To Steward Our Pain: a book review

Fredrick Beuchner is one of my favorite authors. He is a writer of enigmatic fiction with strange and conflicted characters (e.g. the holy and profane Godric, an unsaintly, Saint Brendan, and the unlikable religious charlatan Lou Bebb), as well as sermons and theological musings, and poignant memoirs which wrestle with darkness, grace and calling.

A Crazy, Holy Grace: The Healing Power of Pain and Memor9780310349761-1488760618is vintage Buechner. Quite literally, in fact. Most of this book is culled from the Beuchner canon with selections from The Sacred Journey, The Clown in the Belfry, Beyond Words, A Room Called Remember, Secrets in the Dark, Telling Secrets. However, the opening chapter, “The Gates of Pain,” is an unpublished lecture he gave, describing ways we can best steward our pain.

I typically am not fond of books of ‘selections,’ as they wrest passages from their context, catalog, and put them on display, like the bones of an ancient man in a museum. It is so much better to experience a book (and the person!) with its joints and sinews, muscle and skin, passion and intellect, embodied the way its Author intended. That being said, the themes of pain, loss and memory haunt Beuchner’s works and these selections are well chosen. The lion’s share comes from just two works, with large swaths from The Eyes of the Heart and Beyond Words and supplemented by the Sacred Journey and the other books.

The book is broken into two principal parts. Part 1 describes pain (chapters 1 and 2) and part 2, memory (chapters 3-6).  A third section of the book posts shorter reflections on secrets, grace, depression, death and the ways God speaks.

Buechner begins the “The Gates of Pain” by describing an episode related to his father’s alcoholism during his childhood. Someone had told him after hearing the story in a talk he gave, “You have been a good steward of your pain” (16). The essay weaves our universal experience of pain, with the parable of the talents inviting each of us to trade life, what we’ve been given—joy and sorrow—with those around us, inviting us to likewise steward our pain. “What does it mean to trade? I think it means to give what you have in reutrn for what you need. You give of yourself, and in return you receive something from other selves to whom you give”(26-27).

Beuchner tells of an out-of-town friend who showed up unannounced to sit with him as he was consumed by his daughter’s struggle with anorexia (27-28). He challenges each us to learn to not only share uncontainable joys but to open up the door into our pain, share our struggle and allow God’s miraculous healing to enter our lives (28).  Jesus doesn’t come to us in his own flesh but through the guise of the other, so, Beuchner contends, trading pain, allows us to experience His healing presence. “Joy is the end of it. Through the gates of pain we enter into joy” (32).

The second chapter is the passage in The Sacred Journey that describes Beuchner’s father’s suicide and its aftermath.

It is probably fitting that as I read part 2 on memory, I was remembering passages and people I had read before. Beuchner remembers pain, loss, relationships with friends and family and the way his father haunts his life. He describes the interplay between hope and remembrance, between hope and expectation.

To remember my life is to remember the countless times I might have given up, gone undr, when humanly speaking I might have gotten lost beyond the power of any to find me. But I didn’t. I have not given up. And each of you, with all the memories you have and the tales you could tell, you have also not given up. You also are survivors and are here. And what does that tell us, our surviving? It tells us that weak as we are, a strength beyond our strength has pulled us through at least this far, at lest to this day. Foolish as we are, a wisdom beyond our wisdom has flickered up just often enough to light us if not on the right path through the forest, at least to a path that leads us forward, that is bearable. Faint of heart as we are, a love beyond power to love has kept our hearts alive. (61-62).


One of the gifts that Buechner has given his readers and the church, is a reflective understanding of how pain shapes our journey. But not just pain. There are also the feeble ways God’s grace breaks into our lives, bringing hope, healing, and wholeness. As fantastical though it seems.

The world we are living in is filled with walking wounded. Broken relationships, news cycles dominated by natural disasters, racial violence, sexual harassment, and assault. Even so, come Lord Jesus.  In the meantime, we need friends to come and share the journey with us and so mediate Christ’s presence to us. Beuchner testifies to the power of sharing our pain with others and has shown us how to trade pain in his prose.

