A Review: Wounds Are Where Light Enters by Walter Wangerin, Jr.

Thanks to Englewood Review of Books for the advance copy and publishing this review.


Walter Wangerin Jr. has become one of the quintessential story tellers of this day and age. His stories break through the mundane and add a personal touch to everything that he shares. Whether his stories are based upon scripture or from his own personal collection reflecting upon his own experiences, he can connect with his readers and listeners as he offers the opportunity to enter the story as well.

In his newest collection of stories, Wangerin Jr. shares stories from his own family. Stories that helped shape him as a person of God. In these stories, the reader witnesses humanity. A humanity that resides in the ordinary. A humanity that resides in the sin and the brokenness of life. The stories are endearing and are a witness that Walter Wangerin Jr. is a human being just like anyone else. Too often, pastors are put upon pedestals in the eyes of their parishioners, forgetting that they too sin just like everyone else.

He makes it clear that each and everyone of us has a brokenness that leads to the wounds that share who we are as people of God. These wounds are exactly where we see the light of God breaking through. The subtitle of the book calls it God’s intrusive grace. A grace that breaks through when it is least expected. A grace that reminds us who we are and whose we are. The grace breaks through in every one of the twenty-two stories that are shared. The stories range from Wangerin Jr.’s childhood of dreading Christmas to stories he shares of his neighbors as he pastored a church in Evansville. Some of the most personal stories that he shares are the ones of his own children. Being a parent is a tough job, and through the stories that he shares, shows that he struggles just as much as any other parent.

One instance of God’s intrusive grace can be seen in his son, Joseph. It is in the wise words of Joseph that Wangerin Jr. is brought to the realization that he too can make mistakes and bring some of his frustrations from work, home to the dinner table. As he flicks the hand of his daughter Talitha, because she is fidgeting a little too much, she starts to cry. It is Joseph that highlights the wound and encourages the light to shine through. “Sometimes Daddy spanks us and we don’t mind. It doesn’t hurt. We laugh and have fun, because it’s a birthday spanking and he’s counting the years since we were born. He says, ‘A pinch to grow an inch.’” . . . “But when Daddy is angry, even a little flick hurts.”

It is these little insights into his life that Wangerin Jr. reveals a light that shines for all to see amid our personal wounds. While there is a sense that these stories have been collected over the past several decades, they still speak boldly today. They speak to our wounds and the wounds that we encounter in others.

Over the past year and a half, we have been reminded that race relations in our country are not what we thought they were. The story of his son Matthew, can break the readers heart. It is a story of hurt and a father’s love. When he was young, Matthew was friends with the neighbor girl. The only problem, is that in the neighbor’s eyes, “black and white do not marry.” The love that Wangerin Jr. shows for his son in this moment, is the same love that God shows for each and everyone of God’s children. A love that moves beyond race, nationality, or anything else that is used to separate one from the other. Unfortunately, there are still some people that have this opinion today. Matthew was not the perfect child. In another story it is shared that he had the tendency to steal comic books. It was Wangerin Jr.’s own response to his son’s thefts that actually made him stop. It was the sight and sound of his father crying that brought him to the realization that the theft of comic books must stop.

The stories that are shared within this quickly read volume can be life changing. Life changing for the author and for those that are in the story. The stories touch upon the reader’s heart and reveal the in-breaking of God in our own lives. We are all wounded in this life and some choose to dwell in the wounds and some choose to let the light break through for all to see. In sharing these personal stories of God’s love embracing humanity, Walter Wangerin Jr. once again reminds us that God is much greater than the wounds that scar.

This review is posted on Englewood Review of Books


A Review: A Course in Christian Mysticism by Thomas Merton, edited by Jon M. Sweeney

Thanks to Englewood Book Review for the advance copy and publishing this review.


If you have never had the pleasure of visiting Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky, I would recommend you take the time to do so. My visit to Gethsemani several years ago was one of my first true encounters with the work of Thomas Merton. Staying for a week at the Abbey allows one to hear Merton’s lectures during meal time. His voice coming through the speakers with an air of authority yet a playfulness that exudes an openness.

Jon Sweeney has done a wonderful job of compiling and editing some of Merton’s lectures into this thorough teaching on the early Christian mystics, providing the foundation for our practices that we have this present day. In this century, the interest in mysticism and spirituality has been on the rise as people are looking for deeper connections with God. Sweeney, bringing the lectures of Merton to life for all to easily access, provides a basis for an introduction to Christian mysticism while allowing the reader to make connections to the present.

