You've still got time to pick out a good book for some family members as a gift for this holiday season, so today I'm going to catch you up on a few with spiritual topics that have crossed my desk recently.
I'm not going to do long reviews of them but, rather, give you a brief outline of them and then give you a link to learn more and maybe buy a copy.
* Availability: The Challenge and the Gift of Being Present, by Robert J. Wicks. This small book originally was published in 1986 and has been a popular Catholic guide in the spirit of such spiritual giants as Henri Nouwen and Thomas Merton. This paperback edition has a new introduction that helps point readers to ways to be available to others, especially those in need.
* 51% Christian: Finding Faith after Certainty, by Mark Stenberg. This emergent church pastor, like many Christians, has struggled with what it means in 21st Century America to be a follower of Jesus Christ. He has tried and failed and tried again and, by his reckoning, sometimes succeeded as much as 51 percent in being a disciple. Like some other emergent church movement leaders (think Brian McLaren, Tony Jones, the late Phyllis Tickle and others) Stenberg is more than willing to wade into the failures of the church and to think aloud about how the damage they've caused might be repaired so that the transformative nature of the gospel might find hearts that are yearning for meaning. The chapter in which he suggests reading the Bible backwards, in a manner of speaking, is especially interesting. Stenberg's voice is one more among post-modern voices seeking to make sense of the demanding ancient faith of Christianity so others can discover why it can be so liberating.
* Grace in a Wintry Season: Feeling our Creator's love in a world grown distant and cold -- and loving in return, by Edwin Steinmann. The author, a resident of St. James, Mo., and former assistant attorney general of Missouri, grew up a Catholic but has come to challenge some Catholic theology -- and especially has been challenged himself by the old question of theodicy: How can there be evil and suffering in the world if God is good and loving? This book is his story -- full of sensual dreams and visions -- of how those challenges have shaped his spiritual life and where, in the end, he has found spiritual comfort and sustenance. It will help you to understand the fullness and richness of grace in a new way.
* River of Grace: Creative Passages Through Difficult Times, by Susan Bailey. Using many water images, the author describes her many trips through the rapids of life and how she has come to cherish the sense of grace she has learned to discern in life's vicissitudes. The message of grace is common from religions but it's sometimes a hard message even to hear, much less to accept. This book offers a guide to help readers grasp divine grace being offered daily, even in the midst of disasters and loss.
* Befriending Silence: Discovering the Gifts of Cistercian Spirituality, by Carl McColman. The author is a lay Cistercian who grew up a Lutheran in the South. He opens up Cistercian spirituality not just for those who are unfamiliar with its deep commitments but also for those who think they know it well -- but perhaps not as well as they think. McColman unpacks the virtues of hospitality, humility, compassion and community, among others, and helps readers understand what those virtues and values might mean for them in everyday life, full of challenges and surprises.
* Breath of God: Living a Life Led by the Holy Spirit, by Dave Pivonka. This book is, in effect, an ode to the Holy Spirit, offered by a Franciscan priest. He tells how, as a young Catholic, he first encountered the charismatic movement and came to a deeper understanding of how the Spirit could guide his life. Pivonka's concern is one expressed by many other Christians, which is that they tend to focus on God the creator and Christ the redeemer, often passing over the person and work of the Holy Spirit (save, perhaps, on Pentecost Sunday). "The challenge for us," he writes, "is to be able to perceive the breath of God. The only way this can happen is for us to stay close enough to God that when he breathes we are aware of it."
* My badass book of saints: courageous women who showed me how to live, by Maria Morera Johnson. If your vision of saints is full of perfect people without scars or scrapes, this book will disabuse you of that wrongheaded notion pretty quickly. The author, who has lived a pretty daring and somewhat messy life herself, describes two dozen women who have become saintly models for her. Even if you're Catholic, I'm going to guess you've never heard of some of them. I was especially glad that she included Irena Sendler, the Polish woman credited with helping to save some 2,500 Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto in World War II, because Sendler inspired my co-author and me to write our 2009 book, They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust.
And don't forget to buy dozens and dozens of copies of my own books, especially my latest, co-authored with the Rev. Dr. Paul T. Rock, Jesus, Pope Francis and a Protestant Walk into a Bar: Lessons for the Christian Church. E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I'll tell you how to get an autographed copy -- signed by both of us.
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WHEN YOU DON'T EVEN KNOW YOUR ENEMY
A Sikh house of worship, or Gurdwara, has been vandalized in California by fools who attacked it as if it were Islamic. It's proof that you can be not simply bigoted but both bigoted and stupid. It's one more reason there's a crying need for religious literacy education in this country. And speaking ignorance and bigotry, it did not surprise me a bit that the Rev. Franklin Graham, Billy's ideologue son, says he supports Donald Trump's call to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. I can't think of many social, political or cultural issues that Franklin Graham has been right about for years. Like Trump's words, his words simply aid and abet ISIS.
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P.S.: My latest National Catholic Reporter column now is online here.