This is a good book. Even if you have most of it in other forms on your shelf, as I do, “The Gates of Pain” is worth reading and reflecting upon. I give this four stars. -★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from Handlebar Media in exchange for my honest review

Don of the Planet of the White Evangelicals: a book review

Since November 8, 2016, one question has dominated media ad nauseam: how did this happen? How did Donald J. Trump—a man full of narcissistic bravado, who publicly mocked a disabled reporter, failed to unequivocally denounce white nationalism and the KKK, insulted political opponents and women with unparalleled crassness,  bragged about sexual assault, passing it off as locker room talk, and also bragged about his sexual exploits in public forms—become president? Why did 81% of evangelicals support him, a higher percentage of support than either George W. Bush or Mitt Romney received? In one night, white evangelicals swung from the demographic most likely to say that personal character matters in assessing a leader’s public ethics, to the group that said it mattered the least.

9780801007330A lot of ink has been spilled, attempting to answer the question of why Donald Trump. Stephen Mansfield tackles this question directly in  Choosing Donald Trump: God, Anger, Hope and Why Christian Conservatives Supported HimMansfield is a historian, conservative Christian and cultural critic. He boasts strong evangelical credentials and of all the people who have endeavored to tackle the Trump phenomenon, he may be the whitest (I can’t actually back that up). His previous books include a Christian book about manly men doing manly things, The Mansfield Book of Manly Men (Thomas Nelson, 2013), as well as books about the faiths of presidents and world leaders: The Faith of George W. Bush (Tarcher, 2003), The Faith of Barak Obama (Thomas Nelson, 2008), Lincoln’s Battle with God (Thomas Nelson, 2012), and The Character and Greatness of Winston Churchill (Cumberland House, 2004).

Notably, Mansfield does not attempt to write a book on the faith of Donald Trump, as he did with Bush and Obama.  He attempts instead to answer how Donald Trump became evangelicals’ champion, though he does address the the possible religious content of Trump’s faith. He repeatedly points out the incongruities between Trump’s Christian claims and the evidence from Trump’s life and writing:

[F]or at least the first five decades of [his] life, there was little evidence  of a defining Christian Faith. Instead, his religion was power, vengeance, and, notably himself. He seemed not to know that the ideal of revenge to which he devoted so much time and an entire chapter of a book was contrary to the teaching of the religion he served. He did not know or did not care that truth mattered in his faith, that his preference for “truthful hyperbole”—an”innocent form of exaggeration . . . and a very effective form of promotion”—was little more than lying and forbidden by his religion. It was the same with his sexual mores, with his language, and business ethics, and with his lack of evident concern for the will of an all-knowing God. (70).

Mansfield explains the Trump phenomena in the four sections of his book. Part one names the incongruity between evangelicalism and their “unlikely champion.” Part 2, provides the backstory, and the voices that shaped Trump: his emotionally distant and cut-throat real estate tycoon father, military school, the positive thinking gospel of Norman Vincent Peale, and his decade-long friendship with prosperity preacher, Paula White, the pastor that translated Trump’s faith to his would-be evangelical allies.

In part 3, Mansfield describes Trump’s appeal for evangelicals, namely, his commitment to overturning the Johnson Act, his opposition to Obama’s legacy, Hillary Clinton and the way Trump gave voice to their anger. Obama was adept at speaking Christian language, but evangelicals disagreed vehemently with his Pro-Choice platform, the ways in which the Affordable Care Act was biased against pro-life positions and Obama’s evolving stance on Marriage Equality. Clinton, a lifelong Methodist, was also more adept at speaking about faith matters than Trump, but her progressive politics, pro-abortion stances and her failure to even engage with evangelicals during her campaign hurt her standing with them. Mansfield focuses his assessment of Clinton’s lack of appeal among evangelicals on her policy, not on scandals like her private email server or Benghazi.

In part 4, Mansfield makes the case for prophetic distance between evangelicals and their would-be champion. He begins by assessing Billy Graham’s legacy as ‘pastor to the presidency,’ and how Graham came to see how he was used by presidents (he felt particularly seduced by his friendship with Nixon). Mansfield quotes Graham as saying in 1981, “The hard right has no interest in religion except to manipulate it” (137). This strikes me as words his son Franklin ought to heed.

