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“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.

Part of the Modern Spiritual Masters series, Joan Chittister: Essential Writings is a collection of work from the prolific Benedictine author, scholar, and activist. Whether you are familiar with Sister Joan’s writings or are meeting her for the first time, this is a book that will inspire you.

Sister Joan has a voice that is both practical and philosophical, uplifting and challenging. I have re-read “Why I Stay” no fewer than a dozen times, engaging in dialogue with Sister Joan’s words as I reflect on my own experience of frustration with the church. Like much of Sister Joan’s prophetic writing, this piece is a rousing call to work for justice and equality for women. Other favorite pieces examine elements of Benedictine life, such as hospitality, mercy, and forgiveness.

The collection is edited by Mary Lou Kownacki, who serves with Sister Joan and the Benedictine Sisters of Erie, Pennsylvania, and Mary Hembrow Snyder, director of the Center for Mercy and Catholic Studies at Mercyhurst University. With more than sixty short selections, as well as a biographical introduction, Joan Chittister: Essential Writings provides much food for reflection.

On Sunday, March 1, 2015, Oprah Winfrey interviewed Sister Joan on Super Soul Sunday. You can watch the complete interview through Oprah’s website here.

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

God’s Hotel

If you have any interest in health care, and in how we could be showing more love to those who need help, I urge you to read God’s Hotel: A doctor, a hospital, and a pilgrimage to the heart of medicine by Victoria Sweet. The author was a physician at Laguna Honda Hospital in San Francisco, which at one time would have been called an almshouse. It is a place that serves those with nowhere else to go. In God’s Hotel, Dr. Sweet shares a powerful journey of learning and healing.

During her studies of the history of medicine, Dr. Sweet focused on the medical work of Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th-century German abbess who left behind several written works as well as a corpus of music. In sharing a historical perspective, Dr. Sweet reconnects readers with the origins of hospitals, which grew out of the radical sense of hospitality in monasteries, where monks and nuns took care of anyone who knocked at the door. There was an understanding that “whatever our current role, it was temporary.” Today I may be the nurse, and tomorrow I may be the patient who is ill. We must care for one another.

Dr. Sweet has good sense and a compassionate heart, and her feelings about how to practice medicine emerge directly from her experience serving patients. She has been a witness to miracles, and this is not something to take lightly. In caring for patients who lived in quite desperate circumstances, Dr. Sweet witnessed that, despite all the capabilities of modern medicine, sometimes peace, rest, and safety are just what a person needs to heal.

The stories of patient care and transformation are powerful, and Dr. Sweet brings a refreshing perspective on healthcare and wellness in the U.S. I highly recommend God’s Hotel.

Disclaimer: This review is freely given, based on a copy that I borrowed from my local public library. No fee was received.

“True beauty tip: You are worthwhile to God.”

Please don’t let the title fool you. Kylie Bisutti‘s devotional, 30 Days to a More Beautiful You, uplifts the heart. This little book, written especially for teen girls, holds a lot of inspiration. While I might have chosen a different title (it reminds me too much of beauty magazine jargon), this devotional has sincerity and a substantial message. It will bring a fresh perspective to young women who are hungry for honesty and caring support.

It brings powerful encouragement for teens to hear a former model, who earned her living based on her physical appearance, speak about the topic of beauty. Kylie Bisutti experienced firsthand the dangers of a workplace where the only beauty that mattered was on the outside, and was an impossible, artificial standard. The pressure of cultural norms that try to put a teen’s focus on the superficial can be hard to resist. Kylie Bisutti‘s writing is full of reminders that God needs to be at the center.

For each day, 30 Days to a More Beautiful You has a Bible verse accompanied by a reflection or personal story, followed by questions to consider (“What things have become idols in your life?”; “How can you celebrate the unique way God created you?”), and a “true beauty tip” to carry the message into your life. With its compact 4″x6″ size, this book is very portable.

A great choice for a study group, 30 Days to a More Beautiful You brings an encouraging message to girls who might be seeking to know in their hearts that they are valued for who they are, for who God created them to be. Author Kylie Bisutti also has written I’m No Angel, in which she shares her story of finding work that would better fit with faithfully living her religious beliefs.

Please note: Some topics related to beauty and self-esteem can be very sensitive areas. Be prepared to talk about healthy weight and body image, if needed. The young women in your life will be glad for your listening and support.

Disclaimer: A complimentary copy was provided by Tyndale House Publishers for review purposes. No fee was received.

Reconcile

In Reconcile: Conflict transformation for ordinary Christians, John Paul Lederach has updated and expanded upon the work he presented in The Journey toward Reconciliation (Herald Press, 1999). The writing integrates biblical lessons and stories from Lederach’s work in conflict transformation. This carefully written book could be beneficial to any individual or congregation willing to take seriously the healing message of reconciliation.

The vision presented in Reconcile has grown out of years of work with people in conflict, and out of careful reading of the gospel message of Jesus. With an Anabaptist theological perspective, Lederach expresses a commitment to following the example of Jesus in his actions. We might theoretically accept a call to be peacemakers, but shy away from the steps required to create healing. However, if we are to follow the lead of Jesus, “we move toward human troubles and choose to live in the messiness.” In order to build relationships, we must first move toward one another, rather than put up walls.

Practical steps are provided throughout the book, many of which are drawn directly from the Bible. A helpful chapter on Matthew 18 sheds light on commonly overlooked advice given by Jesus that would benefit church communities immensely.

An exciting discussion of Paul’s letters leads to the powerful observation, “True atonement and holiness place us on the journey to make real the reconciling love of God in our lives and to heal our broken communities across the globe.” Our journey toward God is not meant to be a solo journey, but a journey undertaken in community, and for the benefit of others.

With its clear and compelling message, Reconcile is ideal for church Sunday school classes, which could take one of the nine chapters each week for in-depth discussion. The resource section provides tools to help carry the message into community, including prayers, suggestions for further reading, and experiential activities.

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

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