From Bud to Blossom: a book review

I am a faith blogger, meaning I blog about the Bible, theology, and the intersection of faith and life. I also review books (which you know if you’re reading this). I discovered the Redbud Writers Guild several years ago and immediately wanted to join. Then I discovered I couldn’t, all because it is a group of women writers and I am ill-equipped to join such a group.¹ That didn’t stop me from reading their blogs and following their authors everbloomon social media.  

I am not that broken up about not being able to join. I don’t actually need to break the faith blogger gender barrier, and the blogosphere is replete with other writers groups that my voice fits well in; however, I was impressed by the quality of writing I repeatedly encountered from members of the guild, bloggers and authors I’ve appreciated, women like: April Yamasaki, Margot Starbuck, Leslie Layland Fields, Jen Pollock Michael, Emily Gibson and others. This is a diverse bunch of women (not all of whom would feel at home in a Woman of Faith tour with geraniums in their hats). These are pastors, theology students, homemakers, activists, poets, novelists, theologians—women of color and anglos, Boomers, Xers and Millennials.

A new book project, Everbloom (Paraclete Press, April 2017), compiles stories, poetry and reflections from the women of Redbud (quite a few who were new voices for me). These stories speak of grief, anxiety, pain, loss and redemption.  These women share personal stories of difficult and grace-filled moments and the freedom found in Christ. The book is at turns vulnerable and full of good humor. Each author shares their story, closes with a brief prayer and a writing prompt for personal reflection.

This book is written by women, rooted in their experience, and the intended especially for a woman audience. Some of the writing prompts make this explicit: “What has been painful and necessary for you to grow as a woman and in relationship with God?”(16); “Reflect on your own ideas of motherhood using this statement: mother knows best.” (140); “Describe a strong influential woman in your life.” (202), etc.. But honestly, this is just a solid collection of writing, full of varied and poignant stories and guys would be encouraged by it too. I always feel sad when I visit a Christian bookstore and thoughtful women authors are quarantined in the ‘woman’s interest’ section (lest they have authority over a man or something). Sometimes us male readers will have to adjust these reflections to our experience, but women readers are accustomed to making adjustments for male authors everyday (or anytime their pastor throws Braveheart into their sermon). So guys: this is well written, man up and don’t be scared!

But with Mother’s Day just around the corner, this is a great gift idea for a mom or special woman in your life, It is a rich storehouse of stories, prayers and opportunities for reflection. I give this four stars.

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

A Lenten E-votional

unnamedWe are in the first full week of Lent and just incase you may still be hunting for a devotional, here is a good option:

Paraclete Press has been my go-t0 source for Lenten reading for several years now. I’ve used prayer books published by them, and read a few of their devotionals and family resources, in order to help me be present to God through during the Lenten season. God for Us, with its multi-author, multi-discipline and multi-denominational approach remains a personal favorite of mine (each author provides a week’s worth of reflections). This year, I have been praying the psalms with Martin Shannon, CJ (According to Your Mercy). [Link’s above take you to my reviews of these books]

Both of these devotional are available to you as a subscription service. For $9.99, the daily readings come right to your inbox. Perhaps you don’t need another book cluttering up your home or struggle to read an e-book devotional (without a visual reminder, e-books are easy to forget about). But if you live life tethered to a screen, at a desk or through a personal device, this is a way carve out some sacred space for reflection. Click on the banners below to subscribe via Paraclete Press’s website:

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Praying the Psalms Toward Easter: a book review

It is through the psalmists’ syntax, imagery, and bold cries that we learn to pray. With laments and petitions and songs of thanksgiving and gratitude, the Psalms name dimensions of the spiritual life. My devotional life has been enriched by praying psalms. After all, Psalms is the prayer book of the church and source of Jesus’ own prayers.  according-to-your-mercy

 According to Your Mercy by Martin Shannon, CJ is a Lenten devotional with daily readings from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday. Shannon, is an Episcopal priest, liturgist, author and member of the Community of Jesus on Cape Cod, MA. In each of the forty-seven daily readings,  Shannon offers a brief commentary, a quotation from one of the Church Fathers, and a short poetic, prayerful response to the daily psalm. While the entries follow the Lenten calendar, most of the psalms he uses aren’t placed in a particular order (with the exception the psalms for Holy Week). “They are simply a collection of prayers that reflect various twists and turns on the Lenten Journey.  As a season of penitence, Lent lends itself to such meandering for, when all is said and done, we know where we will end up” (introduction, xi).

