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: 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

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.

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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: Tears We Cannot Stop by Michael Eric Dyson

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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

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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.