Among his many jobs over the years at Gethsemani, Merton was a teacher and took pleasure in instructing novices and the other young monastics. These lectures came out of the need that he saw for reconnecting with the traditions of the early church. The lessons or lectures began in 1961. Merton wrote in his journal, “We have no memory. . .. The loss of tradition is an important factor in the loss of contemplation.” This is surely one reason why he wanted to deliver lectures on these topics to the young monastics (from prologue, xiii). Living in a community is not always easy, and it is through the eyes of Merton that the young monastics were encouraged to connect with the early Christian mystics and find their place in it all.

Thomas Merton, himself, is one of the leading Christian mystics of the last century. From his autobiography, Seven Storey Mountain to his books on Zen and the connection Christianity has with Buddhism, Merton brings a well deep in mysticism that has not quite been seen to the same degree since his early death in 1968.

In his first lecture, he sets out the aim for the course and the importance of connecting with one’s tradition. As he witnessed the young monastics moving away from their knowledge of the tradition, we too can see that same loss today. Many Protestant churches express an uneasiness when it comes to connecting with the early mystical traditions of the early church fathers and mothers. The mystery of the church has lost its intrigue for many and they want to be told specifically what to think, say, and do. Merton acknowledged this concern within the Catholic church throughout his life and desired for people to seek out the mystical traditions that helped shape and form the early church. He says in the first lecture, “We must become fully impregnated in our mystical tradition. The mystical tradition of the Church is a collective memory and experience of Christ living and present within her” (pg. 10).

As Merton journey’s back to the first mystics, his writing can become a bit heady if you do not have a basic understanding of Christian history. He does a fairly good job at trying to explain himself, yet one may have to slow down a little to fully take it all in. The early martyrs and Gnostics, specifically Ignatius, Irenaeus, Clement, and Origen, all have a place within the foundation of Christian Mysticism and while some of their practices and beliefs may have been corrected overtime, their influences are still felt to this day. In Martyrdom, Merton emphasizes that it helps one die to their own selves as they commit themselves to the way of Jesus Christ.

He points to many of these early martyrs and Gnostics as the source of Christian mystical thought and the beginning of true contemplation as we have come to know it today. He goes into a deeper discussion on the Cappadocian Fathers. He makes a connection with gnosis and the first thoughts of contemplation as he speaks of St. Ignatius.  The ascent to God is viewed through the sharing of the writings of St. Gregory of Nyssa and many of the mystics throughout the centuries have taken aspects of St. Gregory of Nyssa’s explanation on mysticism and the ascent of the soul to abide in God.

Merton also brings Evagrius Pontus into the discussion as “one of the most important, the least known, the most neglected, and the most controversial of Christian mystics” (pg. 57).  Merton continues his journey through time as he teaches upon St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the Beguines, Eckhart, St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross and many more.

These in-depth lectures over the course of three years are brought to life through the editing of Sweeney, so that the reader can feel as though they are right in the room with Merton instructing them and leading the discussion. The addition to pointing out additional resources and a study guide makes this a wonderful resource for group discussion. This is not the first time that these lectures have been in print, however, Sweeney edits them all into one collection and with his additions, he has created a resource that should be a part of anyone’s collection that is interested in learning more about Christian mysticism.

A Review: Tears We Cannot Stop by Michael Eric Dyson


I am honestly not sure where to start, therefore this will probably become more of a recommendation than it is a review. Dyson uses the format of a worship service to present a flowing oratory on the current state of race relations in America today. I honestly, believe that as a white heterosexual male my response is not worthy. What I need to be doing, as well as the rest of white America, is to be listening. Listening to our brothers and sisters that have walked the road that is foreign to our own upbringing.

I do not know what it is like to be a black man in America, and I could never truly find out. I have been pulled over twice for speeding and not once have I received a ticket. I did not pull out a pour me story or try to make excuses. Both times, my son was in the car with me. I understand how much different the outcomes of those situations could have been if I were a black man in America.

Unfortunately, that understanding falls on many deaf hears throughout the country. While God has created us equal, humanity has decided to divide. This is a sermon to wake up those to the experience of black America. I will never fully understand my brothers and sisters experiences, but I know that I can walk with them and listen. I can stand beside and with them, and do better.

This is a book that should be required reading in schools. Of all of the books that I have read in the past year, this rises to the top of the list.