Surveying our cultural landscape, and the story of  Jesus driving the money changers out of the Court of the Gentiles (the part of the temple where the nations came to seek Yahweh), Mansfield observes that Jesus was objecting to a racist policy that hurt the Gentiles. He concludes:

In an America battling new waves of racial tension, what might come from a bold, unapologetic declaration of the meaning of this episdode in the life of Christ—that racism is sin, that it is un-Christian and that any president who claims to be a follower of Christ must fight this evil with every weapon possible?

That is what is required of ministers who step into the lives of presidents. They are not there merely to affirm. They are not there simply to sanction. They are there to confront and speak truth that brings change. They are there to maintain prophetic distance and to be guardians of a moral vision for life and government. (141).

Mansfield’s concluding chapter gives several examples of Christian leaders who maintained this sort of prophetic distance and were, therefore, able to speak prophetically into the life of leaders.

Mansfield is evenhanded. He gives a strong critique of Trump and Trumpism without demonizing the man or the movement. I don’t know from reading this book how he voted last November. I am sure I wouldn’t always be on the same page as him politically or theologically but I appreciate his conviction, fairness and the thrust of his argument

In the interest of disclosure, I am one of the 19% of white evangelicals who did not vote for Trump. I have a lot of friends who have disavowed the term evangelical in the wake of the last election because they want to dissociate from the evangelical support of a president who winks at injustice, sexism, racial bigotry, and xenophobia. I still call myself an evangelical because I believe in the reality of new birth in Christ, salvation through the cross, a Bible-centered spirituality and a commitment to mission, but I am sensitive to the way evangelicalism and evangelical language has been co-opted.  I appreciate Mansfield’s argument for prophetic distance, though as he notes throughout, the evangelical movement, for better or for worse, has hitched their cart to the Trump train. Whether or not prophetic distance is now possible remains to be seen, though certainly there are examples of evangelicals who have dared to speak truth-to-power. I certainly want to see an evangelicalism guided more by conviction than political pragmatism, but it is 2017 and I’m cynical.

Still, if you want a white, evangelical assessment of why Trump and where we go from here, this is a good place to start. I give this four stars. ★★★★

Notice of Material Connection: I received a copy of this book from Baker Books in exchange for my honest review

 

Getting Me to the Greek: a book review

Whenever I review a resource on New Testament Greek, I begin with the admission:  my Greek is terrible. In seminary I took two years of Hebrew and only learned enough Greek to scrape out an exegesis assignment. Greek was the language of philosophy. Hebrew was the language of poets and prophets. That is a huge difference.

9780825444791But of course Greek is also the language of the New Testament, and despite my linguistic preference, the words of Jesus are coded in Koine. So when I preach through a New Testament passage, I find myself struggling through translating it (often with assistance from Bible Software with its virtual stack of lexicons). I am no expert. I do little more than play in the language, but I have picked up a few things along the way about Greek verbs and syntax and how the language functions.

I don’t know much (♬but I know I love you . . . ♬) and to read New Testament Greek, I need help. All kinds of help.  Kregel Academic publishes a number of student aids designed to help people like me who struggle with Greek. I previously reviewed The Handy Guide to New Testament Greek (2012)  by Douglas Huffman. That book offered a nice beginners summary of Greek grammar, syntax and a good discussion of how to sentence diagram. Now a new ‘Handy Guide’ delves into deeper waters. The Handy Guide to Difficult and Irregular Greek Verbs: Aids for Readers of the Greek New Testament is designed to help us strugglers to wrestle through difficult vocabulary. Jon C. Laansma and Randal Gauthier have compiled a resource to help students of Greek move beyond the basics and begin reading.

This is a ‘handy guide’ and short. It is an 80 page paperback booklet which you can put inside the cover of Nestle-Aland28 to use as a reader-aid on the go. The booklet divides into two parts. Part I lists difficult and irregular verbs (difficult & irregular, from the perspective of beginners) in (usually) their indicative forms from most frequent (>200x) to least frequent (>10x), with a brief translation. Part II, provides an alphabetical list of verbs with their compounds (including forms that only appear once or twice in the New Testament)(27).

