Jesus is My Partner: a book review

With the five patches of ‘red letters’ and its exploration of Jesus’ life, Matthew’s gospel is an apt manual for discipleship.  In Partnering with the Kingauthor John Hiigel takes us on a 31-day-tour of Matthew, exploring its implications for disciples. The book opens with an examination of the story about the feeding of the five thousand (Matt. 14:13:21). In that story, Jesus’ disciples were asked by Jesus to feed a crowd but had no resources to do so (or very little resources). Jesus takes whatever they had to give and he multiplies it and uses it, miraculously feeding the multitudes. This is what Hiigel calls ‘partnering with the King.’ Jesus holds the power because he is God and King, but we get to partner with him in bringing God’s kingdom to this earth.  Just like the disciples, we are asked to do what seems impossible, but as we learn to faithfully obey Jesus multiplies what we offer a. The nd uses it for his glory. The feeding of the five thousand is a personally meaningful image for my life and ministry and provides a great organizing motif for this book. 

Partnering with the King: Study the Gospel of Matthew & Become a Disciple of Jesus by John Hiigel

After the feeding of the five thousand,  the rest of the daily entries follow the book of Matthewin a  largely chronological fashion. As Hiigel walks through the text several themes emerge. Jesus’ authority is seen in his miracles, healing,  casting out of demons,  and his teaching.  His life is commended to us for our imitation, and we are challenged to put into practice his teaching.  Ultimately his entries explore what it means for us to participate with Christ and ‘partner with him’ in bringing about his Kingdom in its fulness. Disciples see the the kingdom Theses daily entries can each be read in 10-15 minutes and are fairly meaty.

 Hiigel teaches Biblical Studies at the University of Sioux Falls. Having received his  Ph.D. from Fuller, he’s also served as a pastor for decades and as a musician in Los Angeles.  His examination of Matthew blends together the world of scholarship, pastoral insights, and musicality.  While music is not a major theme, he utilizes several examples of his ‘musician days’ to help explicate the text.

This is not a scholarly book and so it does not explore every critical issue or fill in all the background of the first century  context. That doesn’t mean that Hiigel is not a good scholar or that this book does not rest on good scholarship. It just doesn’t explore every jot and tittle of the text.  I was occasionally disappointed when Hiigel did not fully exegete my pet passage. On the other hand Hiigel stays on task, exploring Matthew for what it tells us about discipleship. What he shares here is challenging and engaging.  For a devotional commentary on the book of Matthew, I think this is the best of its kind even if I happily recommend it, especially for personal study. I think that this is better than Tom Wright’s Matthew for Everybody and breaking it down into daily readings makes it a great way to soak in Matthew’s message for a month.

Personally I really appreciated that this book did not just tell us what Jesus said or what Jesus did but raised a challenge by asking,”in light of this passage, what should we do?”   Hiigel wants people to be hearers of the Word who then do what it says. I found myself prayerfully reading over passages and underlining a lot. Listen to his words regarding the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25: 31-46:

We are meeting surrogates for Jesus at every turn.  The grave danger is to be lulled to sleep by the ordinariness of life and miss the sacredness of the people around us and the reality of God’s unseen kingdom. Blessed is the servant whom Jesus finds doing what he commanded when he returns. Imagine hearing Jesus say in the end, “Well done good and faithful servant . . . Come,  you are blessed of my Father, and receive the inheritance that has been prepared for you from the beginning of time! (239)”

As someone who too often is lulled to sleep by the ordinariness of life  but really hungers to be used by God with my life and ministry, I found myself challenged anew in these pages. I give this book ★★★★★.

Thank you to Paraclete Press for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

In this review, I didn’t offer a detailed summary of most of what Hiigel says but am always happy to discuss particular passages from Matthew and what Hiigel says about them.

Getting Ready to Burn (in a good way): a book review

Albert Haase, OFM’s Catching Fire,  Becoming Flame begins with this inscription of this story from the Desert Fathers:

Abba Lot went to Abba Joseph and said to him,”Abba, as far as I can, I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?”

Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands toward heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, “If you will, you can become all flame.”–The Sayings of the Desert Fathers.

Catching Fire Becoming Flame: A Guide For Spiritual Transformation by Albert Haase, OFM

Like this Desert Saying, Haase’s new book is not primarily a book about rules or spiritual disciplines. This is a book about  spiritual transformation. At a retreat that Haase led at a retirement home, an elderly nun told him a secret, “God l-o-n-g-s  to turn you into a saint! If you respond to God’s yearning you will be amazed at what happens(3).”  This is a book which helps us respond to God’s yearning and allow him to set our hearts ablaze.

The book consists of thirty-three short chapters divided into five sections. The first two sections layout a conceptual framework while the final three sections deal with practical concerns.  In part one, “the Spark from God,” Haase introduces readers to the spiritual life and the process of transformation.  He talks here about the nature of spiritual awakening, the stages of the spiritual life (purgation, illumination, and union) and how to deal with imperfections, sins and bad habits. He also talks about the necessity of CPR–Community, Prayer, and Repentance– if we are to grow and change in our relationship with God.  In”Kindling,”  Haase’s second section, he explores  in depth various spiritual concepts. Haase exhorts his readers to be secure in the love of God, to be attentive to prayer, have an attitude of Gratitude, cultivate Spiritual senses to see where God is at work, be aware of our ‘false self’ and the way suffering functions in the Spiritual life.

