Advent Family Story Time: a book review

You can get one of those Advent calendars with the worst-chocolate-ever but there are better ways to help your kids enter into the season of Advent. Arnold Ytreedie has authored a number of children’s books, including three other Advent devotionals. With Ishtar’s Odyessey he takes families on a journey from Persia to Bethlehem.

I9780825443930shtar was a young prince, the son of a wise man. he begins the story as a somewhat sheltered ten-year-old, fearful of life outside the palace walls and he doesn’t like his daily lessons. One night, reviewing the constellations he discovers a new star prophesying the birth of a king to the West. Honored for his discovery, Ishtar is compelled to accompany his father and uncles on a six month journey to pay homage to the new king. Along the way he meets new friends: Jotham, Bartholomew and Tabitha (all characters in Ytreeide’s other Advent devotionals).

Ytreeide weaves his fictionalized tale of the magi’s journey into daily readings for Advent. Each entry ends with a scripture and a short reflection on that part of the story. Ytreeide also suggests foods to enjoy on particular days of the week which correlate with the story and Advent customs to enrich and reinforce what children are learning through the story.

If your kids like stories, this is an interesting and engaging way to help them enter into Advent more fully.  At the beginning of the story Ishtar is a pagan (named after the Babylonian goddess of love), at the end of the story he worships Jesus, the Son of the one true God. I give this four stars.

Notice of material connection: I received this book from Kregel Publications in exchange for my honest review.









Ready to Wait: a book (p)review

Looking for a devotional which is accessible and theologically rich?  One that explores liturgy, Scripture and the Spiritual life? Here is a good choice for Advent and Christmas and one I plan to spend a little bit of time with.

time-to-get-ready-an-advent-christmas-reader-to-wake-your-soul-6Mark Villano the Director of Mission and Ministry at Marymount California University. In Time to Get Ready: An Advent, Christmas Reader to Wake Your Soulhe combines scriptural insights, liturgical reflections with pop-culture and true-to-life illustrations.  Villano  guides us as we prepare to enter into the seasons of Advent, Christmas and Epiphany.

Villano has spent more than a decade in Catholic Campus ministry. He explores spiritual insights in a culturally relevant manner. However this isn’t just  ‘a college devotional.’  Villano helps all of us enter into the true meaning of season–the coming of a Savior and the rhythm of God’s grace.

While Villano is deeply steeped in the Catholic tradition, this is a reader that all Christians can read fruitfully. He doesn’t speak of Marian devotion in ways that makes a Protestant like me uncomfortable. Instead he commends Mary’s response (week four of Advent) in a way that invites us to respond with similar openness to Gods movement in our lives.  Each daily reading explores the Bible, Christian tradition and its meaning for us. On the whole, I found the entries I read orthodox and inspirational [typically I read every word of books I review, but I made an exception and skimmed this one as I plan to use it through out the holiday seasons].

I look forward to spending time with this devotional through Advent.  Available at, or wherever good books are sold.  Preliminary rating: 4 stars.

Note: I received this book from Paraclete Press in exchange for my honest review.

Get Ready to Wait: a book review

Every year the holiday season comes earlier. Coffee cups, mall Santas, ornaments, christmas music and grocery-store-eggnog all proclaim the yuletide cheer as the retail industrial complex screams,”Happy Holidays!” The Christian tradition has its own way of preparing for the holidays: Advent (beginning this year on November 29). More than just a time for marking the shopping days before Christmas, Advent is about preparing your heart to enter fully into the mystery of God’s coming to us in the Incarnation of Christ.

God With Us: Reader’s Edition edited by Greg Pennoyer & Pregory Wolfe

Now is the time to start thinking about how to wait well. Paraclete Press has several devotional resources designed to help us enter into the seasons of Advent, Christmas and Epiphany. God With Us: Reader’s Edition of a paperback version of one of my favorites. Like its companion volume God for Us (which walks through Lent and Easter), it brings together a group of writers from across the Christian tradition (Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant–in both Evangelical and Mainline), under the editorial gaze of Greg Pennoyer and Gregory Wolfe (from Image Journal). Eugene Peterson writes the introduction and four authors each write a weeks worth of devotions for each day of Advent. The late Richard John Neuhaus provided the devotions for week one. Poets Scott Cairns and Lucy Shaw write the devotions for weeks two and three, respectively. Memoirist Kathleen Norris’s offerings make up week four, leading up to Christmas while  Emilie Griffin reflects on the special days between Christmas and the feast of Epiphany. Punctuating each section is Beth Bevis‘s brief histories share the historical context of the church’s practice of the season and various feast days.

If you are familiar with any of these authors, you know how deeply they have reflected on the spiritual life and the wealth of insights they have for waiting and watching well.  This is really a beautiful book and one of my ‘holiday favorites.’  I read a library copy several years ago and am happy to delve back into it for this season. Five stars, for sure.