Laansma and Gauthier aim at enabling readers to identify the principle parts of various verb forms: (1) present & imperfect, (2)future active & middle, (3) aorist active and middle, (4) perfect and pluperfect active, (5) perfect and pluperfect middle and passive, (6) aorist and future passive). So if you locate a verb in the list (in its indicative, dictionary form), you will discover each of the six forms (or the forms that appear in the NT), with most common tenses in bold font. So when you encounter a strange form (to our eyes), their Part II gives us an at-a-glance reference to the verb forms.

This is pretty useful little book for students, working pastors or those struggling through reading the New Testament devotionally. I give this four stars. – ★★★★

Notice of Material connection, I received a copy of this book from Kregel Academic in exchange for my honest review.

How Absurd Shall We Then Live? a book review

If theology is, in some sense, biography, Gospel of the Absurd(Wipf & Stock, 2017) bubbles up from R. Scot Miller’s circuitous faith journey. Miller grew up Lutheran in Flint, Michigan, rejected his childhood faith, and found belonging among anarchist and Marxist groups, practicing resistance in Detroit’s punk scene of the 1980s. There, he succumbed to a crack-cocaine addiction. His journey back to faith coincided with his journey into recovery. Today, he is a Quaker, a minister at Common Spirit Church of the Brethren in Grand Rapids, a dairy farmer, substance abuse therapist and adjunct professor of theology at Earlham School of Religion. His theology combines a post-liberal hermeneutic with an Anabaptist Constantinian critique of civil religion, Christocentric virtue ethics, anarchist dissent and a commitment to justice and Christian community. Miller wears simple clothes and a wide-brimmed hat but is also a vocal supporter of causes like Black Lives Matter. He is the embodiment of a punk-rock-Amish aesthetic.

9781498296465[1]What is the gospel of the absurd? The absurd claim “that voluntary sacrifice of privilege is the proper response to human brokenness and the systems of domination that have lured the church toward apostasy” (back cover). Too often the Christian public ethic has been coercive, seeking to legislate morality through political power (often issues like abortion and marriage-equality). Miller writes, “I suggest that the failure of Christian ethics is related to Christianity’s continuing quest for power as a political force, because it is perceived to be a coercive force in people’s lives” (7). Miller proposes instead a biblical informed, communal ethics characterized by faithfulness.

Miller’s argument unfolds in roughly three parts. The first four chapters provide a diagnostic for the failure of Christian public witness and ethics in America. Chapters five through seven describe how narrative, revelation and eschatology give shape and specificity to Christian ethics Chapters eight through eleven describe the components of a communal, embodied virtue and care ethic.

Chapter 1 describes the failure of Christian ethics because we have understood our ethical claims as universally authoritative for all (and therefore coercive). In Miller’s analysis, Scripture remains an authority, interpreted contingently by the faith community because “it provides a community with textual discourse by which the world and truth claims can be evaluated in faith” (13).

In chapter 2, Miller describes ‘the dark shadow of the Enlightenment.’ Enlightenment and Post Enlightenment ethics rested on rationalism, utilitarianism, and emotivism. Miller names also the growing absence of the use of Scripture to articulate a credible ethic to the secular world, even among Christian ethicists. This comes into focus in Chapter 3 where Miller discusses how civil religion (à la Reinhold Niebuhr) blurs the lines between Christian faithfulness and our faith in the power of democracy. In contrast Miller describes a biblical ethic of absurdity which makes no sense to the wisdom of our age:

Perhaps a biblical ethic is an ethic of absurdity. The gospel is absurd on its face when one reads the claims made in the Sermon on the Mount, or the manner in which Jesus feeds crows of five thousand from a few loaves and fishes. Stories of resurrections may or may not be absurd, but belief in such stories most certainly is. Yet, if an ethic is to be Christ-centered, I propose that it must have two qualities at the very least: the particulars of the Christian ethic must be gleaned from a faith community’s reading and discussing scripture together, and those communities most be brave enough to have faith that even the absurd produces possibilities, and most radical kinds of faithfulness are the most fruitful. If one believes in the resurrection of the messiah, one must live as though it is true and embody the meaning of such an event for both church and world. (40)

