As seems to happen every few months, the stack of new faith-based books has reached a ridiculous height on my desk, and it's time to let you know about them in case you wish to spend the remaining weeks of winter tuning up your spiritual life for spring. Or, maybe you want to give one or more of them as gifts to others who could use some help in that regard.
As usual, in a blog post like this I won't be doing a full review of any of these books. Rather, my hope is to tell you enough so you'll know whether you want to look into them further. And with each will be a link (usually to Amazon) where you can learn more and purchase the volume.
So let's begin:
-- Soul Support: Spiritual Encounters at Life's End, Memoirs of a Hospital Chaplain, by Joan Paddock Maxwell. This is a moving, well-written account of the life of a chaplain who often is called to be with the dying. Americans live in a death-denying culture in which many people seem to believe that somehow death is optional. The stories in this book reveal the various ways in which the job of a hospital or hospice chaplain is to create a space in which conversation and spiritual healing can take place. The author gets that. The second link here will take you to my recent Flatland column about the important work that Kansas City area hospice and hospital chaplains do.
-- Stranger No More, by Annahita Parsan. This is the story of an Iranian Muslim woman who winds up leaving Islam and becoming an ordained pastor in the Church of Sweden. It's always hard for me to know what to make of these kinds of conversion stories. Are they meant to be Christian tools of evangelism? Are they meant as implicit criticism of Islam and Islamic culture? You will have to answer that for yourself if you read this. For me, I rely on a simple statement she makes late in the book: "It seemed like God's work, so I just said yes." That is said about a move of a small group of worshipers from a house to a church, but it strikes me as how the author understood her abandoning Islam in favor of Christianity. And, without judging her, I simply can acknowledge that that's how she understood what was happening to her through some quite traumatic experiences.
-- Intercultural Theology, Volume 2, Theologies of Mission, by Henning Wrogemann. This is the second of a three-volume study by a German theologian of the concept of Christian mission in a multicultural world. It explores a wide range of approaches to ideas about how to spread Christianity as well as how to live it out authentically in different parts of the world. This matter of mission has been both a vital tool for Christianity over the centuries as well as a blunt tool at times that has run roughshod over local religions and cultures in ways that have brought no honor to anyone. Wrogemann, chair of mission studies comparative religion and ecumenics at the Protestant University Wuppertal/Bethel in Germany, also leads the Institute for Intercultural Theology and Interreligious Studies. This is a book aimed not at average church members but at people who are seeking to shape the way Christianity relates to other faith traditions around the world without losing its mandate to share the Gospel.
-- Winter of the Heart: Finding Your Way through the Mystery of Grief, by Paula D'Arcy. Some decades ago, the author's husband and toddler daughter were killed in a car accident. As you might expect, the grief was sharp and breath-taking. Beginning with that experience, she has sought to understand how we grieve and what is necessary to walk through the pain and come out in a healthy place. This book is a guide to that. As she writes, "Pain must move if it's to be transformed. If it's denied or hidden away inside, it affects future choices and the ability of our wound to heal. There must be an open space through which the river of sorrow can flow." There are many good books that can guide people in grief. The value of this one is not that it provides blinding new insights (it doesn't) but, rather, that it condenses to fewer than 50 pages what is helpful for grievers to know. This small volume can be a helpful gift to someone early in the stages of grief.
-- Merton's Palace of Nowhere: 40th Anniversary Edition, by James Finley. This is a reprint of a popular book in which the author, who studied under the famous monk Thomas Merton, explores what he learned about spirituality while with the great master. In a new preface, Finley says his goal is to help readers "see the surprisingly intimate ways that Merton invites us to discover that God is all about us and within us. . ."
-- St. Teresa of Avila: Her Life in Letters, translated and introduced by Fr. Kieran Kavanaugh. This collection of late 16th Century letters from a doctor of the church provides insight into what life and the religious life looked like then as compared with now. Teresa was a brilliant mind and able to display that in this revealing correspondence. She lived in a lively, formative time, after the Catholic Church had begun to respond to the start of the Protestant Reformation. So in some ways this is church history sung in a personal key.
-- Even in Our Darkness: A Story of Beauty in a Broken Life, by Jack Deere. This anguished book is centered on the suicide of the author's son but is not limited to that story of darkness and heartache. It is, rather, a larger story of Deere's search for answers and for a right relationship with God. Behind it all, however, is the old question of theodicy: Why, if God is good and powerful and loving, is there evil and suffering in the world? There is, of course, no fully satisfying answer to that age-old question, but that doesn't mean it's not worth wrestling with. Deere's story is deeply informed by the fact that he used to teach at Dallas Theological Seminary. The book has a March 6 publication date, but can be pre-ordered now.
-- The New Copernicans: Millennials and the Survival of the Church, by David John Seel, Jr. Like other branches of Christianity in the U.S., the evangelical church (however it's defined) is in decline. This book tries to identify reasons for this and to propose some solutions that require church leaders to understand millennials and not simply dismiss them as insular and entitled young people born between 1980 and 2000. They, too, are seekers, and if the church doesn't take them seriously it will harm itself in countless ways, Seel argues. At the end of each chapter are helpful summaries and study questions. And although evangelical churches are the target here, Seel's insights can be useful for any branch of the faith and even for traditions outside of Christianity.