The first reading begins with Psalm 121 (“I lift my eyes unto the mountains? Where does my help come from?), reflecting on the pilgrims’ journey to Jerusalem (one of the Songs of Ascent). A quotation from Augustine reflects on the promise of Divine protection. The selection of other Church Fathers cited includes saints from the third to eighth centuries, both East and West. Paraclete

I am excited to delve into this devotional. Shannon is a thoughtful reader of the Psalms and his selections, reflections and quotations seem well suited for Lent. The book shall be my companion in the days ahead.

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

90 Days in John 14-17, Romans, James: a book review

Tim Keller is a pastor, popular author and a sought-after conference speaker. Even those of us on the egalitarian, non-Reformed end of the evangelical spectrum appreciate Keller’s graciousness, intelligence, and humility. He is kind of like our Calvinist, complementarian man-crush. Sam Allberry  is an editor at the Gospel Coalition, a global speaker for Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM) an author, and the founding editor of Living Out (a ministry for those struggling with same-sex attraction). Keller and Allberry have teamed up for a 90 day devotional on John 14-17, Romans and the book of James. Their  walk through these passages were first published in Explore Quarterly, a journal published by the Good Book Company.

kellberryThe daily entries walk through a passage of scripture by breaking it up into a verse or two mini-sections, asking probing questions, and providing brief explanatory notes. Each day closes with suggestions on how to apply the passage, and often suggestions for what to pray in response. There is a blank, lined page for notes and prayers for each entry. These studies are designed to be done with an open Bible beside your devotional, so you can reference the words on the Page.

Carl Laferton, Good Book Company Editorial Director, writes a helpful introduction (seems like a series introduction as he makes no reference to the actual passages discussed in this volume). He suggests that as you read the passage for each day you note a highlight (the truth from God which strikes you most) the query (questions about what you are reading) and the change (ways God’s spirit is prompting you to change) (8). At the close of each study Laferton suggests writing a one sentence summary of how God spoke to you each day and a short prayer about what you have seen. This format is not reflected in the notes of Keller and Allberry’s daily entries; nevertheless it seems like a fruitful way to approach God’s word expectantly.

Because Keller and Allberry elected to write questions and notes for each verse or two mini-section, there isn’t a heuristic framework for the type of questions they ask. For example, many Bible Study methods use some version of Observation, Interpretation, Application. Mostly they ask the observational questions (questions about what it says in the text) and interpretive questions (questions about what you think the passage means) for every couple verse section, saving the application questions for the whole passage.

This is a 90 day journey and I have had this in possession for about a week. I haven’t been able to more than skim through it; however I read enough to get a sense of the entries for the purposes of this review. I will focus mostly on entries from Romans in my comments bellow.

The authors of this volume are both theologically conservative and this is reflected in their approach to passages and particular notes. That is to be expected, we all bring our own theological lens to scripture, but they do attend to what they read in each passage. So for example, in their discussion of Romans 1:26-32 they give a brief explanation of how homosexuality is viewed as a sin in the passage, “homosexuality is described as ‘against nature’ (para phusin).” But they are also careful to not turn it into a super sin as some conservative interpreters might, “But notice it comes after Paul has identified the root of all sin: worshiping something other than God. And it comes before a long list of other sins, including envy and gossiping. Active homosexuality is no more or less sinful than these—all come from worshiping the created, rather than the Creator” (104). This is perhaps a controversial passage to highlight (the only verses in this study which would address anything about homosexuality and the LGBTQ lifestyle) but it gives you a sense of how they attempt to follow the contours of the biblical text and are constrained by it.  Romans 9-11 give a classic Reformed understanding of election, predestination, God’s foreknowledge and the future of Israel (175-192), though not in a heavy-handed way.