Note: I received this book from Paraclete Press in exchange for my honest review.

Gospel Conversations: a book review

Gospel Conversations is designed to help biblical counselors care like Christ for those we counsel. Navigating the compass points of the counseling coveration, Robert Kellemen explores how counselors bring healing through sustaining, healing, reconciling and guiding. Kellerman is the executive director of the Biblical Counseling Coalition and CEO of RPM ministries. He sees his role as a counselor as bringing people face to face with the truth of God’s word and encounter with Christ. Through this book, he imparts tools that biblical counselors can use to grow in their competencies to comfort the afflicted and challenge the comfortable.

Kellerman suggests twenty-one competencies for biblical counseling, Sustaining relational competencies involve the counselor growing in their ability to connect, empathize, listen, comfort, and share scripture emphatically, Healing competencies include growing in our ability to effect relational mind and soul renewal, encourage, compose a ‘scriptural treatment plan,’  lead counselees in a Theo-dramatic conversation and in stretching scriptural explorations. Reconciling competencies probe issues theologically, expose heart sins, apply truth relationally, calm the conscience through grace, enlighten and empower.  Guiding competencies involve fanning into flame the gift of God in people, helping them author empowering narratives, constructing insight-based action plans,  and having target focused conversations.

Because of the place of the Bible in the healing process, Kellerman’s model is different than the contemporary therapeutic model. Kellerman (and other biblical counselors) urge us toward a thoughtful Christian model for soul care which differs from that of secular psychology (p. 98). There may be some antagonism towards psychology here, but the hope is that the Christian alternative is every bit as rigorous and comprehensive in dealing with what ails the human heart. Kellerman focuses on helping people get to the root of their problems (sin and suffering).

This is a helpful textbook and handbook for growing as a counselor. I have no antagonism towards psychology, per se, but my competency to counsel is different from that as a therapist. What I want people to do is to see themselves as God sees them, pursue a right relationship with Him and allow the Spirit of God to do the work of sanctification in them as they give their heart and mind to Him. Every Christian model of counseling (including a more psychologically oriented one) wants this. While I personally think other forms of counseling are tremendously helpful in the healing process, this model approximates what I do as a pastor when I meet with those in need. I have a Master’s of Divinity (that pastor degree), but the extent of my training in pastoral counseling is this: know when to punt to a more qualified counselor; nevertheless pastors play an important role in the healing process, reminding people of God’s presence, his work of salvation through Jesus and His ongoing ministry of reconciliation. Kellerman writes an engaging text for help students learn biblical counseling better and I think it is a great resource for anyone who engages in the ministry of pastoral counseling. I give this four staIrs.

Note: I received this book from Cross Focused Reviews (and Zondervan) in exchange for my honest review).

Sid and Rosie’s Christian Year: a book review

Penelope Wilcock is the novelist behind the Hawk and Dove novels (haven’t read them) She has worked as a Methodist Minister and chaplain and been a tutor and trainer for Methodist preachers. In 52 Original Wisdom StoriesWilcock takes us on a journey through the Christian year following the stories of Sid and Rosie. Sid and Rosie are an older couple. Sid is a Catholic turned Quaker.  Rosie is a spiritual-but-not-religious soul  who has left regular church attendance behind. Both are thoughtful believers despite their distance from the church. Sid draws on his history with liturgy. Rosie’s reflections bring her into contact with the East– Buddhism, Taoism, etc. They are remarried and have children and grandchildren, though none together.

Wilcock begins with Advent and ends with the feast of Christ the King. Each narrative ends with questions for ‘sharing and wondering’–discussion or personal reflection–and a prayer. And all the stories are fully-photocopiable, free-of-charge for use in churches and groups. In addition to the broad liturgical rhythms, some of these stories reflect on feast days for particular saints. The breadth of the Christian year allow Wilcock to engage the whole human experience and each story is a revelation about the spiritual life, the human experience, and Sid and Rosie.

To be honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I figured this would offer me some liturgical reflections, a way to beef up my preaching, especially in high seasons like Advent, Lent and Easter. But I got something different. By placing her reflections in the voice of Sid and Rosie, two ‘Dones’ who had left mainstream religion behind, she offers us an insider-outsider perspective of those who believe but don’t readily belong. There is also a quotidian quality as they fit Christianity into daily-life, unadorned by ecclesiastical vestments.

But Sid and Rosie aren’t theological lightweights. They deeply engage the Christian story and seek to follow Jesus. They reflect on hosipality, love, life,  death, brokenness and more. I liked meeting them in these pages. I give this three-and-a-half stars. My point of critique would be, I wish that Sid and Rosie came to a richer engagement with Church as a body of caring believers. They engage the tradition well, but I think there is something to the experience of the Christian life they are lacking.

Note: I recieved this book from Kregel Publications (and Monarch Books) in exchange for my honest review.