-- Together: A Guide for Couples in Ministry, by Geoff and Sherry Surratt. The authors have been in different kinds of Christian ministry together since the early 1980s. Here they offer their insights about not just that but about approaches to ministry in a broader context. They come out of a relatively conservative branch of the church, and that certainly colors what they say here and how they say it. But much of their experience is transferable to other kinds of theological paths.
-- The Upside Down Kingdom: (40th) Anniversary Edition, by Donald B. Kraybill. The author has studied and written a lot about Anabaptists over the years, and this book, first published in 1978, reflects some of that practical and radically committed approach to theology. Which is to say that it reflects the counter-cultural message of the Beatitudes. He writes, "More important than finely honed tactics is compassionate service that flows from a vital experience of worship and prayer. Finally, all forms of witness should not point to ourselves or the church, but to Jesus, our Savior and Lord."
-- Breakthrough: A Journey from Desperation to Hope, by Fr. Rob Galea. This is the story of redemption -- of the author, a native of Malta who now is a Catholic priest in Australia but whose path took him through the darkness of gang life. He concludes this: "You and I were not created to walk in this world alone. However, God respects our free will, and should we want to journey through life alone, he will allow us, but even then, he is never far behind."
-- Making Room for God: Decluttering and the Spiritual Life, by Mary Elizabeth Sperry. People who live in the industrialized West are, it often turns out, pack rats. We clutter our lives with stuff and stuff and more stuff. And in the process we dull our spiritual senses. This book is designed to help us declutter and to figure out what is both good and bad about material things. "Sorting through unnecessary purchases," she writes, "may arouse feelings of guilt and failure, and you may simply feel overwhelmed. But God is waiting for you and for me in these challenges. . ."
-- Boundless Compassion: Creating a Way of Life, and Prayers of Boundless Compassion, both by Joyce Rupp. In the main book and in the companion prayer book, Joyce Rupp, a Christian who is marinated in Buddhism, tries to help people understand what it means to be compassionate and how to live deeply compassionate lives. The main book is a six-week guide toward that goal. The companion book provides liturgical resources to help. Rupp's many fans should appreciate this latest dive into spirituality.
-- What Matters Most: Empowering Young Catholics for Life's Big Decisions, by Leonard J. DeLorenzo. The author is a University of Notre Dame theology professor who tries here to train Catholic leaders to help younger people understand their calling and purpose in life. "They need the gift of a memory that sees what God has done," he writes, "giving them a vision of the world and themselves as created out of love. . .Young people need someone to present the more challenging path that promises the true treasure." As is true of other books here, this one is more broadly applicable than just to Catholics.
-- Make a List: How a Simple Practice Can Change Our Lives and Open Our Hearts, by Marilyn McEntyre. The advice here can seem deceptively simple, but the author makes the persuasive case that making all kinds of lists can turn up surprising results and lead us down better paths. "When you make a list," she writes, "if you stay with it and take it slowly, take it seriously but playfully, give yourself plenty of permission to put down whatever comes up, you begin to clarify your values, your concerns, the direction your life is taking, your relationship to your inner voice, your humor, your secrets."
-- The Prayer Wheel: A Daily Guide to Renewing Your Faith with a Rediscovered Spiritual Practice, by Patton Dodd, Jana Riess and David Van Biema. This book unpacks the Liesborn Prayer Wheel, a 10th century diagram that did not become widely known until 2015 when it was found in a book used in an exhibit of rare monastic manuscripts. There are seven paths to God in this intricate wheel, and the authors dig into how it can be used in a spiritually disciplined life. There was much religious wisdom in the supposedly dark Middle Ages, and this small book shows another example of that.
-- Gratefulness: The Habit of a Grace-Filled Life, by Susan Muto. People of faith are called to be full of gratitude for the myriad gifts of life. But that's a difficult attitude to maintain. This volume is designed to help with that. "The liberty of spirit bred in us by the grace of gratefulness," the author writes, "lets us face the obstacles strewn on our path without flinching. These obstacles teach us to respect our limits and to look upon them as reminders of our reliance on God."
-- From Anxiety to Love: A Radical New Approach for Letting Go of Fear and Finding Lasting Peace, by Corinne Zupko. Throughout our American culture people are suffering with all kinds of anxiety. The author, who has been through that herself, offers here ways to defang anxiety and live a life of enduring tranquility. One of the problems with anxiety and other mental stresses and illnesses is that our society has made them so difficult to talk about publicly. In fact, my own pastor became so concerned about this that he led a sermon series on the topic. Here is one of those sermons. It's called "Why Are We So Anxious?" Zupko's book can be a good resource to help all of us answer that question.
-- The Dream of You: Let Go of Broken Identities and Live the Life You Were Made For, by Jo Saxton. In some ways this can be a companion book to the one by Corinne Zupko I just mentioned. This, too, focuses on our anxieties, starting with the author's own experiences of growing up in the United Kingdom as a child of Nigerian immigrants. She now writes this as a Christian: "Let's not allow a sense of inadequacy to tell us we're not ready or not enough for the task. It would be easy to allow that to happen, because we once were the broken ones who now are sent to serve other broken lives and communities. Maybe we'll remember to be tender and nonjudgmental as we recall our own stories."
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AN ODD PROTEST PLAN IN JERUSALEM
Christian groups in Jerusalem closed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for several hours on Sunday to protest taxes Israel plans to levy on some of their surrounding properties. Wait. What's the calculus that suggests punishing Christian pilgrims and tourists makes sense when trying to change the behavior of politicians?