In the third section, “Catching Fire” Haase presents various prayer methods: the examen, meditation and contemplation, lectio divina, Imaginative prayer (Ignatian meditation), wonder-ing with creation, praying the stations of the Cross, and praying the Lord’s prayer.  Haase is able to draw together the insights of various writers on prayer and the Spiritual life and summarize their insights.

The fourth section, “Fanning the Flame,”  describes Spiritual Discernment.  As in the other sections, Haase articulates insights from a number of writers on the Spiritual life, but he uses his own story of listening to God’s call to missions in China as an example of how discernment works (Haase was a missionary to China for twelve years before being forced to leave).  He talks here about the nature of discernment, decision making and the experience of dryness, darkness and depression even when you feel like you are answering God’s call on your life. Haase recommends ongoing Spiritual direction, appropriate self-care and creating a personal rule of life to help us counteract the confusion that comes as we try to walk in the ways of God.

In his final section, “Becoming All Flame,”  Haase speaks about dynamic commitments necessary for living out the Spiritual life. Some of these are ongoing practices (i.e. the Examination of the Conscience, Sabbath Rest, Silence and Solitude, Pilgrimage, etc.). Other commitments are ongoing orientations (i.e. surrender and abandonment, forgiveness, Revealing everything to God).

Haase writes as a Franciscan preacher, retreat-leader and spiritual director. His writing inhabits Franciscan spirituality but he also draws on the insights of Benedictines and Jesuits and occasionally, Evangelical protestants.  The insights and practices Haase commends are instructive for any who seek to deepen their faith and be transformed into the image of Christ.  What I especially liked about this book was how down-to-earth it was.

While I certainly found things I disagree with in these pages (i.e.  I’m suspicious of some aspects of centering prayer), I admire the depth and insights of Haase’s writing and happily recommend this book. I give it ★★★★★ and think that Catholics and Protestants alike will appreciate this book. Why not become all flame?

Thank you to Paraclete Press for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for this review.

[Note: Paraclete Press also has a DVD Curriculum available based on this book]

My Confirmation Book: a book review.

The church I grew up in did not practice confirmation.  The sacraments that we celebrated were two: Communion and Baptism and not everyone called these sacraments. The way we practiced Baptism was that when people were old enough to follow Christ in obedience, they signified this by getting Baptized. We called it ‘Believers’ Baptism.’ Thus when some of my Catholic friends were getting confirmed, I got dunked.  As an adult I attend a denomination which does practice infant Baptism and Confirmation (as well as ‘Believers’ Baptism’) but still the rite of confirmation is something I never experienced personally. Yet I appreciate how this rite helps young people deepen their Baptismal vows.

When I sat down to read Donna-Marie Cooper O’Boyle’s My Confirmation Book, in a very real way, I read this book as an outsider. O’Boyle is a popular Catholic author and a television host on EWTN. I am a low-church protestant.  She wrote this book to help young Catholics to grow in their faith.  While I share a love for helping others mature in their faith and deepen their life commitment to God, her experience is different from my own, and her religious idiom is also different.

But then we aren’t that different.  I did go through ‘confirmation.’ For ‘believers’ baptists’ and adult converts, confirmation and baptism are all one rite.  I have experienced liturgically the moment when I had solidified my commitment to Christ and celebrated the gift of the Spirit in my life. While those who practice infant Baptism experience confirmation as a deepening of our baptismal identity, I confirmed the truth of Christ’s work in my life by entering baptismal waters.

I  appreciated the advice that O’Boyle dispenses to young Catholics. In my own religious heritage, we would emphasize growing in Biblical understanding through daily Bible reading. We would also talk about being involved in God’s mission (acts of service and evangelism). In nine pithy chapters, O’Boyle encourages the newly confirmed to enter deeper into what it means to be Catholic. By affirming their baptismal identity through Confirmation, young Catholics understand that they are ‘members of the Church.’ Through the gift of the Spirit they grow in wisdom and understanding, experience God’s counsel, grow in fortitude and piety,  have reverence for God and are empowered for mission.  The sacrament of confirmation underscores the reality that the Christian life is a Spirit led, Spirit empowered life.

But O’Boyle also lays emphasis on the prayer. Each of the short chapters closes with a small challenge and a prayer to enter deeper into union with God. These are brief and aimed at those who are young in their faith. They are not the prayers of the great mystics of the Church, but they commend an attentiveness to God in all things.   The reflections are designed for young people (I would guess 12-15). Depending on the age or maturity of the confirmand, some of these reflections are a little too youthful. But for the most part I think that high-school-age-Catholics will benefit from this book.

