Just Mercy

Lawyer Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, does a stellar job sharing stories of people whose lives have been horribly disrupted by failures of the U.S. legal system. Despite the heartbreak within the pages of Just Mercy, Mr. Stevenson presents a story of hope and determination.

By sharing the stories of his clients, Mr. Stevenson connects readers with the humanity of those affected by incarceration. Beyond headlines that feed on our natural fear of violence and longing for safety, the lives of individuals and communities are being disrupted irreparably by a system of criminalization that heavily punishes those who are poor and from marginalized communities.

After reading the story of Walter McMillian, wrongly convicted and sentenced to die, readers who support the penalty might change their minds. In Just Mercy, Mr. Stevenson shares the details of Mr. McMillian’s case, as well as stories of other innocent prisoners who have been exonerated. Along the way a solid case is made for abolishing the death penalty, and for necessary reforms in the meanwhile.

The United States incarcerates more of its citizens than any other nation in the world. The statistics woven throughout the narrative of Just Mercy paint an astonishingly stark picture. For example, children who are subjected to abuse and neglect in their homes, and who later end up in court for nonviolent offenses, often receive harsh sentences and little opportunity for the care that could lead to healing. There are laws to protect offenders with intellectual disabilities, but theses laws cannot help if defense attorneys do not highlight their relevance to a particular client’s situation. Prosecutors and judges who want to appear “tough on crime” must still honor legal protections for the accused, or they risk punishing innocent people.

For anyone with an interest in social justice, and a longing to resolve inequalities created by poverty and racism in the U.S., Just Mercy makes an inspiring read. After finishing Just Mercy, learn more about the work of the Equal Justice Initiative on their website, where links are available to resources on the death penalty, imprisonment of children, and mass incarceration.

Disclaimer: This review is freely given, based on a copy of Just Mercy borrowed from the local public library. No fee was received.

the weight is over

532945_10207362262240698_5530050580359190562_nThe health of our bodies is deeply intertwined with the health of our communities. In the U.S., we know the level of unhealthy living has reached crisis level, yet the problem can feel insurmountable. Restoring health to our communities requires not only institutional support, but also spiritual strength and a solid dose of inspiration. The latest work from author Stanley Porter, a Boston-based musician, minister, and inspirational speaker, will be a blessing to communities in need. Written with personal trainer Nikquisa Nunn, The Weight is Over: My Journey toward Faith, Fitness, and Freedom addresses the deep emotional and spiritual challenges that stand as obstacles to wellness.

As Porter says in a video for this book, “I’m hoping that we can hold hands through this book and help each other be all that we were created to be.” There is power in sharing our stories of overcoming challenges and emerging stronger. The testimonies of Nunn and Porter bring encouragement and hope.

With the aim of bringing their lessons into communities, where people can immediately receive inspiration and turn toward wellness, Nunn and Porter are raising funds for outreach. You can directly support their efforts, and receive a pre-release copy of The Weight is Over.

An official book release celebration in Boston is scheduled for July 25, 1-3:00, at Frugal Bookstore in the Roxbury Mall.

For another opportunity to read Porter’s inspirational words, I recommend Every Song Has a Story, which I reviewed here.

Disclaimer: This review is freely given, and no fee was received. I know Stanley Porter from my youth, when we attended high school together.

The latest release from Joan Chittister, OSB, is Between the Dark and the Daylight: Embracing the contradictions of life. In this book Sister Joan gives an experienced, philosophical voice to the hurdles facing spiritual seekers, and helps “to take the sense of aloneness out of life.”

A Benedictine Sister of Erie, Pennsylvania, Sister Joan is a prolific writer and a vocal advocate of peace and social justice. She has written extensively on the topic of equality for women and the role of women in religious life. Sister Joan, with sharp intellect and deep faith in human goodness, questions all assumptions. She seems to learn from every encounter with life, and with teachers of wisdom from all traditions. In her writings, she confidently asserts our common humanity and shared conditions of pain and grace. In Between the Dark and the Daylight, readers benefit from her honesty and boldness, as when, for example, Sister Joan writes about the ways we protect our hearts with a smile, until night comes and we have to face our inner turmoil. Her voice encourages readers to listen inward and grow, for “without that, we are not yet fully alive.”