In chapter 4, Who would Dirk Willems torture?, Miller draws upon the witness of the sixteenth century Anabaptist martyr and places him in contradistinction to contemporary evangelical discussions of the acceptability of torture. As with civil religion, scriptural and Christological considerations, get pushed to the margin, but in so doing, a Christian’s ethics become less than Christian. Our ethical arguments rest on emotivism or pragmatism.  Miller observes:

The Christian ethic is voluntary, so while an individual may eschew the Christ-centered interpretive activity of loving one’s enemies by feeding them and providing drink, they may choose an alternative, secular or military ethic by which to abide. Such a decision automatically rejects the Christian path in favor of another. A Christian may choose to torture, but in doing so may automatically render his claim to be a Christian moot. She may indeed find herself barred from participation in her congregation or group until she repents of her engagement with the world through adherence to the secular ethic. (54).

In chapter 5, Miller describes how a shift from describing ethics as a rational system, to understanding ethics through narrative, allows us to articulate an ethic of faithfulness (with a particular focus on the biblical narrative). Miller writes, “The reality of experience can only be translated from one age to another through narrative, providing the story with the authority to credibly interpret events” (70).

His argument comes into sharper focus in chapter 6 and 7 as his discussion turns toward the nature of revelation and eschatology. Miller calls us toward an understanding of revelation “as neither mystery or paradox, but a call for the church to act in history with a new understanding of brokenness” (81). This shifts our concept of revelation away from philosophical and abstraction towards actionable faithfulness. Miller also asserts the biblical narrative gives shape to our understanding of how to be in the world. In his discussion of eschatology, Miller encourages us to not see eschatology and the coming of the Kingdom of God as an end to our space-time universe, but the in-breaking of the Spirit of Christ into human history and our present (103). Thus, eschatology is not about the world burning, but our ability to imagine new possibilities in God.

In chapter 8, Miller describes his own commitment to non-violence, the practice of the early church (evidenced by the fourth century Acts of Philip) and the call for Christians to embody an ethic of faithfulness. So while there is an eschaton in which Miller appeals to, he is hoping also for a recovery of the faithful witness of the church prior to Constantine:

I have suggested that to begin a return to being a church that reflects faithfulness, a starting point is not to suspend reason, but rather to prioritize faithfulness to God and the divine desire for human relationships evidenced in the life of Jesus. We must also revisit the history of the early church to identify not only what the witness of the church looked like before Constantine, but what social and political factors facilitated the radical changes I believe occurred during that era that skewed the manner in which Christians viewed the role of the church in the world. (111)

This ethic of faithfulness, presses Miller toward a virtue ethic patterned on Jesus (who embodied faithfulness to God) and lived out in the faith community (126-127). Miller builds on this Christological virtue ethic, by drawing on womanist theology to illuminate a care ethic which enables us to become “more Christlike, more biblical in our work, and more present in our work for God’s justice” (132).

In chapter 10, Miller explores the experience of injustice faced by African-Americans in this country, and the theology of James Cone and womanists, in order to describe ethics from “the other.” Miller notes that the Bible has been used selectively against people of color and on the margins in our country (e.g. to prop up slavery, Jim Crow, sexism to maintain systemic injustice and patriarchy, etc.); however a theology from the margins  “rejects both naïve realism and idealism” and engages in both a hermeneutic of suspicion and resistance (147). By exploring the African-American experience, Miller elicits both empathy for the injustices black Americans have suffered and invites us to listen to their wisdom on what it means for us to walk in the way of Jesus. Miller writes:

White Christians cannot relate to or walk a mile in the shoes of African-Americans, refugees from war zones, undocumented Latinos, or American Muslims targeted as “terrorists” Yet, I offer the views of black Americans above to illustrate how we might view the historic person of Jesus within a context that allows for an experience of Ricoeur’s “secondary naivete” of Jesus’ social location, as well as an understanding of the necessity of emptying oneself of privilege in order to perform as a witness to God’s redeeming and reconciling work through incarnational presence. We can begin to unpack the nature of the cross, and what is necessary to the efficacy of the cross in light of resurrection theology. I believe we can embody the moral vision that is part and parcel of this kenotic theology through the development of care ethics grounded in a community’s interpretation of the text. Practice will lend itself toward sanctifying perfection.

