prayer, aside from the Sh'ma, is called the Amidah, and begins this way: "Praised are You, God, God of our fathers and mothers, God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, God of Sarah, God of Rebecca, God of Rachel. . ." If you notice nothing else about this prayer, you immediately will recognize that it describes God as relating personally to people. Rabbi Lyon suggests in this quite readable book that each person can find a way to be and feel in personal relationship with God. It won't surprise you that a rabbi suggests a good way to achieve that kind of intimate spiritual state is to study Torah and to be familiar with what rabbis throughout history have said in their midrash commentaries about what the Torah says. But Lyon has an engaging style and should draw readers into that process. Yes, this is written primarily for Jews, but Christians and others will find lots of good insights in it, too -- beginning with the excellent suggestion that adults move past the simplistic images of God that have been with them since childhood.

Mysteries-of-the-jesus-prayer * Mysteries of the Jesus Prayer, by Norris J. Chumley. It would not surprise me to learn that when you saw the title of this book, you wondered if "the Jesus Prayer" was, in fact, what Christians call either "The Lord's Prayer" or the "Our Father." No, is the answer. This is not about a prayer that Jesus prayed but, rather, about one prayed to Jesus. It goes like this: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner." A mere dozen words. But as the author (and the author together with a priest and professor in a new film of the same name) notes here, the prayer has much power and has been used for centuries, especially by monks in the Orthodox tradition. The book in some sense is a spiritual travelogue. Readers accompany Chumley and the Rev. John A. McGuckin to various sites -- from Egypt to Russia to Greece -- to learn about the people for whom this prayer is a centering metaphor and defining way to live. The question ultimately facing readers is whether this ancient prayer might be something they can use to find their spiritual home.

Four-purposes * The Four Purposes of Life: Finding Meaning and Direction in a Changing World, by Dan Millman. Let me be as clear as I can be here. I don't get some so-called "self-help" books. They seem too simple or too obvious or too formulaic. I'm reluctant to toss this small book by Millman into that pile dismissively because I know that lots of people (his many books have been translated into 29 languages) find value in his insights and his way of putting things. Indeed, this book may be exactly what some of you need to clarify the purpose or purposes of your life, to figure out how to move off dead center and work your way toward a path of usefulness and insight. But it didn't do that for me, partly because I found its listed four purposes too vague and overlapping. But if you're a Millman fan, give it a read and tell me what I'm missing here.

Expand-moment * Expand This Moment: Focused Meditations to Quiet Your Mind, Brighten Your Mood & Set Yourself Free, by John Selby. This may be a quintessentially American approach to spirituality and particularly to meditation. Why? Because it should appeal to our short attention spans. It offers 12 focal phrases for meditation and suggests that instead of sitting quietly for half an hour or much more, you can gain insight and calm by meditating on each phrase for no more than, say, five minutes. Then, Selby suggests, you can expand your brief meditation either by really stretching out the time you take for meditation or by hanging on to the peace and wisdom you've received from doing the brief meditation. I'm not someone who regularly uses meditation techniques, so I can't tell you that this is a guaranteed way to "quiet your mind, brighten your mood and set yourself free." You'll have to test that for yourself.

Following-Footsteps * Following in the Footsteps of Jesus: Meditations on the Gospels for Year A, by José A. Pagola. What, you ask, is Year A? Unfortunately, this thin volume of excellent meditations on passages from the gospels, assumes you know that it's the first of three years of a sequence of biblical readings for worship services. The list of readings is called the lectionary, and preachers use it to prepare sermons each week. (This draws on the lectionary used by Catholics, which differs somewhat, though not radically, from the lectionary many Protestants use.) The idea of the lectionary (which has its faults) is that it should keep preachers from preaching only on their favorite texts and to help each congregation learn about lots of different biblical texts. All that said, is this a worthy book? Yes. It's the sort of small booklet that Christians might do well to keep either at their bedside or in some other handy place so that once a week they can think about the gospel reading they well may hear in worship on Sunday. The author teaches theology in Spain, though the book is in English, save for some cover notations in Spanish.