A Review of Radical Spirit by Joan Chittister


Thank you to Englewood Review of Books for the opportunity to review this title.

We are a people that search. We search for the things we have lost. We search for the latest and greatest item that will make our life that much easier. These searches tend to focus upon the outward self and what will benefit us as individuals the most. The search that is easily avoided because it takes too much time and a lot of patience, is the search for the inward self. The self that is called to be in relationship with God. It is in this search that we are able to grow as individuals and nurture our relationship with God.

To begin this search, one can go to the closest book store and look at the self-help section or spirituality section and find hundreds, if not thousands, of books on the topic of personal growth. Each one meant to connect with a certain personality. I believe that few have the ability to span across the millennia and connect the past with the present in a way that leaves the learner wanting more.

In her newest book, Radical Spirit, Joan Chittister is able to do just that. The subtitle, 12 Ways to Live a Free and Authentic Life, may sound like a book that could be a quick fix to your spiritual life. However, what she presents is a life journey. It is no quick fix, but it is a way of living into your true self and building a stronger relationship with God. Our true selves have been swallowed up by the abundance of things happening around us. We are bombarded daily by social media and the news. Every second we turn around, we encounter something new and must intentionally pull ourselves away from it. As she says in the introduction, “This book is about recognizing what has mastered us and then discovering what it will take to break those chains.” We have allowed things of non-importance to master our daily routines, and this is a call for us to wake up and see how we can change.

The twelve steps that she lays out for the reader are based upon the ancient Rule of Saint Benedict. It is these very rules that she had to walk through herself as she became a Benedictine nun. These ways or rules come directly from chapter 7 in the Rule of Saint Benedict and address the importance of humility. What a telling sign in our times that the need for humility is being lifted up. In the midst of our latest presidential election and the partisan fighting that seems to be constantly happening in our government, it appears that possibly a little humility could do all of us some good.

The beautiful thing about Chittister’s offering is that it is not purely a rephrasing of Saint Benedict’s rule written back in the sixth century. She takes a chapter for each of the twelve ways in which one can work towards a humbler life and living into the true self. It is also providing the opportunity to live into a greater spiritual fullness. While she takes each step, and discusses it in depth, she does so in three parts. Her chapters may read somewhat like a catechism instruction as she digs deeper into each step of humility.

She first explores what the challenge of each step is by asking the question, “what is the challenge here?” There is, of course, a challenge to each of these steps, or Saint Benedict would not have included them in his rules. The next question that one must ask is, “What is the underlying issue?” We must venture into what it is truly deep within us that makes this step more difficult to follow. Finally, she asks the question of “What are the spiritual implications of this step of humility?” This is where we begin to work on our spiritual relationship with God. How will living into each step of humility get us closer to our true selves and thus closer in relationship to God.

Part of the wonderfulness of this book is that it also reads somewhat like a memoir. Sister Joan shares with the reader how she has progressed through many of the steps in her own personal life. From entering the monastic order while she was young to the many varied experiences that she had throughout her life encountering each step and having to wrestle with it. While not a complete autobiography, it gives the reader a glimpse into the character of Sister Joan and how she has faced the tough act of humility.

The steps to humility tend to progress on the difficulty scale as you move through them. Humility is not easily achieved overnight, and following in Sister Joan’s acknowledgement, it is something that takes a lifetime of work. Isn’t this true of all things spiritual? This is why people jump so quickly from one practice to another. They do not have the patience to walk through the difficulties associated with whatever practice they are attempting. It is the patience that is required to stick with something, even when we feel that our prayers are not being answered, that we will finally hear God’s response.  In this patience, we listen. “A spiritual life that learns to listen to the voice of God within is a spiritual life with God as its director. Then we are free; then we are truly authentic.”

This is also not just a one-time practice that as you work through the steps, you will come to completion. It is true that, “Just as the world thinks one struggle has been won, somewhere, somehow, it emerges all over again.” It is amazing how history does repeat itself, and we fail to learn from our mistakes as people of God. This is where we fall into sin. This is where Sister Joan’s work offers us the opportunity to work out of those mistakes.

What posture must we take as a people of God today? “In a society that glorifies achievement and success, the very thought of a spiritual life based on what appears to be groundless deference and debasement of self is totally unacceptable.” We allow the grace of God to wash over us and humble ourselves before God. “Spirituality is not about feeling good about ourselves. It’s about dong good wherever we are. It’s about bring good to everyone…. It’s about fashioning our souls in the kind of silence that enables the whole world to feel safe in our calm and quiet presence.”