In an interview with Maureen Fiedler of Interfaith Voices, Sister Joan spoke about her intentions in writing this book. She said, “We have to focus on the attitudes we bring to every challenge in life. We have to ask whether or not we have examined each of them thoroughly or only with prejudice….By admitting our fears and prejudices to ourselves we make room for other ways of thinking. Then we no longer get up in the morning geared for battle.”

In one moving chapter, Sister Joan writes about loss and the ways in which loss can open the way for new life. “Loss frees us to begin again, to be seen differently, to tap into something inside of ourselves that even we were never really sure was there.” Examining one’s perspective on loss can be liberating, as a fresh view gives wounds permission to heal.

Sister Joan lifts up a Benedictine teaching, that we are “to come to see the beauty and glory of God everywhere,” and shares plentiful ways in which to do this. I recommend Between the Dark and the Daylight, and all of Sister Joan’s writings, as companions for the journey.

Disclaimer: A copy of this book was provided by Blogging for Books for this review. No fee was received.


Nadia Bolz-Weber writes of a faith that caught her completely off guard, a faith grounded in her lived experience. With her direct and refreshing voice, Pastor Nadia testifies that when you are a sober alcoholic, and you have felt your life saved by forces completely beyond your abilities to explain, resurrection begins to make sense. It becomes the most real thing in the world. Pastor Nadia’s memoir, Pastrix: The cranky, beautiful faith of a sinner and saint is honest, powerful, and brought tears to my eyes.

She writes about the church of her youth; encountering the profound limitations of churches; journeying through reckless behavior and toward sobriety; entering, with surprise, into seminary; founding a church where God’s mercy has a chance to shine through.

I have been reading the sermons and columns of Pastor Nadia for a while now, and I find her theology consistently inspiring. She preaches about Jesus transcending cultural boundaries, Jesus inviting everyone to the table, Jesus expecting all of us to forgive, Jesus calling for us to love everyone—especially when it is hard. If I lived in Denver, I feel certain I would make a home at Pastor Nadia’s church, House for All Sinners and Saints.

With eagerness I await Pastor Nadia’s forthcoming book, Accidental Saints: Finding God in all the wrong people, to be released September 2015.

Meanwhile, I shall try to remember this: “The kingdom of heaven, which Jesus talked about all the time, is, as he said, here. At hand. It’s now. Wherever you are. In ways you’d never expect.”

Disclaimer: This review is based on a copy of the book borrowed from my local public library. No fee was received.

“Listening to God’s echo in our lives, approaching Scripture as if God were speaking to us, is the beginning of midrash.”
For a fresh and vibrant experience of reading Scripture, open Sandy Eisenberg Sasso‘s highly readable Midrash: Reading the Bible with question marks. In this book Rabbi Sasso provides a straightforward discussion of the Jewish tradition of midrash —interpretation of Scripture— and how this practice can nourish one’s spiritual life.

Rabbinical tradition teaches that the revelation of scripture is the beginning of a conversation, a process of seeking and listening for meaning. As Rabbi Sasso writes, “By dwelling in the text, by interpreting it and making it come alive, the people came to encounter the divine and continue a conversation begun long ago at Sinai.”

To guide readers through the process of reading and creating midrash,Rabbi Sasso shares ten examples from the tradition, each followed by a personal story. Readers experience the ongoing conversation with Scripture, and the importance of our contemporary stories. A particularly helpful section reflects on midrashim on the theme “God was in this place and I did not know it,” where Rabbi Sasso engages with Scripture related to finding glimpses of the holy in ordinary places.

Why should we read and practice midrash? “Midrash lets us glimpse the light of the old souls who saw the glow of the holy in the words of Scripture. It invites us to find that light within our own souls and bring it to illumine the sacred narratives.” We come to see the value of our own stories, and the many ways that Scripture can speak into our lives, as it did for our ancestors.

