Here is Real Magic by Nate Staniforth: A Review

I first heard about this book on Rob Bell’s podcast, the Robcast. He interviewed the author and I was compelled to read it.

What is it about wonder and mystery that draws us in? What is it that curates our desire for something that moves us to a point of seeking more and wanting to explore the unknown?

Nate Staniforth has lost himself. His life as a magician has left him exhausted, and yet it is all he has ever known and he cannot imagine doing anything else. While reading many books on magic, he recalls hearing of the stories of magicians in India that truly went to the depths of wonder and left people wanting more. This is what he desired for his own magic. Not just simple illusions that he has mastered, like card and coin tricks, but true magic that leaves all in awe.

I’ll have to admit that while reading his memoir, I was left wondering where God was present. While God is never named, mystery and wonder is. Can God be found in the mystery and wonder of magic tricks or illusions? To simply say no to this, would leave us discounting a God that is present in and among everything.

Nate’s journey toward self-discovery leads down some interesting roads where he meets some very interesting people and encounters an India he never would have imagined in the poverty and trash, and yet many of the people seemed very happy. There is a poem that is given to him by someone he has met which he shares. Perhaps it could begin to give a glimpse into what magic truly is.

Bless the magician for knowing something I don’t. The appearance and disappearance of the artifacts of this material world give me an island moment of unknowing, A mystery that gives me relief from the consuming need to question everything, and then to answer it.

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Book Review: Shameless by Nadia Bolz-Weber

In her latest book, Nadia Bolz-Weber, opens up a topic that many in the church attempt to stay clear from. While the entire basis of our life on earth is contingent upon our ability to have sex, it has often times been a taboo subject within the church. Many times the church has went to extremes to steer clear of the topic or at its worse, to speak of the evils of it.

I did not grow up in the church and therefore was not too aware of the purity movement that happened within it. I heard a few things along the way, but at that time it didn’t affect me so I did not pay too much attention. It is the purity movement that she directly addresses in the beginning of her book and bringing to the forefront the harm that is has caused over the years.

Like many of her other books, she brings in many stories from her parishioners that help support her thesis. She also speaks of the holiness of being with God and each other. As she compares the two she says that “holiness is about union with, and purity is about separation from.” I believe that it all comes down from this as we are a holy people that are called to live with union with one another.

To attempt to say what is holy and not holy of others is in direct competition with God. God has created each of holy. Every sing part of our bodies. To be with another person in being welcomed into a holy experience. There is nothing that we should be ashamed of. We should not let others make us feel any less.

There is no shame to be felt in our bodies. “God is made known: in the miracle of our infant bodies, so recently come from God that you can smell God on their heads; in the freedom of our child bodies as they were before shame and self-consciousness entered into them; in the confusion of our pubescent bodies and the excitement of our teenage bodies as they become familiar with desire; in the fire and ice of our young adult bodies as they connect with each other; in the goddamn mind-blowing magic of our baby-making bodies; in the wisdom in our aging bodies; and in the so-close-to-God-you-can-smell-God beauty of our dying bodies.” God wants us to be one with our bodies and to know them intimately as they are created in the image of God.

This is a tough message to share as we have avoided the conversation for far too long. It is about time that someone like Nadia brings it the forefront. She has also included some great resources for individuals and congregations to reach out and learn more.

Book Review: Confessions of a Funeral Director by Caleb Wilde

“…the room went from tears to laughter at the drop of a snot.”

It is quips like this that make Caleb Wilde’s book so real. I had purchased it almost as soon as it came out last year and I am sorry that it took me so long to read it. 

As a pastor, I too see death on a regular basis and hear all of the misleading phrases that are meant as comfort and honestly do more harm than good in the long run. As he states in the book, death is real, and grief is real. The narrative that we place around death and dying is really what shapes us as humanity. To be healthy, we must approach it from a positive narrative, however, we are more prone to approach death from a negative narrative. 

The funeral director and the pastor both have a vital role in shaping this for families of the dead, and unfortunately, not all look at death as something to embrace. The stories that are shared are real. They are situations that I have personally experienced as well. They are not unique to Parkesburg, Pennsylvania. They are the stories that we live as humans and ones that are repeated time an time again. 

Overtime, our view of death has been shaped by faulty theology and ill-conceived intentions. I agree with Wilde that death is a sacred experience and not something that we can bring closure to. It is real and our family and friends that have died surround us daily in a great cloud of witnesses. His book is a way into the conversation the breaks us open to love and learning how to just be.

The book reveals how he has found life in the midst of death. How he has grown into his family business and how he has learned to walk with families at their most vulnerable moments. It is a read that may reshape your own preconceived notions of death and the life that emerges from it. 

You can follow Caleb Wilde on his blog.

Book Review: Thirst by Scott Harrison

I had first heard of Thirst, while listening to Rob Bell’s podcast, The Robcast. The author, Scott Harrison has a great story to share with his readers which speaks to our own broken human nature on multiple levels. First, it speaks to the individual brokenness that Scott does not try to hide. Second, it speaks to the brokenness of our own world and the inability that we have claimed to be able to get everyone a clean glass of water to drink. If you are looking for something to stir your soul, this book will fulfill that need.

