Bible Sisters (a book review and giveaway)

I am always looking for devotional material. I particularly like books that will carry me through a season, whether in my life or from the liturgical calendar. Looking back I remember that I read a particular book in a Lent of discouragement or during a summer of discernment. A good devotional can be a support and a partner in the walk of faith. Bible Sisters: A Year of Devotions with the Women of the Bible (Abingdon Press) offers a year of companionship, and because it is undated, the reader can begin at any point on the calendar and have a companion for the 365 days to come.

Scroll down to enter the giveaway!

The author, the Rev. Dr. Gennifer Benjamin Brooks, brings her scholarship and life experience to bear in each of the brief reflections on a short scripture passage, tailoring the material to the lives of women today. I’ll confess I immediately thumbed to the back to look for indexes and liked what I found, listings both by scripture and by name (or “The woman who…” in the case of unnamed women). Some women who appear in major Biblical stories appear on more than one day, giving both the author and the reader a chance to look at the same story from different vantage points.

Having recently led a retreat on the stories of the women who anoint Jesus in all four gospels, I was interested to see how Brooks included them, and from there I skipped around to find other favorite Bible women. I especially appreciated Brooks’ take on Martha in Luke 10:40, where she begins, “I have always felt that in the telling of the incident, Martha was not treated fairly.” She brings us into the moment with Martha, whose efforts to bring order out of chaos are unaided by her sister.

If you don’t know your Hebrew Bible women well, the book will be an education.

I would recommend the book for anyone curious to learn more about women in scripture as a devotional practice, and ready to learn from a scholar. This is not a “Jesus Calling” book that tries to speak for God but rather like talking with a smart friend about women long ago who faced the same kinds of challenges we strive to meet with faith today.

To enter a giveaway of the book leave a comment here or on my Facebook page, or retweet the post link, before 9 p.m. Eastern on Monday, May 22nd. I will use a random number generator to choose a winner.

Brooks is Ernest and Bernice Styberg Professor of Preaching and director of the Styberg Preaching Institute, Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, Evanston, Illinois, and she is an elder in full connection, New York Conference, The United Methodist Church.

Many thanks to Abingdon Press for reaching out to RevGalBlogPals with copies of the book for review. I received two copies (one to give away) in return for my honest review.


Deliberate Acts of Kindness (a book review)

Ever wonder how to get started in some kind of volunteer service? In this increasingly unchurched era, many people who might have plugged in through a faith community in the past don’t have that obvious set of connections, yet they feel a pull to do good. We see it in the generosity expressed through donations to GoFundMe and Kickstarter. People have an impulse to help other people. But how can we know where to start?

Meredith Gould,  author of Desperately Seeking Spirituality and The Social Media Gospel, offers a road map to the service seeker in Deliberate Acts of Kindness: A Field Guide to Service as a Spiritual Practice (ClearFaith Publishing). This is a revised 2nd edition – the first published in 2002 – that takes into account the rise of social media and new means of communication. For my readers who are already plugged into the life of the church and its web of service opportunities, the information shared may seem unremarkable, but that simply points up how out of touch folk engaged in the institutional church can be from those who don’t see a list of volunteer suggestions in a printed bulletin each Sunday morning. Where can those service seekers begin?

Meredith Gould

Gould has it covered, from a brief introduction to the broad theological stances of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, to tools for discernment, to pragmatic assessments of whether a particular service opportunity really is the one to which we are called. Have you started volunteering and been asked to serve on a non-profit board? Gould supplies a great list of questions to ask before agreeing. Finally, she explores the shadow side of service in some depth. In this time of great need combined with a decline in church participation, she offers an important resource to be shared with both the young unchurched and the rebooting “dones” searching for ways to be of use without doing so through membership in a church.

The length of the book does not allow for depth in the descriptions of different faiths. I would be interested in further discussion with the author about her description of Christian beliefs around heaven and hell, for instance, which are not as firm as she describes on my progressive end of the theological spectrum, where Christian Universalists reside.

While this is a great guidebook for someone just beginning to seek out service opportunities, I think it’s also a great check for churches wondering if they are using their volunteer hours well. What gifts do we have collectively? Where can they best be put to use? Are we serving from a genuine call, or have we gotten into a rut or become resentful of a long-standing commitment?

The book is valuable as a practical resource, but also as a deeper tool for discernment. Contemplative writing exercises throughout the book are well worth the cost ($18.00 for a slim volume), worth pursuing as an individual 0r as a tool for a church group trying to figure out where God might be calling a particular institution right now. As always, I find Meredith Gould’s matter-of-fact approach to her topic deeply helpful.