Chapter 11 concludes the book with some reflections on our current political moment (2017) and invites congregations to share meals and discuss the gospels and Acts and ask what we are expected to do in response to what we find there (153).

Miller synthesizes the insights of John Howard Yoder, Stanley Hauerwas, Alasdair MacIntyre, and presents a strong case for re-engaging scripture in community with an eye for how we should then live. He also highlights some of the common missteps which keep us from embodying faithfulness in the way of Jesus (e.g. rationalism, emotivism, civil religion, etc). There is a lot that is fruitful here, for this moment of history. There are evangelicals who have accepted Trump as their champion, while never asking what his agenda has to do with the way of Jesus. There are those more upset about football players dishonor a flag than they are about the systematic and state-sponsored destruction of black bodies. This is our cultural moment. Miller calls us back to the gospel faithfulness first modeled for us by Jesus. Following in the way of Jesus means both to the obedient life of discipleship and to a lifestyle of care for the marginalized victims of systemic injustice and patriarchy. And to Christians like me, raised and nourished by an evangelical faith that emphasized personal salvation, Miller reminds us that the Christian life is lived in community.

I read this book a couple of times before writing this review, to make sure I was following the flow of Miller’s thought. There is no introductory roadmap and for a short book, it is fairly dense. That isn’t a criticism, so much an acknowledgment that if your church small group is used to reading something fluffy and banal (I’m resisting the urge to name names here), this may be too close to the deep end for them. However, this would be a great book to read and discuss with your thinker and activist friends. I give this four and a half stars. -★★★★½

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from Wipf & Stock Publishers in exchange for my honest review. All thoughts and opinions are my own

Praying Foolish Prayers: a prayer book review

This week, is St. Francis of Assisi’s feast day (October 4th), the Medieval saint and celebrated founder of the Franciscan order. Francis was a holy fool—a self-styled subversive of the wisdom of his age. Drawing inspiration from Jesus, the Apostle Paul (in 1 Corinthians 4:10-13), and the professional fools of the middle ages, Francis, and his early follower, brother Juniper, produced a spirituality that invited ridicule from wise, the rich, and the powerful because it called the values of society into question. In speaking of fools, Jon Sweeney writes:

it was often the hired fool, dressed in motley silliness, juggling and telling stories, who was allowed to make jokes at the expense of the mighty. A common man or woman might not sare to say things that a fool could say with impunity. A fool was one who flouted conventions, poked fun at niceties and got away with it because he was feebleminded (either pretending, or in reality). They were often regarded as medieval prophets who are able to see or understand things that other could not. Francis and Juniper appreciated these fools and emulated them when they became as Francis himself put it, “Jugglers for God” (Introduction, xix).

the-st-francis-holy-fool-prayer-bookJon Sweeney is an independent scholar, publisher and editor. He has written, translated, edited and annotated several volumes about Francis and the early Franciscans, including Francis and Clare: a True StoryFrancis of Assisi in His Own Words: The Essential Writings; Light in the Dark Ages: the Friendship of Francis and Clare; The Road to Assisi (annotated edition of Paul Sabatier’s biography of Francis), and The Complete St. Francis.  The St. Francis Holy Fool Prayer Book is the third of Sweeny’s Franciscan prayer books (along with the St. Francis Prayer Book and the St. Clare Prayer Book). What makes this volume unique is the way it picks up on this holy fool, subversive element in the early Franciscan movement.

This is a pocket-sized prayer book, and the heart of it is a week’s worth of prayers—The Daily Office for Holy Fools(Part 3).  However, before Sweeney gets to the Office, he includes an introduction on the concept of holy fool, a section of inspiration, examining the holy fool theme in the life of Francis and Brother Juniper (part 1), and a section introducing the format for the morning and evening prayers (part 2). Sweeney also includes occasional prayers for fools (part 4), and four stories of Brother Juniper from The Little Flowers (part 5).

