Book Review: God, Improv, and the Art of Living

Let me start by saying that Improv terrifies me. Even as an audience member, I clench, more focused on what might go wrong than on what is actually unfolding. When compelled to improv in acting classes, both as a student and later as an adult, I felt like someone who just could not speak the language.

I do, however, approach every book I open with the belief it may have something important to say to me, whether an idea that sparks new understandings or a disagreement in perspective that challenges me. I’m open to possibility. My friend, author MaryAnn McKibben Dana, would have to tell you for sure, but after reading her excellent new book God, Improv, and the Art of Living (Eerdmans, 2018), I think I may just be taking a “Yes, And” approach to reading, if not to improv itself.

Many of the principles developed in the book resonated for this reader.

First, about God:

Rather than being remote and impersonal, God’s nature is to collaborate – to improvise – with God’s people. And when that improvisation occurs, it moves in the direction of inclusion and mercy and grace. (p. 49)

On the value of listening and how improv can deepen it:

Getting the gist is now our default practice, to the exclusion of deep understanding and shared wisdom…

True listening trusts there is enough time to consider, absorb, and be changed. Onstage, a good improviser trusts that a little bit of awkward silence isn’t nearly as bad as making a hasty move that doesn’t honor what their partner has offered. (p. 64)

On the role of the self-critical internal Voice that limits our risk-taking:

The Voice, also called the censor, is guided by two over-arching sentiments: “You’re not good enough” and “Who do you think you are?” These sentiments stop us mid-risk and keep us safe on the beaten path rather than in the improvisational mystery, which is scarier, but ultimately more interesting and satisfying. (p. 134)

And on getting to work:

Good ideas don’t have much shelf life. It’s much better to use them as quickly as possible, before they turn to ashes. (p. 142)

These and many other passages are underlined in my copy of the book, which is useful for looking at one’s life, but also a great tool for churches that might hesitate to take a risk in a changing world. To encourage exploring the principles of improv, the book includes a set of exercises for individuals and groups. Stories from scripture and contemporary life illustrate the principles. MaryAnn is a gifted aggregator, bringing together her experiences in class and on stage with the wisdom of teachers and scholars in a way that elevates her thesis. Being open to say “Yes, and” widens our sense of what is possible, makes our lives richer, and is faithful to the God who invites us to collaborate. Will we take the risk? I hope so.

I received an Advance Reader Copy of the book, in exchange for an honest review. I cannot guarantee that the page numbers indicated above are the same in the final version.


Horses Speak of God, by Laurie Brock – a review

“Sit deeply.”

After being thrown by her horse, Laurie Brock received that counsel from her riding instructor, a story she tells in Horses Speak of God: How Horses Can Teach Us to Listen and Be Transformed (Paraclete Press, 2018).

“Sit deeply and ride.”

I’m not a horse person. They are beautiful; that’s a fact. I rode horses on a family friend’s farm as a child and loved the experience, but I later had a scare at a riding lesson and never rode again. All this is to say I picked up Laurie’s book not even knowing how limited my knowledge of riding is. I appreciated the way she described the specifics of gaits and gear, as well as the temperaments of horses broadly and the horses she rides in particular.

Brock is an Episcopal priest and writes about her development as both a minister and a rider, here in a chapter on Fear, in which she describes the aftermath of being thrown by her horse, Nina. Just as she gets back on the horse, Brock encourages us to persist in faith.

When God meets us in our relationship and says, “Fear not,” God isn’t telling us to act as if we aren’t scared. Instead, God reminds us that fear will not be the only emotion or the conclusive one. When we are scared and fearful, we join a long line of faithful disciples who responded initially with fear, but stayed around. (p. 39)

In a chapter on vocation, Brock describes Nina’s role as a great teaching horse for riders who are new, and the instructor who recognized “she is an amazing lesson horse.”

Our vocations, our calls from God, work almost the same way. We experiment, perhaps discovering both what we are suited for and even what we are not called to do. We will need insight from others. Usually others can see our vocation before we can. Others can also see what might not be our vocation before we admit that we might not be suited for this particular ministry of God. (p. 45)

Brock’s book centers the reader in the necessity of balance and breath, routine and repetition, in our physical existence and our spiritual lives as well. Her relationships with Nina and the other horses she rides, grooms, and loves speak to our relationship with both the embodied and the transcendent. In the world of riding, some actions feel intuitive, while others require us to do what seems strange. We cannot grow without persistent practice, whether as riders or people of faith. It is not enough to approach our incarnate God with our intellect. Will we show up to meet God the way Brock settles on her horse, ready to move together, to be as one? 