A lovely, rich, and inspiring read, Midrash: Reading the Bible with question marks would benefit Christian and Jewish readers, as well as secular individuals interested in the many ways to understand the Bible.

Disclaimer: A review copy was provided by the publisher. No fee was received.

from enemy to friend

“Even when one sees something ugly in another person, one should give heart to the fact that there, too, dwells the name of the Blessed One, for there is no place empty of God.” —Rabbi Jacob Joseph Katz
I strongly recommend From Enemy to Friend: Jewish wisdom and the pursuit of peace to all readers interested in interreligious dialogue and peacemaking. In this book Rabbi Amy Eilberg has done a compelling job presenting personal stories, classical Jewish texts, and peace and conflict theory to bring readers a powerful vision to guide our everyday lives as peacebuilders. There is inspiration for all who feel that “peace is not a utopian ideal, but a daily need.”

For anyone unfamiliar with the rich peace tradition in Jewish texts, Rabbi Eilberg shares that “the command repeated more frequently than any other in the Torah — 36 times, in fact — is the command to love, to reach out to, and do justice to the stranger.” She offers rigorous yet accessible engagement with Jewish texts, highlighting the many ways that peacemaking forms a central component of Jewish teachings.

Rabbi Eilberg illustrates that peacemaking is not merely a set of tools or techniques, but a way of being in daily life. As peacemakers, we must begin with transforming our own hearts, and extend our efforts into the world of our neighbors. With regular practice, we can learn to “unclench our fists, minds, and hearts when we feel wounded,” and live into the truth that “all human beings, even those who have hurt and threatened us, are human creatures like ourselves, worthy of the same respect and dignity we demand for ourselves.”

When the fear and hate that are revealed in the news become overwhelming, we can remember that many ordinary people hold peacemaking as the central value. For example, I learned of the exciting work of Clergy Beyond Borders, essential for building understanding in a pluralistic society. In another example of peacemaking lived, Rabbi Eilberg writes about the intentional community Oasis of Peace/Neve Shalom/Wahat al Salam, where Jewish and Arab Palestinian citizens of Israel live together. Across our religious traditions we need guidance and inspiration, to learn to lay aside our fears and suspicions of difference that often get in the way of building relationships.

Readers will find that From Enemy to Friend offers inspiration, deepened understanding, and rich material for reflection. In a world that is hungry for peace, Rabbi Eilberg’s inspiring and helpful work deserves a wide audience.

Disclaimer: A copy of his book was provided by the publisher for review purposes. No fee was received.

For those who are beginning their journey into motherhood, Helen Good Brenneman provides tremendous encouragement with Meditations for the New Mother. Each of thirty selections includes reflection on a scripture and a comforting prayer.

Readers receive a reminder that empowers anxious mothers: our God is the same God who gave courage to Mary the mother of Jesus, and who answered the prayer of Hannah the mother of Samuel. Strength and comfort can be drawn from the knowledge that mothers throughout the ages have turned to God, and we can do likewise.

These pages brim with hopefulness and gentle encouragement. Helen Good Brenneman guides readers to notice that the tasks of daily caregiving provide opportunities to turn our hearts toward God, to lean on God, to offer praise. In one prayer we read:
“Dear God, in view of all that is expected of a mother, I would feel most inadequate were not my hand in yours. I thank you for entrusting me with a living soul. Help me to bring out the best that is in my child by teaching that above all things we are to live, move, and have our being in you.”

Some of the meditations would resonate best with mothers who have birthed their children and who are married. However, other titles in the meditations series, forthcoming later this year, will better meet the needs of adoptive parents and single mothers.

Herald Press also has reissued Helen Good Brenneman’s Meditations for the Expectant Mother and Meditations for New Parents by Sara Wenger Shenk (president of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary) and Gerald Shenk.

Disclaimer: A copy of this book was provided by the publisher for review purposes. No fee was received.


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