Scott Harrison starts by sharing his story of the good Christian boy gone bad. He became a club promoter, but realized that there was something more to life that drinking all night and sleeping in until late in the afternoon. He would spend money nearly as fast as he could make it. 

As he began to listen to where he was being called he served on a Mercy Ship and out of that experience started Charity:Water. The lives that Charity:Water has touched and changed is incredible as they reach out to those that do not have access to clean water. The ups and downs of the non-profit industry resonate in the book and it is amazing how quickly it grew. 

Charity:Water is not a Christian organization, but it’s heart reflects that of Jesus Christ’s as they reach out to bring a better life to as many people as possible. This book brought me joy and a greater sense of my own call.

Review: True Inclusion by Brandan Robertson

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Are you serious about change?

I have heard time and time again from churches that they want to change and become more relevant. They wonder why they lose members and cannot attract the younger generation. The fact is, many churches are hypocritical to the message of inclusion that Jesus preaches and practices in the Bible. From the moment that the Christian way was co-opted by Constantine, the church has been ruled by the patriarchy. This has not changed much over the last thousand years and as Brandan Robertson states in his new book, True Inclusion, to become truly inclusive, we must move beyond the patriarchy to a point of egalitarianism. The first disciples practiced this extremely well and as humanity always seems to do, overtime, we lost track of what it meant to love our neighbors as ourselves.

While ordained in a denomination that puts up the image of being inclusive, there are still many of our congregations that are not! The ELCA is the least diverse of all denominations on any given Sunday. Unless we truly begin to embrace the inclusiveness that Jesus speaks of, I do not see how the ELCA or any given number of denominations will move into the future. The message of Jesus Christ has been abandoned and we must do what we can to once again proclaim that message for all to hear, not just a select few that think they are privileged.

The message that Brandan shares in his book is one that all congregations need to hear because as he says, “The gospel of Jesus Christ is the most radical message ever heard across the face of the earth, not because of its moralistic or dogmatic claims, but because it subverts the very way that humans are programmed to think, to live, and to love.” This is the message that must be broadcast, and yet some people will still choose not to hear it. All we have to do is look at the political spectacle today to know this truth.

Brandan’s definition of inclusion is “about following others to live into their full, divinely created humanity, not degrading them, stripping them of their dignity and personhood.” How can we argue about this in the church? This should be what we strive for, yet we are quick to make exceptions. Jesus’ love, knows no exceptions.

The inclusion that is spoke of in this book will make many people uncomfortable. It will make them uncomfortable because it questions their power and places their fears right in front of them. Yet, how can we call ourselves the church when we do not uphold to this most basic teaching of Christ?

This book is a short quick read, yet it is an extremely powerful call to live into God’s creation. Within this call, he also addresses intersectional inclusion in which two paths must work together, such as the equality between races as well as inclusion of the LGBT+ community. We can help each other in the path towards inclusion because the groundwork has already started to be paved.

He admits that this call to inclusion will not be easy because it requires a change of theology. God is moving within our world and if we fail to heed to the movement of the Spirit, we neglect those that we should have been loving and at times could even exclude ourselves.

A wonderful chapter in the book is when he brings in a panel to ask questions and dig deeper into what true inclusion means. These varied voices add integrity to a book that is already teeming with a call to follow Christ as he called us to love one another. This book is well worth the investment and could be a helpful tool in helping your community embrace a true inclusion where the diversity of God’s creation is fully welcomed and loved beyond capacity.

Thanks to Chalice Press for a copy of this book to review

Review: Your God is Too Glorious by Chad Bird

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With thanks to Englewood Review of Books for the opportunity to review this title

Does the notion of God being too glorious make you shudder? Surely, it is not possible for God to be too glorious. It is God that has created the world and every breathing plant, animal, and creature that resides on it. It is God in Jesus Christ that gave up his life on the cross so that we may see what the love of God means for us and the life everlasting that flows from it. It is Jesus that is resurrected on the third day to conquer death once and for all. How can this be too glorious?

The gospel of John is all about the glory of Jesus and lifts it up for all too see! As I picked up Chad Bird’s newest book, I questioned exactly what he meant by the title. It seems at first a little off putting. That is, until you read the subtitle, Finding God in the Most Unexpected Places. This begins to shed a little light upon the main title. Using both stories from his personal life, and those of friends and acquaintances, Bird descends into the thesis that we do make God too glorious. Bird’s offering could be compared to Walter Wangerin Jr.’s latest offering, Wounds are Where the Light Enters. While Wangerin has many titles and years of experience to his repertoire, Chad Bird does an excellent job of standing right up there with him.

Bird’s stories are ones that can bring tears and an ache in the heart for everything that has happened to the people in them. Since the time the apostles began spreading the good news across the countryside of Israel and into the Diaspora, God has slowly been lifted to a place where the ordinary person cannot even think about reaching. It was Martin Luther that sensed this in the early sixteenth century and brought God back to the people in a Bible that could be read by the common people. God was not something that was outside of their grasp, only to be born by clergy, but a God that is with them in their daily lives.