I received a copy of the book in exchange for my honest review.


Healing Spiritual Wounds: a review

The Rev. Carol Howard Merritt

In her new book, Healing Spiritual Wounds: Reconnecting with a Loving God After Experiencing a Hurtful Church (Harper One, 2017), Carol Howard Merritt tells her own story of moving from the punishing theology of her childhood to a new understanding of love, mercy and forgiveness. Yet this is not a memoir; it is a trail guide designed to help the reader make a similar journey. Recognizing our wounds allows us to undertake our healing, the healing God wants for all of us.

The Reverend Carol Howard Merritt grew up in the evangelical church. While attending Bible college, she made a turn in her theological understandings and became an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA). Her past books, Tribal Church: Ministering to the Missing Generation (Alban/Rowman and Littlefield, 2007) and Reframing Hope: Vital Ministry in a New Generation (Alban/Rowman and Littlefield, 2010), provided resources based in a deep understanding of cultural changes and generational shifts the mainline church seemed reluctant to acknowledge. Now she turns her gaze to the tradition that formed her, and to the injuries inflicted by a controlling, patriarchal system.

chm-quoteThe chapters are organized around areas in our lives that might need healing from wounds inflicted by the church: our image of God, our emotions, our broken selves, our bodies, our hope, even our finances. Howard Merritt shares pieces of her personal story as well as the experiences of others whose stories illustrate each concept. At the end of every chapter, she includes exercises designed for use by individuals or groups. The exercises employ scripture, art, encounters with nature, journalling and other forms of reflection. A range of questions prompt the reader to consider and reconsider events that may have been harmful. I found the prompts to be creative, gentle, and pastoral.

I grew up in a downtown Southern Baptist church that didn’t seem to differ much from the mainline downtown churches of my childhood, and I have done a lot of psychological and spiritual work over the past thirty years. I thought, as I began reading, “This book will be a great tool for others.” As I got in deeper, I recognized the places where I learned something new years ago that I accepted intellectually, but never at the heart or gut level. Any of us who grew up influenced by the patriarchy can find some good work to do with this beautiful book.

Carol Howard Merritt is an intellectual force in the life of the 21st century church, an artist and a mystic, and a genuine example of a faithful Christian who has done and is doing her work. This book is recommended for individuals and groups, for men and women, for anyone who has been hurt by the church or wonders what people mean when they say they have been hurt by the church.

I received a free advance copy of the book in exchange for my honest review. In the interest of full disclosure, Carol’s lyrical writing may also be found in the most beautiful foreword any book has ever had, in the book I edited, There’s a Woman in the Pulpit: Christian Clergywomen Share Their Hard Days, Holy Moments, and the Healing Power of Humor (SkyLight Paths, 2015).


A Christmas Carol – a particularly timely classic

In my family, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is a huge part of our collective holiday understanding. When my sons were children, they and I performed in a production at Portland Stage Company; Dickens’ words have knit themselves into our memory yarn.

Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.

a-christmas-carolPicture yourself in a room full of children and teenagers, all able to recite these words by heart, conjuring up the image of the old man who prefigures so many other cold-hearted anti-heroes of modern literature. Imagine being able to conjure up the ghosts
, and beggars, and carolers, and Cratchit children for yourself. It’s a gift to know a story so well that it’s available when you need it in your mind, for your spirit.

Many of us know film versions of A Christmas Carol, with Scrooges as varied as Alastair Sim, Michael Caine, Bill Murray, Albert Finney, Patrick Stewart, Jim Carrey, and Scrooge McDuck, as well as gender-bending versions featuring Susan Lucci, Cicely Tyson, and Vanessa Williams. I have a coffee-table version of the book featuring photos from the IBM-sponsored version starting George C. Scott, and one of the now-grown-up actors in the family received an annotated version for Christmas some years ago.

“Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?”

What I haven’t had is a handy paperback, suitable to reading to a child (or oneself) in bed, or for tucking into a purse or backpack while traveling over the holidays. Paraclete Press has just published exactly the right edition for that need, one that includes the 1843 illustrations, with comfortably large print for bedside lamp-lighters. If you haven’t read the full text, or haven’t read it recently, it would be a great addition to your home library. And unless your holiday decorations are, well, Scrooge-like, it would be a perfect stocking stuffer.

Further, A Christmas Carol feels particularly timely classic this year, as in this closing to the visit from the Ghost of Christmas Present, who pulls his robe back to reveal two children.

“Spirit, are they yours?” Scrooge could say no more.

“They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.”

…”Have they no refuge or resource?” cried Scrooge.

“Are there no prisons?” said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. “Are there no workhouses?”