In this calm and quiet presence, she brings The Rule of Saint Benedict back to life for those that may have forgot it; for those that may have never seen it; and for a world that is so in need of humility in this time and place.





Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders: A Review


Be prepared for you mind to be stretched and your heart to be tugged.

Many of us wonder what it must be like once we leave this earthly world at the time of our death. As a Christian, I have faith in the Risen Lord Jesus Christ and know that he died so that death itself maybe conquered and we won’t suffer. However, what comes after this? Even within the Christian faith, their are disagreements.

Saunders first novel brings us to the night of the burial of Abraham Lincoln’s son, Willie. This is historical fact that Willie died while Lincoln was in office and it paid a toll on both him and his wife Mary. Yet, Lincoln still had a country to run and was in the midst of the Civil War. Saunders ventures into that death and the evening of the burial. Lincoln spends most of the night in the cemetery, and through ghosts that inhabit his body, we hear the thoughts of Lincoln as he contemplates his sons death and what that may mean for his future in the White House.

Saunders takes great license as the story unfolds and can be quite provocative at times. The characters that live within the cemetery come to life on the pages as they converse with one another and even try to converse with Lincoln.

This is a thought provoking look into the time during the Civil War and especially into the perceived feelings of Lincoln. It brings about the true human struggles that we have with death. It also brings about hope and love.


Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance: A Review

This memoir has been added to many must read lists as we are now in a country where a Donald Trump presidency is possible. It is suppose to explain to some extent why the outcome of the election happened the way it did. It is suppose to connect with the core of the American blue collar worker that was not happy.

Vance does a good job of explaining his background and even that of many that moved from Appalachia searching for better jobs and pay. He grew up in circumstances that those growing up in the middle class would find hard to understand. He also is eager to get away from that culture to an extent where he wants to better his life and break the cycle of anger and violence that he associates with being a “hillbilly.”

Whether it gets to the core of our current political situation, I cannot quite say. It touches upon it and does reiterate the displeasure of not being able to move up within society. Therefore, the people to blame would be the current administration that is running the government. I will admit that being a white male from a middle class family, I have a hard time connecting the two.

Overall, Vance is a great writer and shares his story beautifully. To be born into a family in the hill country of Kentucky and to raise himself up to attend Yale and become an attorney is a great success story. One, as he says, helps deliver the American Dream.

Perhaps though, we need to rethink the American Dream.


The Divine Dance by Richard Rohr: A Review


The Trinity is quite often an overlooked aspect of the spiritual life. We tend to think of God and Jesus Christ, yet tend to leave the notion of the Holy Spirit out of the equation. When we include all three into the equation, we are able to truly dig deeper into our own spiritual well-being.

Richard Rohr, along with Mike Morrell explore the Trinity in The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation. Bringing in the image of Andrei Rublev’s The Trinity painting, allows the reader to get an image in their mind, as well as the possibility of us being the fourth person sitting at the table with the Trinity.

God wants us to be in relationship with all three and it is here that Rohr is hoping to lead us into that great encounter.  Beginning with the vast view of the Trinity throughout time leads us to the present and the need to engage with the Trinity here and now. Until we come to the realization that everything in creation works together and is required to bring us into the kingdom of God, there will be brokenness and sin. I believe his theory on growth of Western atheism is right-on:

Do you ever wonder why Western atheism is on the rise? Why does the Christian West, by far, produce the highest number of atheists? What I believe, and have dedicated my life to reversing, is that we have not moved doctrine and dogma to the level of inner experience. As long as “received teaching” doesn’t become experiential knowledge, we’re going to continue creating a high quality of disillusioned ex-believers. Or on the flip-side, we’ll manufacture very rigid believers who simply hold on to doctrines in very dry, dead ways with nothing going on inside.

And so we have two big groups on the landscape today: those who throw out the baby with the bathwater (many liberals and academics) – and those who seem to have drowned in the bathwater (many conservatives and fundamentalists).

How about allowing the bath water to keep flowing over you and through you?

It is anyway, but we can considerably help the process by gradually opening up the water faucets–both the cold and the hot.

Rohr’s writing, as usual, is easy to read and very engaging. He brings a truth to his writing that I wish more people would pick up on. Until we start to experience the Holy Spirit within us and listen to where it is calling, then we will not fully live into the life that God is calling us to. Our interaction with the Trinity is truly a dance that is beautiful and as robust as we make it.