The notes are not detailed. There are no footnotes or suggestions for further reading to delve deeply into the passage. Keller and Allberry give a non-technical, lay-person friendly interpretation of the passage, but if you do each daily study right, you, the reader, are doing all the heavy lifting, accessing biblical truth for yourself rather than depending on them for interpretation. Because they walk through whole books of the Bible, or sections of books in the case of John 14-17, this is much more detailed than those daily-thoughts-on-a-verse devotionals they sell at the supermarket.

Yet, because this work is not scholarly, there are the occasional lapses common to popular preachers. When they are discussing Romans 8:15-17 they write, “Abba means ‘Daddy,'” I know how well this preaches (I’ve preached it myself), but the best linguistic evidence would just translate Abba as father or dad without the informal, familiar feel of daddy. Nothing serious but not always careful speech. I also think breaking up passages into small daily chunks, can obscure the rhetorical structure and the flow of an argument. I think a bird’s-eye-view is so important for grasping an epistle’s meaning (especially a theologically sophisticated one like Romans). Keller and Allberry clearly have a road map they are following through each biblical book, but like your GPS they only reveal where to turn next. They don’t give you a large overview of the terrain, trajectory and destination of each book.  A good orienting essay introducing the books covered would help tremendously.

I love the Bible. The upper room discourses & Jesus’ high priestly prayer, the book of Romans and James, contain some of my go-to passages. If you are looking for a devotional or guided study to discover these sections of scripture, this is a good choice. It would be  impossible to read through this in 90 days and not grow in your understanding of these books and their meaning. And reading this devotional, as intended, will help you hear the voice of God in the text. Keller and Allberry are good guides, by no means perfect, but this would be helpful alongside other resources which help you to engage the Bible. I give this three-and-a-half stars.

I received this book via Cross Focused Reviews in exchange for my honest review.

Stretch Your Attention: a book review

I am a distracted man and I live among a distracted people. Our electronic devices buzz and chirp. Our online worlds provide portholes to cat pictures, news (real or fake), click-bait quizzes and a nearly endless supply of slideshows on what celebrities wear (or whatever else they do). We work and care for our families. Duty calls and we plod through it all, but feel pulled away by every-little-thing. Is it any wonder we have little sense of God’s presence in our lives? Laura Davis Werezak has written Attend: Forty Soul Stretches Toward God to help us cultivate a greater awareness of God (and everything else). This is a semi-autobiographical exploration of the spiritual practices Werezak has found helpful. She invites us to incorporate these stretches into our own life and faith.

attendlargeWhat does attend mean?  Attend means to be present (as in ‘attending class’). It can also mean ‘to serve’ and ‘to wait’ (59).  The word literally means “to stretch toward”(2).  So these stretches are designed to help us as readers attend well to the condition of our soul and  to the relationships of those around us, as we stretch toward God.

These forty stretches are organized under four headings taken from Isaiah 30:15, “In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength, but you would have none of it.” So it’s organized as follows: I. Returning, II. Rest, III. Quietness,  and IV. Trust. This provides the flow for the stretches which Werezak describes: We return (or turn) our attention to God by learning to pay attention to life; we rest in the Lord, learning to enjoy His presence; we cultivate our ability to hear him the quietness and risk discovering what it means to trust in the Lord in our actions. Werezak begins by describing the practice of opening a window (physically and spiritually) and allowing  fresh air to blow in and ends with a call to plant a seed of peace through the work of justice.  Between these two practices there is not a sequence but a series of interconnected stretches which aim at helping us to attend well.