This passage always makes me shiver, just as the possible future for the Cratchits never fails to make me cry. I hope you will make A Christmas Carol part of someone’s life this Christmas.

I have complementary copies to give away, courtesy of Paraclete Press, to the first five commenters here or on my Facebook page. Thank you, Paraclete!

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


Birthed: Finding Grace Through Infertility (a review)

15078564_1839375349671916_6555493755310983457_nIn Birthed: Finding Grace Through Infertility (Chalice Press, 2016), Elizabeth Hagan opens her heart, describing with exquisite intimacy her excruciating feelings of biological failure, human disappointment and divine abandonment. The reader looking for support while living through infertility will find a friend who understands, and the friend looking for ways to offer support will find answers, in this warm and real account of the author’s attempts to have the baby she so dearly wants.

The paragraph above was the “blurb” or endorsement I wrote for this wonderful, touching new book. I had the privilege of reading parts of the manuscript in development as part of a writing group and to see the process Elizabeth went through in coming to her conclusions about what the experience of infertility really did in and for her life. She is forthright about how hard it was, about the devastation of failed attempts at IVF and the loss of pregnancies. Women who have been through such losses will recognize the emotional pain, sleepless nights, and strain on a marriage.

If the reader is a pastor, a medical professional, or a friend, Hagan gives you some guidance on how to be present and how not to make things worse. When friends and loved ones really come through, they are treasured. As Hagan told a seminary classmate:

“Making a baby has broken my heart deeper than I’ve ever known. But, at the same time, I’ve also felt more seen and loved by a few of you than I’ve ever imagined.”

I took a breath and went on, “So I’m thinking that sometimes the only way that real love can go deep down inside of us is for our heart to be cracked open. And through the pain, love has the room to seep into us and live.” (p. 57)

Hagan’s writing voice is much like her “in real life” persona: approachable, authentic, frank, and funny. This makes it all the harder to live through her grief as a reader, and all the more beautiful to see her work to make sense of her situation, medically, emotionally, and spiritually.

I highly recommend “Birthed” to women grappling with infertility, to doctors and nurses, to pastors and counselors, and to women who want to better understand how to be a friend and a support.

Listen to Hagan read from the book in this video posted on Instagram.


I received a digital copy of the manuscript for the purposes of writing the endorsement, and a copy of the book as a gift from the author.

Advent, Books

“All Creation Waits” and “The Advent Coloring Calendar”

As a local church pastor, I love to share resources with my church members designed to enhance their experience of Advent as a season of preparation as opposed to a season of shopping. I want to take on some kind of practice myself, but as a pastor and a parent, I’m often stretched to the limit getting both church and family Christmas ready. Paraclete Press has two beautiful possibilities for those of us who like to work with a book as a spiritual practice, and I am excited to share them with you.

all-creation-waitsAll Creation Waits: The Advent Mystery of New Beginnings, by Gayle Boss (and illustrated by David G. Klein), offers meditations on wild animals and the way they live into the increasing darkness as winter approaches. Boss places the animals (from meadow vole to firefly to cottontail to bear) in their habitats and describes their seeming states of mind as well as the way their bodies have evolved to survive the encroaching cold. Each two page meditation serves to take the reader out of the everyday scramble of human life and into the natural world, deeper and deeper into the shortening days.

He should not be here. Not in the basement window well where he fell sometime in the night, sniffing out food. Not in Michigan, nor in any other state where winter temperatures sit below freezing many days in succession. We lift the opossum, held in the clasp of two rakes. When we open those gates and he quick-waddles into the woods, I bow to him, to the wonder of his survival.

Klein’s woodcuts detail the world of each animal, yet leave room for imagination. While this is not a children’s book, it is a book for many ages, and one a family could read together. The paper, as is characteristic for Paraclete, is gorgeous, making this a book that feels good in the hand. We are all waiting for Jesus to arrive, for God to break in, and this beautiful book is a fine companion for the season.

the-advent-coloring-calendarNow, if reading one more thing feels like too much, here is another option. The Advent Coloring Calendar features coloring pages for the 24 days of Advent, each with a brief word of seasonally appropriate scripture, as well as images for Christmas Day and several more that incorporate familiar carol verses. The book is available for single purchase but also comes packaged with two different recordings: Keeping Christmas: Beloved Carols and the Christmas Story (which includes scripture readings and features a traditional choir with organ) or The Coming of Christ: Gregorian Chant (less my cup of tea, but helpful for being less likely to cause me to get lost in singing along).