My-Other-Self * My Other Self: Conversations with Christ on Living Your Faith, by Clarence J. Enzler. It might be thought of as enormously arrogant to put words into the mouth of Jesus Christ -- words that do not appear in the Bible (even many of those biblical words are disputed by scholars). And yet this little devotional book, first published decades ago, does exactly that as a way of bringing readers closer to the one Christianity calls lord and savior. The author died in 1976, but Ave Maria Press has elected to bring this highly personal book back into print because it long has spoken to so many people. Some of the language seems a bit outdated -- especially the masculine pronoun language. But it's nonetheless a book many will find helpful, especially Catholics.

Difficulties-prayer * Difficulties in Mental Prayer: A New Edition of a Classic Guide to Meditation, by M. Eugene Boylan. Like the previously mentioned book, this is a reissue by Ave Maria Press. This book first appeared in 1943, and was designed to help people get through various stumbling blocks to prayer. There are many forms of prayer and many purposes. This book takes note of that and seeks to guide people out of a kind of rote approach to prayer and into something more dynamic. This newly issued book contains a good biographical sketch of the author, an Irish-born priest and, eventually, a Trappist monk. That biographical piece acknowledges some of the criticism this book received when first published, including some dislike of its title. Readers will have to decide whether those early critics were right.

Tao-motherhood * The Tao of Motherhood, by Vimala McClure. Continuing what has become a bit of a pattern here, this book is a reissue of one that first appeared in 1991. The author draws on the ancient Chinese wisdom of the Tao Te Ching to think about what is required of mothers. There is much here that is thoughtful and helpful and may help both mothers and fathers avoid some of the normal pitfalls in parent-child relationships that seem to plague almost every such union. Readers soaked in Western spiritual traditions may resist some of what this author offers, but being exposed to a fresh way of thinking about motherhood may well cause people to re-examine how they approach what is both a responsibility and a gift.

Dreamgates Active-dreaming * Dreamgates: Exploring the Worlds of Soul, Imagination, and Life Beyond Death and Active Dreaming: Journeying Beyond Self-Limitation to a Life of Wild Freedom, by Robert Moss. The first of these books by this teacher and spiritual leader is a second edition of a volume first published in 1998. As you can tell from the titles, Moss is deeply involved in trying to understand dreams (the ones we have asleep and the ones we have when we think we're awake). So he offers in the first book ways to explore the content of dreams and guides readers toward a deeper understanding of their source, their contents and their implications for daily living. In the second book, which is being published for the first time, Moss continues his exploration of dreaming but this time he encourages readers to use techniques that can make the most of dreams in an active way. There's a feel of Eastern, even New Age, spirituality to these books. I have never studied dreaming in any depth, so I'm not a good judge of whether his specific advice here is worthy. But the subject intrigues almost all of us, and these books might be a place to stick your toe in the dreaming water to see what you make of it.

Setting-agenda * Setting the Agenda: Meditations for the Organization's Soul, by Edgar Stoesz and Rick M.Stiffney. I serve on three boards of directors (two non-profits and one for-profit company that has an important ministry component), including one for an organization whose CEO has a short essay in this helpful book It's an essay urging members of such boards to consider "ordinary days" as opportunities to think through the future more clearly. Whether boards oversee non-profit or for-profit organizations, they have an internal life of their own that, in the end, helps to create the life of the organization they guide. This book from the Mennonite Publishing Network can help any board find its sea legs and work harder to create something of lasting value for others. It's full of wise meditations and even suggestions for prayer. Boards that ponder the contents of this book almost certainly will do better work -- and feel better about it, too.

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The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has added Egypt to its list of countries with terrible religious freedom records. This is a good government agency and it annually highlights countries that violate religious liberty. For the full 2011 report, click here.

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P.S.: Sunday is Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day, (though the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum lists it as Monday because that's when it will be celebrated in Israel) and The Forward has put together what it calls "The Thinking Person's Guide to the Holocaust." It has some flaws (as commenters have picked up on) but it's an interesting list. Read all the books on this list, but also read my book, co-written with Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn, They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust.


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