As Bird presents throughout his ten easy to read chapters, God is awesome and wonderful. However, we have made God too glorious, where we have chosen to remove God from our daily lives and reserve God only for Sunday mornings. We have thought at times during the last millennia that God is not of this world, but only created the world. Yet, God is of this world and was present with us in Jesus Christ and continues to be present with us through the Holy Spirit and Christ guiding us. It is time that we begin to see God in the people that surround us and events that happen to us during the week.

Yes, God is extraordinary. Yet, this does not keep God from being in the ordinary events and occasions that occur daily. Bird discusses how God is present with us at times on “unseen altars” (pgs. 52-55). These “unseen altars” are present all around us. Perhaps even in the room where you are sitting to read this review. Those altars he says, “Look like a rocking chair where a mother cradles her crying infant to her breast. . .. look like a John Deere driven by a farmer who pulls a plow to ready the earth for seed. His cap is stained with sweat. His callused hands are the résumé he has. . .. look like a taxi, honking and weaving its way through the labyrinth of New York City traffic. They look like an outpost in Afghanistan, where a Marine holds a rifle in his hands and dreams of holding his three-year-old daughter again. . ..” As ordinary as these contexts may seem to us, they are not ordinary for God. In each of these contexts, God is present.

Many times, we find ourselves in situations that appear hopeless and we think we just have to ride them out. Yet, the awesome God that chose to enter this world in a newborn baby, walks with us this very day to guide us through those times that we feel lost or stagnant. It does not look glamorous where God decides to reside in our lives. It truly is the lowest points that God uses to show us that we are made for much greater things. The church is no different. We think we need to make everything glitzy to attract and grow congregations. However, God is present in the ugly and unpleasant. As Bird speaks of the seminars that are always claiming to solve all the church’s problems, he says, “The subtext of every one of them was the same: what you’re doing now is not enough. Not relevant enough. Not revolutionary enough. The time has come to recreate and refine the church’s dull image.  What she desperately needs to do is sexy herself up. What the church desperately needs, however is the ecclesiastical equivalent of a boob job and memberships at God’s Gym. She needs more flat tires” (pg. 131).

These flat tires we encounter along the way, in our personal and communal lives, is where the work of God becomes most evident. Unfortunately, while God is present, we choose not to see God in the times that are great, and everything is running along smoothly. It is in the flat tires that God is visible, and we open our hearts to the glory of the creator and savior of the world. Bird shows the visibility of God in these flat tire situations which then can prepare for those times when we feel as though we are on top of the world.

Resuscitating a Lost Language: A Review of Jonathan Merritt’s Learning to Speak God from Scratch

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The language that we use to speak of God has evolved over time and Jonathan Merritt puts out the call for us to reestablish our foundation. Learning to Speak God from Scratch is a way to examine our beliefs and reach out to generations that did not grow up knowing God in a religious setting.

We must remember that the Bible as we have it today has been passed down through numerous generations with many additions and subtractions and what we find ourselves reading today is the best rendition of the original intent, hopefully, inspired by God. Our Israelite ancestors did not originally share their faith through written word. It was an oral tradition that was passed down from generation to generation which was finally put to animal hide, papyrus, or paper. The writers did the best they could to get their thoughts down. Yet, even from oral to written text, there is a loss of the intention of the original meaning.

This evolution has never ended as we can walk into any book store and find numerous translations of the Bible, with each claiming to be better to reach a certain segment of society. This is the visible reality of our faith today. This boils down to the point that the majority of people do not know how to share their faith so that others can understand. As a pastor, I am no stranger to this and just when I think I have a great sermon, I am reminded by those listening that it either went over their heads or they did not pick up what I was laying down.

Merritt calls us to reexamine those words that we utilize to share our faith and realize that their meanings too have evolved over time. Many times, we make the definitions fit into our way of thinking that makes us comfortable. For example, in our current immigration battles in the United States, we look over what Jesus meant by neighbor. We do not truly welcome in the neighbor as Jesus would have when we refuse to support and welcome refugees and those seeking a better life. Instead, we lock up our neighbors and separate their children from them.

Merritt explores and attempts to build a definition for many others words and ideas as well, including Yes, Creeed, Mystery, Grace, Brokenness, Saint, and Family, just to name a few. These discussions bear some personal stories as well as getting to the root of the biblical foundation of the words. Many of the words have been co-opted to serve our own purposes over time. Or simply, in our more secular society, we have chose to overlook words and disregard their meanings. There is a language barrier that has developed over time. Merritt is attempting to break down this wall.

By learning to speak God from scratch, the hope is that we will be able to reach out with a new profound proclamation. It is not a new message, just a renewed way of saying it. This is a good start on the journey to listening to God in our lives and therefore sharing that story with others.

Learning to Speak God from Scratch is scheduled to be released on August 14. Thanks to the publisher for an uncorrected proof copy to review.