If you are a longtime devotee of Praying in Color, you’ll appreciate the quote from Sybil Macbeth, reminding us that coloring causes the “mind and the body to slow down.” Or maybe you are new to the idea of adult coloring books, which you will find for sale this year everywhere from Barnes & Noble to Urban Outfitters. While I always encouraged my children to color outside the lines, I find coloring inside them to be pleasing, relaxing, even comforting. Think of coloring as a mini-Advent retreat in a season when we are far too likely to be goal-oriented, whether it’s finding that iWatch or writing that sermon.

I received copies of both books and both CDs from Paraclete Press in exchange for an honest review.

Books, Enneagram

The Road Back to You: An Enneagram Journey to Self-Understanding – a review

Get the book at Amazon!
Get the book at Amazon!

This is the book I’ve been wanting and waiting for since January, 2014, when I spent five days on a cruise ship with co-author Suzanne Stabile and 39 of my best friends, learning about the Enneagram. Today is the launch for The Road Back to You: An Enneagram Journey to Self-Discovery (InterVarsity Press, 2016). Suzanne and Ian Morgan Cron have created an elegant and informative primer perfect for the beginner, but also helpful for those who have studied this ancient system, the aim of which is the care of our souls.

Dubious about systems that compartmentalize humankind? Wondering how anything could be better than good old Myers-Briggs?

The Enneagram doesn’t put you in a box. It shows you the box you’re already in and how to get out of it.

The book begins with an overview of the system and the nine numbers, or types,  and the “sins” (the Seven Deadly Plus Two) that illustrate the challenge for each type. The truth is that most people recognize their type when they hear or read a description that makes them cringe. I know I did.

(There is one exception, and while I will let you figure that out for yourselves, I will say I’m married to that number.)

Each chapter begins with twenty statements identifying what it’s like to be that number. For my own I found many of the twenty rang true, although some are characteristics I see in the rear view mirror. It’s good to recognize that many years of spiritual and psychological work can shift things that came naturally to us either via genetic predisposition or the effects of early nurture. Here are the first two “what it’s likes” for #2, the Helper, which is my number.

  1. When it comes to taking care of others, I don’t know how or when to say no.
  2. I am a great listener, and I remember the stories that make up people’s lives.

I identify strongly with the second, and, well, I’m always at work on the first. I do better with it in my professional life than my personal life. It’s accurate to say I’m a work-in-progress. And the Enneagram would say that about all of us. Each chapter describes the number at its best, as well as in average and unhealthy psychological and spiritual condition. (While each number has a pathological expression, that’s not a focus of this book.) Each chapter includes a story about a person of that type, often a little funny, unless you can see yourself in the tale, to your chagrin. You will also find sections about the numbers as seen in children, in relationships, and in the workplace.

cd_knowyournumber-2-300x300-1There is a brief explanation of wings (the number found on either side of yours; we all lean toward one or the other) and the way we move in times of stress or when we feel secure.

Finally, each chapter brings us back to the purpose of the Enneagram, which goes beyond defining personality to lead its students to a deeper spiritual understanding. The chapter on 2s offered an exegesis of Luke 10:38-42, the story of the sisters, Martha and Mary. Each chapter concludes with “Ten Paths to Transformation.” They are a helpful reminder that in addition to contemplative practices, there are practical actions (see? practical/practices) that help us go deeper, too. Here’s a great one for me.

When the urge to rescue or help overwhelms you, ask yourself, Is this mine to do? If you’re not sure, talk it over with a trusted friend.

Whether you are a spouse or parent or friend, in a struggle with a co-worker or trying to understand a relationship’s dynamics, a seeker or a longtime churchgoer, Stabile and Cron and the Enneagram have something for you. Their work is rooted in their Christian faith. Ian is an Episcopal priest; Suzanne is married to the great teacher of Centering Prayer, Rev. Joe Stabile, a United Methodist pastor.

Every number on the Enneagram teaches us something about the nature and character of the God who made us. Inside each number is a hidden gift that reveals something about God’s heart.

The only critique I can offer is that having heard Suzanne teach both in 2014 and again last month, I was sorry that her contributions might be assessed by readers who don’t know her as asides. Much more of the book comes from her teaching than the mentions of “Suzanne tells this story” you will see along the way might suggest.

Ian Morgan Cron and Suzanne Stabile
Ian Morgan Cron and Suzanne Stabile

I highly recommend this book, which launches today. It is a great introduction or refresher on the Enneagram. I received an advance digital copy for review with no obligation. (I pre-ordered a copy months ago and will be watching eagerly for the UPS driver!)

If you want to know more about the Enneagram, you can listen to the podcast Ian and Suzanne are hosting, in which they talk to some great representatives of the 9 numbers. It’s also called The Road Back to You.