The Daily Office for Holy Fools is composed of morning and evening prayers, each beginning with a simple prayer of intention, and incorporating silences, readings from the gospels, psalms, Hebrew prophets and the New Testament, an early Franciscan saying and a spiritual practice, relating to the theme of that day’s prayer(16). The themes and intents for the week include:

  1. Sunday: The wisdom of foolishness
  2. Monday: The strength of powerlessness
  3. Tuesday: There is joy in forgiveness
  4. Wednesday: The humble are blessed
  5. Thursday: The pure in heart are blessed
  6. Friday: Folly is another name for righteousness
  7. Saturday: True Wisdom brings peace and justice

I incorporated this prayer book into my devotional life through last week. I thought the scriptural passages chosen were meaningful and I enjoyed attempting the suggested spiritual practices. I failed at day one (the wisdom of foolishness) when Sweeney suggested:

Today, alone, somewhere outdoors, try preaching to the birds. If it happens to be winter and there are no birds to be found where you are, preach to the squirrels. Begin by speaking silently, if you prefer in your mind. But stand before them and express yourself from your heart. Record how it felt. Do it again tomorrow (29).

For several days I saw nothing creaturely I could practice such foolishness on. No birds, no squirrels, nothing creepy, crawly. Only flies, and I didn’t feel as though I could preach to them with a flyswatter in my hand. Commending them to God before ending their lives seemed more Pulp Fiction than Brother Sun, Sister Moon. 

Another example, here was the spiritual practice commended as part of the Tuesday evening prayer:

Some of us are simply not good at allowing joy to fill us. (I count myself in this camp, much of the time.) Perhaps we were taught to be more circumspect, not  to easily show our feelings. For a few minutes, as long as you are able, stretch your arms wide and hold your palms facing out as if you might catch a huge beach ball that’s about to be thrown your direction. Close your eyes. Then, catch it! (44)

I did this while lying on my bed last Tuesday. My wife walked in the room seeing my arms spread wide. This is the conversation we had:

Her, looking at my arms: Are you trying to block me from getting in bed.

Me: no.

Her: What are you doing? Why are your arms out like that?

Me: I’m catching a giant beach ball.

Her: You are like one of our children. 

And that’s how I knew I did it right.

Other practices were more straightforwardly applicable, though not easy (e.g. laying down defensiveness, forgiving and seeking forgiveness, kneeling for prayer, wearing something ridiculous and not taking ourselves so seriously, giving extravagantly to someone you know in need, and going where God’s love compels us). In general, Sweeney’s holy fool practices emphasize the playful more than the prophetic, though clearly there is a connection between the two.

This is a fun little prayer book. Because it is a week’s worth of prayers, it can be used to either augment or replace your regular devotional practice for a week, or prayed through regularly for a season. What I appreciate about the whole holy fool idea, is the way God works through unexpected people, far from the center of power, to subvert the system and bring about the newness of God’s kingdom. These prayers (and stories) poke at that and press us in the holy, foolish direction of the kingdom of God. Francis and Juniper (and Sweeny) commend us toward a style of life shaped by the Beatitudes and the witness of Christ. May we all be so foolish! I give this four stars. ★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from Paraclete Press for the purposes of an honest review

 

All Creatures of Our God and King: a book review

We’ve all heard the stories of Francis preaching to the birds and the wolf of Gubbio and  perhaps we’ve prayed his Canticle of Creation —which images our familial connection to nature, calling the Sun, Moon, Wind, Air, Water, Fire, Earth and Death our brothers and sisters. What we may have not heard (or imagined), was Creations response to Francis.

In 1981, Italian novelist and poet Luigi Santucci, published La lode degli animali (Edizioni Messaggero Pathe-canticle-of-the-creatures-for-saint-francis-of-assisidova). He offered up a series of snap-shots of Francis’s interaction with the animals, retold from the perspective of the animals. The Canticle of the Creatues for Saint Francis of Assisi (Paraclete, 2017), is a new, English translation of Santucci’s book. Translated by Demetrio Yocum, a scholar of Medieval and Renessaiance Literaure, Canticle of the Creatures combines Santucci’s imaginative prose with Illustrations from Br. Martin Erspamer, OSB.