One of the things I really enjoy about this book is the scope of the practices which Werezak describes. These practices are spiritual (e.g. ways of prayer and mediation), relational (e.g. writing notes, playing with a child, reconnecting with a friend, listening to others), sensate (lighting candles, watching sunsets and sunrises, breathing, writing down five-sense experiences), and mundane (e.g. making your bed, setting tables). She reveals how we can develop our attention to God in all of life (even if it means unplugging from something for a while).

I always have two questions I ask whenever I read a book on spiritual practices. First: is this book just another Christianized version of a self-help book?  Certainly there is overlap being what Werezak calls attentiveness and the concept of mindfulness borrowed from Buddhism and slapped on the cover of every pop-psychology, business and personal growth book. Indeed I think if you practice many of these stretches, you’d be more mindful, aware, more present, and more appreciative of what you have in life. Making your bed, setting the table, cleaning, cutting an onion à la Robert Farrar Capon and watching a sunrise will help you become aware and intentional. Also, Werezak’s stretches are helpful for getting us pay attention to our relationships.However this isn’t just a self-help book because ultimately her hope is that we stretch our attention to God and his place in our lives.

Second: Is there an ecclesiology here? Books on spiritual practices often lack corporate dimensions. Even influential books like Dallas Willard’s Spirit of the Disciplines lack a developed ecclesiology. And yet our experience of God is fundamentally shaped through our participation in church. Werezak  focuses her stretches on the personal dimension, emphasizing embodying our attention to God; however she does connect her experience to the wider Body of Christ.  She shares about finding a home in Anglican liturgy and delving deep into Christian tradition. She draws insights from mystics and the weird old prayers of the Book of Common Prayer.  She connects her personal  attempts to pay attention to God with the corporate practices of confession, praying written prayers, saying a creed out loud, listening to some else read the Bible for you, etc.). She sees deep connections between her experience, the church and the world and she connections her practices to the church’s Sacraments (44-45, 65, 80). But the strength of this book is how rooted these stretches are in Werezak’s own experience. These stretches are practices which have nourished her and her  own relationship to God.

Because this book features 40 stretches, this is an excellent devotional reader for Lent (coming up March 1), or as something substantive to read if your church is embarking on one of those forty-day extravaganzas. Certainly this book can be read by yourself (as I did) but books on spiritual practice are often more fruitful and fun if read with a friend. There is enough meat here for some good discussion and it is more fun to do stretches and work-out with a friend. Or with a small group. This book is a worthwhile read. I give this book four stars.


Note: I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

In the interest of full disclosure, Laura is a friend of mine. We attended the same Christian grad school, had class together, were once neighbors on the University of British Columbia campus and  we were, together with our spouses, in the same justice-themed-small group. These days we catch up occasionally via Facebook. I know Laura to be a smart, reflective woman with a vibrant faith which comes through beautifully in her prose.

Naming the Son: a book review

Brother Victor-Antoine d’Avila-Latourrette is well known for his cookbooks including Twelve Months of Monastery Cookbooks.  But he isn’t just a monastery chef, he is a Benedictine monk well versed in the Rule’s rhythm of work and prayer and the Great Tradition. In Christ the Merciful he skillfully weaves biblical, liturgical, monastic, ecclesiastical  and patristic sources together, providing forty-seven mediations on the many names of Jesus (not all are names, but titles, or modes of addressing and understanding Christ’s significance).  Brother Victor contends, “When we meditate on his names, Christ inspires us to revise our expectations of him. He invites us to move beyond our self-centered ideas of who we think he should be and focus instead on his ever-changing, ever-renewed presence in our lives” (introduction, ix).

christ-the-mercifulThese names for Christ are derived both from biblical source material and centuries of Christian reflection on who Christ is for us. While Br. Victor is firmly rooted in his own Benedictine tradition he draws generously on the insights of the ancient church and Eastern Orthodoxy.