I recommend this wonderful book to both horse-lovers and far off-admirers like me. Horses speak of God, and so does Laurie Brock.

I received an advance manuscript of Laurie’s book and wrote an endorsement, as well as this review.


Raising White Kids (book review)

In her book, Raising White Kids: Bringing Up Children in a Racially Unjust America (Abingdon), Jennifer Harvey offers practical parenting advice designed to help parents of white kids enter bravely into conversation with their children about systemic, structural, and individual racism. Harvey is a professor at Drake University and the author of Dear White Christians: For Those Still Longing for Racial Reconciliation (Wm. B. Eerdmans).

When I was growing up in 1960s and ’70s Virginia, my moderate-to-liberal parents did all they could to shield me from the racism around us. They did not differentiate in the respect that should be shown to adults of any race, or use derogatory language of any kind about People of Color. Yet we lived our lives in white social and professional circles. Most of the Black people I knew when I was small were domestic workers; despite my parents’ efforts, I knew these adults were different if only because I was not instructed to call our beloved-by-me housekeeper “Miss Catherine,” or the kindly janitor at church, “Mr. Henderson.” At the private schools I attended later, I rarely had more than one Black classmate. Many conventional ideas supported by structural and systemic racism which were not promoted at home got into my head through the culture, directly or indirectly. Overt racism such as “jokes” I knew to find offensive, but stereotypes seeped in, and our lack of conversation at home about the reality of racism left me to figure things out alone.

I moved from Virginia to very white Maine as a young mom and raised three children there – born in 1986, 1990, and 1995. I would have been very glad to have Jennifer Harvey’s book as a conversation-starter with other parents twenty+ years ago, when I had only a dawning sense of the need to be race-conscious myself. For me it was grounded in my faith, which is not a viewfinder used in this particular book. My thought process circa 1993 would have been something like: “If I believe that God loves all people, and I do, then it naturally follows that all people have equal value in God’s eyes, and if we don’t value all people equally, we need to get to work on it.” That line of thinking became fleshed out as I attended seminary beginning in 1994, interacting with classmates from varied backgrounds, including a Black classmate who also grew up in my Virginia hometown. The unfolding realization for me that we didn’t know the same places and people because of the virtual apartheid we lived in as children caused a radical change in my understanding.

Of course it came as no surprise to my classmate.

As my children made their way through school, we saw Portland become a tiny bit more diverse. The existing Southeast Asian community grew the old-fashioned way, and their children entered school as English speakers. As my two younger children started school, Portland welcomed waves of refugees from African, Eastern European, and Arab countries. I liked the diversity of the schools they attended, but wondered why my sons never seemed to make friends with – or even have classes with – kids who were not white. When the topic of race came up, I tried to respond in ways that were inquisitive and developmentally appropriate, but I had no tools other than a style of parenting that took that approach in other areas.

Harvey’s book is necessary and timely at the same time our conversation is far too late and still too white-centered. I understand the need to write for white parents who are, in 2018, where I was in 1993. They may have a sense that things should be different, but not know where to start, and not be aware of how influenced they are by systemic, structural, and individual racism in the national atmosphere. Harvey makes a convincing case that the kind of color-blindness my parents tried to teach fifty years ago still will not accomplish the goal of true anti-racism work. Harvey is gentle (some other reviewers think *too* gentle) in naming the “vexed” condition of being white in the midst of a movement to celebrate diversity and multiculturalism. Any concept defined in relationship to whiteness will still center whiteness.

I appreciate the content of Harvey’s book and can recommend it to pastors and parents who seek a starting point for conversations about race with their children and with each other. This is beginning level race-consciousness with clear explanations that are repeated so they will sink in deep. She relies on the good work done by others and shares many resources that will be helpful. I think the chapters are a little long for our short attention spans, but that is partly a function of the repeated emphasis on the important points of each chapter. Her writing is accessible, and her personal stories make it clear that she is in the midst of both the parenting work she describes and the resistance work we so desperately need.

The work before us is clear. It’s important to talk with our white children in developmentally appropriate ways about the realities of our nation’s history and our current times. Pretending everyone is the same will not bring us to a new tomorrow.  Celebration of diversity is problematic, when “diverse” simply means “not white.” As parents and people of faith, white people need to search not just our hearts and minds but our calendars and our “friends” lists, because if we talk to our children about racism but we are only in relationship with other white people, we are not moving ourselves or them toward a more race-conscious society.

I received two copies of this book from Abingdon Press in exchange for my unbiased review and with the understanding I would give one of the books away. Please comment here or on Facebook for a chance to receive that copy.


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.