It was Erspamer’s illustrations that first caught my eye. As a well-known liturgical artist, and monk at St. Mienrad Archabbey in Southern Indiana, Erspamer renovates church worship spaces, produces commissioned pieces and (of course) illustrates books. His cartoony depiction of Francis, in his burlap habit, and the colorful creatures, are reminiscent of children’s book illustrations, signaling the perfect playful note for these Franciscan tales.

In this book, we  hear from the birds (the nightingale, the swallows, the falcon of La Verna, the water bird, the larks, the pheasant, and the doves). We also hear from a fish, a little rabbit, Jacoba’s lamb, the cicada, the bees, Clare’s cat [this story features Clare, not Francis], Gubbio’s wolf a worm and an ox. A final section of the book is written from the perspective of the animals in Francis’ 1223 Christmas crèche at Greccio. Each creature’s narrative voice is introduced by excerpts from Franciscan tales and legends.

This book is not so much a theological treatise but an invitation to see and hear the world around us, and sense the world charged with the grandeur of God. Too often, we are mere consumers of the natural world, not just in our consumption of its resources, but even in the way we take in scenic views of panoramic landscapes (as though their beauty exists merely for our own enjoyment). Francis’s stories, and Santucci’s imaginative reflections, invite us beyond this consuming mindset towards conversation with creation. The witness of Francis was not that he preached to birds, but that in the music of their song he heard their praise for their Creator. May the one with ears, hear. I give this book four stars. -★★★★☆

Notice of material connection, I received a copy of this book from Paraclete Press in exchange for my honest review.

 

Directing My Kid’s Spiritual Formation: a book review.

As an erstwhile pastor and a full-time parent, I have a vested interest in my kids’ spiritual formation. So I was excited to dig into Jared Patrick Boyd’s book, Imaginative Prayer: A Yearlong Guide For Your Child’s Spiritual Formation. 

4625Boyd is a Vineyard pastor, spiritual director and founder of The Order of Sustainable Faith (a missional monastic expression). He has previously authored a book on composing a rule of life (Invitations & Commitments: a Rule of Life, The Order of Sustainable Faith,  2014).

In Imaginative PrayerBoyd provides a template for leading your children through a year-long transformative prayer practice (actually 42 weeks).  The book begins with a six-stanza  ‘Imaginative Prayer Creedal Poem (11-12).  Each week has an Ignatian style imaginative prayer designed for kids ages 9-12, reflections for parents and mentors, suggestions for pressing deeper into each theme with your children (through activities, research, and conversation), and suggestions to get your children to journal about. Even seven-week cycle includes a week of review which incorporates questions, activities and memorizing of the section of  Boyd’s creedal poem that corresponds to that section. The 42 weeks cover the topics of God’s Love, Loving Others, Forgiveness, Jesus the King, The Good News of God, and The Mission of God.

I read through this book a couple of weeks ago and took an atypical amount of time sitting down to write this review. Part of it is, this book came out in July, so me, or anyone reviewing it now, has not used the book as it was intended (a 42-week spiritual journey with kids). I actually have not used this with my own children, though I spoke with my daughters about it and they are super excited to try this out and I think it is a great way to harness their imagination to deepen their connection to God in Christ.

Essentially what Boyd provides, is a roadmap for us parents to slow down and become spiritual directors for our kids. Boyd tested the material with kids ages 9-12 because children these ages are old enough to grapple with significant questions and abstract concepts but also young enough to have a ‘sense of playfulness’ which makes the material more engaging (303-304). However, I plan to use this with my 8 and my 10-year-old. Having previewed the material, I like Boyd’s sense of the larger Christian story and the way he employs contemplative practices in an engaging way for kids.

On the topic, I have a big problem with a lot of Christian children’s curriculum because they focus almost exclusively on getting kids to behave better, promoting a form of moralism. Or they impart a faith formula that kids ought to believe. What is refreshing about Boyd’s approach is that is a transformative invitation to prayer.

I may revisit this later, but for now, I give this an enthusiastic 5 stars. Now for the practice of prayer. . .

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from InterVarsity Press in exchange for my honest review