Christ’s names are organized into five sections. In Part I, Brother Victor reflects on ‘Christ in Images, Names and Symbols’ Here, Br. Victor explores Christ’s divine and messianic titles—what it means to call Christ, God, the prophets’ fulfillment, the Messiah, the Incarnate One, Our Emmanuel, the Prince of Peace, the Lamb of God, Lord, Son of the Living God, Good Shepherd, Door and Keeper of the Gate. Part II  explores Christ in the gospel tradition, tracing the life of Jesus from Messianic hope and his Bethlehem birth, through His life, death, resurrection and ascension.

Part III describes some of the titles of Christ in the Byzantine (Eastern) tradition such as Christ the Pantakrator, And Christ the Philanthropos (Lover of Mankind). Part IV delves into the place of Christ in the Monastic tradition, (including the Jesus prayer and the role of Christ in a monk’s daily life and devotion). Part V explores Christ in the Human Family (Jesus the child of Mary and Joseph and his relationship to us, the poor, the angels and saints, and the Wisdom of God). At the end of the book Br. Victor has three appendixes exploring the prayers and mystical traditions of Syria, Russia and Romania, respectively.

Each of the meditations in this volume begins with relevant scripture passages, several pages of reflections from Br. Victor, and they usually close with a poetic prayer from a saint, a liturgy, or other writings from the Church’s rich theological tradition. Given the breadth of images and names and the thoughtful coherence of whole book, means that it is impossible to read through these meditations without enlarging your understanding of God’s grandeur revealed in Christ. Christians of all stripes (Catholic, Orthodox or low-roving Protestants) will find these reflections Christ centered and worshipful.

This isn’t to say that Br. Victor is exhaustive in his reflections on Christ’s many names. He doesn’t reflect on a couple of my favorite of Christ’s biblical titles, “Friend of Tax Collectors and Sinners (Luke 7:34), Great Physician (Luke 5:31), or Christ our Brother (Hebrews 2:11). His discussion of Jesus as Lord is apolitical, emphasizing the spiritual meaning but not Christ’s challenge to empire (as N.T. Wright reminds us, to say Jesus is Lord is to say Caesar is not). These omissions do not diminish Br. Victor’s fine prose. Christ is bigger than any of our reflections and all of us see now in part.

Because of the length of this book (forty-seven chapters) and its Christological focus, this would be a wonderful book to read throughout the season of Lent. Though it could really be read at anytime, by those who are interested in contemplating the Christ and  live their life in Him. I give this four stars

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

A Clay Jar Glory: a book review

Joni Eareckson Tada’s story is well known among evangelicals. In 1967, at the age of seventeen, a diving accident left her as a quadriplegic. This led to struggles with depression, suicidal thoughts, and a crisis of faith. Two years later, Tada emerged from the darkness to become an artist, a Christian speaker and author. She is respected for strong and enduring testimony and she is a tireless advocate for the disabled. Her openness about her own struggles with depression, chronic pain and doubt has encouraged millions. Tada’s latest book, A Spectacle of Glory, is a 365-day, daily devotional designed to help readers put God’s glory on display, even in the midst of difficult, trying circumstance.

spectacleThese daily devotions consist of a Scripture verse reference (occasionally a version of the Bible suggested), a couple of paragraphs reflection and exhortation and a short prayer. The scripture references consist of one to three Bible verses for each day. As someone who enjoys studying the Bible, I don’t usually go for the daily-verse type devotionals; however the brevity of these devotions is one of its best features. I have friends who have suffered from chronic pain, Parkinson’s, or have undergone mind-addling medical treatment. This zaps their energy and destroys their ability to concentrate for longer periods. Reading long swaths of Scripture or doing deep study is not feasible. What they need is an encouraging word. in the midst of their circumstance.

And Tada delivers. With more than fifty years of faithful Christian service as a quadriplegic, she speaks with integrity about what it means to persevere, our strong hope and the robust character of Christian joy.  If you are in the market for a devotional in 2017, this may be a good choice.

Note: I received this book from Handlebar media in exchange for my honest review.