A Prayer For All Saints Day

For all the saints who from their labors rest. . .

We thank You and give You praise.

It was You that shaped them,

sustained them,

made them hunger and thirst for righteousness,

So that through their life and witness we would be

inspired by their heartbeat for justice and their tenacious hope

in dark, difficult times.

Thank you for unsung saints–

never beaitified but beautiful in your eye–

whose deep prayer spoke life to dead bones

whose quiet service and tender care

kept us connected to Christ when faith was fragile

and resolution weak.

For their lives we are thankful. Thank-you

for the ways they embody Your Life

and bind our lives to Yours

where we are all bound together

in the unity of the Spirit

through Jesus Christ our Lord.


A PostHope Hope: a book review

Can Hope survive  with the collapse of epistemology certainty? Is God necessarily existent for spiritual experience? Can the nihilism of our age open us up to the possibility of grace? Phenomenologist and deconstructionist John D. Caputo wrestles with these questions and more in his intellectual memoir, Hoping Against Hope (Confessions of a Postmodern Pilgrim). The book is a spiritual autobiography of sorts, but it only reveals the broad contours of Caputo’s life, focusing on the development (or deconstruction?) of his thoughts on God, faith and certainty.

Hoping Against Hope by John D. “Jackie” “Brother Paul” Caputo

Caputo was raised in a devout Catholic family. He spent four years as a De LaSalle monk,  before his illustrious career as a philosopher and theologians (thirty-six years as professor of Philosophy at Villanova University and professor of philosophy of religion at Syracuse University for seven years). In Hoping Against Hope he gives voice and personality to these various stages of his intellectual development. As a child Caputo was an altar boy in pre-Vatican II Catholicism who had memorized the Baltimore Catechism. Caputo refers to this younger self  as “Jackie.” “Brother Paul,” is the monk Caputo who grew callouses on his knees in an attempt to learn prayer and had a love for the mystics. The professor, “John D.,” is the the philosopher who’s tongue was loosed by Jacques Derrida (the other Jackie) and the French Postmodernists.

Caputo writes:

My life as a philosopher gas taken place in the distance between theology and philosophy. Like everyone else, however far forward I thought I moved, I was always circling around my origins. I soon found that the audacity of the philosophers who “dare to think” according to the Enlightenment motto, fails them when it comes to theology. There they panic, in fear of contamination. They treat the name of God like a terrible computer virus that will corrupt all their files, or like a real one, like the Ebola virus, where the odds of recovering are against you. So, mostly at the beginning of my professional life, when “John D.” stepped forth and responded to the title “professor,” while telling Jackie to stay at home, I was worried that they would say, “This is not philosophy, this is just his religion.” But my religion is between me and Brother Paul and Jackie and several others. How can they know anything about that? (104-105).

With the Continental Philosophers, Heidigger, Derrida, Lacan, Lyotoard, Levinas, and others, Caputo thoroughly rejects the narrative of the Christian tradition and the official line of the Roman Catholic church. He dismantles dogma, expresses his antagonism toward  the afterlife and a God that is either ‘ the Prime Punisher and the Royal Rewarder (64). He also regards the arguement between atheism and theism to be wrong-headed. With a Zen-Koan-like-air he proclaims, “God does not exist. God insists” (114). He gives fresh and unique interpretations of scripture and imagines the textual variants he wishes to one day uncover. Caputo’s thoughts run far a field from classic Christian orthodoxy.

But his project isn’t wholly negative. Caputo upholds active service to the poor and marginalized and the non-religious religion of love. He says his idea of nihilism is stolen from the mystics and he employs insights from Miester Eckhardt and Marguerite Porete (both mystics ran a foul from official church teaching). What Caputo proposes is a religion of the Rose–“The rose is without why; it blossoms because it blossoms; It cares not for itself, asks not if it’s seen” (27). He brings this verse from Angelus Silesius into conversation wiht Lyotard’s religion of the smile and posits a nihilism where all of life is received as a gift  (with or without a giver), where all of life is received without condition (181).

As an intellectual memoir/spiritual autobiography I give this three stars and thought it was an interesting read. I especially loved the ‘short nocturnal dialogue’ where Caputo imagines a dialogue with himself at his different stages of faith and intellectual development. I appreciate how Caputo’s postmodernity leads him to pluralism and relativism without the need to posit an underlying universal faith in God.  However, I am unconvinced by Caputo’s theological vision and see his radical (or weakness) theology as incompatible with the Christian gospel of grace. I was aware of Caputo before reading this book, so wasn’t particularly surprised by what he says here.  I have read him before and have seen him lecture. I find him fascinating. I also find it ironic that I received this book from Cross Focused reviews. If Caputo mentions the cross at all (and I don’t remember that he does in this book), it is clearly not his focus. Anyway, I received this book in exchange for my honest review. ★★★