I am and remain a protestant Christian, but I appreciate the depth and thoughtfulness of this book and what confirmation wroughts in young Catholic believers. I heartily commend this resource as a gift book if you know a young person who is getting confirmed in the Roman Catholic Church. Much of what is said here is applicable to other ecclesial communities but it is written directly for a Catholic context, so will be most appreciated by fellow Catholics.

Thank you to Paraclete Press for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for this review.

Brother Duck’s Tell All Tale: a book review

Francis of Assisi is the world’s most popular saint.  His life, his joy and his connection to creation has inspired millions of people. His commitment to the poor and the least of these offers a radical challenge to our materialist age. There are many biographies, collections of stories and children’s books which pay homage to the great saint, but none quite like this.

Saint Francis and Brother Duck: a Graphic Novel by Jay Stoeckl

Cartoonist Jay Stoeckl was an aspiring cartoonist. After traveling to Assisi he became a secular Franciscan.  Saint Francis and Brother Duck is his graphic retelling of the life of Francis. In these pages we meet the young Francis who dreams of being a  glorious knight. His father sends him off to battle arrayed in fine clothes and armor.  But before he sees much battle he rescues a duck from some cruel boys.  He hears a voice telling him that he misinterpreted his ‘dream.’ In Stoeckl’s retelling, the duck he saved returns home with Francis and remains his companion for the nearly twenty years. The duck narrates this story and in the end this is as much his story as it is Francis’s.

Stoeckl revisits most of the famous Francis stories: the rebuilding the church of San Damiano, his trial before the bishop where he gave  the clothes off his back, back to his father, the first followers in Gubbio, Francis preaching to the birds (including a duck),  Clare joining the order, Francis’s overcoming brother wolf, Francis preaching to the sultan,  and his receiving the stigmata and more.

Brother Duck is a simple and earnest character. He is a faithful friend to Francis and goes with him everywhere but doesn’t always understand Francis. Sometimes he asks probing questions which allow Francis to share his grand theological vision. Other times Brother Duck provides comic relief by being  just as slow to understand Francis as the rest of us. In the end the Brother Duck is a faithful interpreter of Francis’s message and legacy.

The back cover says that this graphic novel was ‘designed to inspire ages 8 & up.’ My children are a bit younger than that, and a lot of this book is beyond them; however I found it a fun and imaginative read, full of good humor.  My favorite piece of dialogue between Saint Francis and Brother Duck is the following:

Francis (F): Brother Duck?  What if all living things were brother or sister to me?

Brother Duck (BD): That would make one really big family!

F: Yeah! and Earth would be our mother.

BD (after a pause)What about alligators?  If alligators eat ducks and a duck is your friend would you say, “Brother Alligator, you just ate my best friend brother duck”?

F: I suppose I would simply say, “Brother Alligator, I am so sad you ate my best friend Brother Duck.”

BD (another pause): What about mosquitoes? What if big, hairy creepy Brother Spider catches obnoxious blood-sucking Sister Mosquito–who had just bitten Brother Rattlesnake as he is slowly digesting slimy, disease-bearing- Sister Rat?

F: And the Lord God made them all!

BD: Hmmm.

I would recommend this book to any lover of St. Francis. The childlike-faith of Francis is showcased in this format. Young readers and old readers will appreciate what they find in these pages. I give the book four stars: ★★★★☆

Thank you to Paraclete Press for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for this review. Click here to read an excerpt from this book.

Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night: a book review

Sometimes as people age we watch the fire in their eyes die long before their breath grows cold.  Women of faith falter as they spend the winter of their years alone. Men who were once pillars of their community become empty shells. Thankfully not every one ages in this way, dying before their time. Others find strength in faith and cling tenaciously to life continuing to give and grow.  Robert Atwell, the current Anglican archbishop of Stockport has written a book about the spirituality of aging  which promises to help us make the most out of the last quarter of our lives.

Soul Unfinished: Finding Happiness, Taking Risks & Trusting God as We Grow Older by Robert Atwell

Atwell begins Soul Unfinished with an invitation. In our day and age, we can generally expect to live longer than our parents and grand-parents. So when retirement rolls around, we can choose to not give up but keep on living. Atwell exhorts us to continue taking risks, share wisdom and to go deeper in our relationship with God.  Atwell then describes retirement age, life in later years, memories and the role of elders in nurturing corporate memory, the healing painful memories, forgiveness and reconciliation,  self discovery and becoming and finding happiness, joy and gratitude.

I am not from the demographic which Atwell is writing.  As I am still in my thirties  I hope I am not in the last quarter of my life! Therefore it is difficult for me to evaluate the content; however I have ministered to seniors and can see the wisdom and sensitivity with which he approaches the issues. Seniors need to be told that they  still have something valuable to offer, that their life is not over and that this is the time to deepen their faith relationship.  Nearing sixty himself, Atwell doesn’t write disinterested advice as retirement is just around the corner for him too.

I gleaned from Atwell insights into how to speak meaningfully to people at this stage in life; yet the people who will find this book most valuable are seniors and those nearing retirement.  I think this would make a great gift book for the well loved retiree in your life. At the time of this posting, the e-book of this book is $2.99 on Amazon.

Thanks to Paraclete Press for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for this review.