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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.

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In a world full of broken relationships, religion must lead us toward healing. Religion can help to decrease pain and to bridge the divisions created by fear. Jesus of Nazareth is one of the principal guides we have for this healing process. Whether you view Jesus as a prophet, a gifted rabbi, or the one messiah, his teachings on love could bring about a positive revolution in our homes, in our communities, in our nations.

Author Jim Forest brings readers into a deeper understanding of the central teachings of Jesus in his latest book, Loving Our Enemies: Reflections on the hardest commandment. This is one of the most inspiring, practical, and urgently needed books that I have read.

In the Gospels, Jesus repeatedly teaches that love of God is inseparable from love of neighbor. We are called to break bread with one another, and to see each person we encounter as one of God’s precious creations. Jim Forest highlights the Gospel message and elaborates with historical examples of people who bravely lived the teachings of Jesus, setting aside fear and acting out of love.

Followers of Jesus should always remember that even while dying, Jesus prayed for forgiveness of his persecutors. For me, one of the most personally helpful sections of this book included reflections on the need to pray for our “enemies,” those who cause us anger, fear, or hurt. As Forest writes, “Even the smallest act of caring that prayer involves is a major step toward love, an act of participating in God’s love for that person.” Prayer for others can be where we start loving them, because prayer can change our own hearts.

I highly recommend Loving Our Enemies for individual reading, as well as for book discussion groups in religious communities.

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

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Sometimes the best way we can work for peace is to be a witness to another person’s journey. With Jesus was a Migrant, readers have an opportunity to bear witness, as author Deirdre Cornell gives comfort to the grieving and celebrates with the joyful. Deirdre Cornell has been accompanying migrant workers for many years, and I highly recommend her timely book.

By sharing stories of individuals with whom she has caring relationships, Deirdre Cornell provides open windows through which readers can glimpse the struggles of immigrants who have come to the U.S. from Mexico and Central America. These tender stories are rich faith narratives, and Deirdre Cornell draws wisdom from complementary stories in the Bible. From Abraham, who left his father’s land, to the infant Jesus carried by his parents to safety in Egypt, the Bible holds many migration stories.Perhaps most importantly, she highlights the biblical calls to welcome the stranger and to love one another.

In the U.S., the overwhelming majority of people are here because they or their ancestors migrated from elsewhere. Sharing her own family experience, Deirdre Cornell emphasizes the importance of remembering where we came from and why we left our homelands. These root stories can help develop empathy in those who have been in the U.S. for many generations. We also benefit from travel abroad, where we ourselves have the experience of being strangers and newcomers.

Why do people come to the U.S.? What are their lives like once they arrive? By compassionately sharing stories we might not otherwise hear, Deirdre Cornell awakens hearts with a fresh perspective. After reading Jesus was a Migrant, one cannot see immigration as just another issue that needs tackling. Rather, it is a topic that involves the precious lives of fellow human beings in need.

As people of faith, how should we respond to immigrants in our communities? What should we require of government policy makers? With a humanitarian crisis presently underway at the southern border, these questions become matters of life and death.

Matt 25 35With Jesus was a Migrant, Orbis Books once again gives readers a heart-challenging read that radiates with truth, written with a compassionate eye. I encourage you to read Jesus was a Migrant, perhaps with a book club or Sunday school class where you can share a lively discussion. I pray that your heart will be touched, and you might be inspired to act on behalf of migrants who are struggling to create a peaceful future.

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

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Advent, the season of expectant waiting when Christians prepare to observe the birth of Jesus, begins on December 1. To support contemplation and reflection during this special season, Pax Christi USA has created a rich pamphlet, Unshakeable Belief, based on the daily lectionary readings, available in an electronic format.

The programs and resources of Pax Christi USA lift up the message of love, reconciliation, and healing that is woven throughout the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. A spirituality of nonviolence requires one to take time in prayer and reflection, so that actions for peacemaking come from a solid ground of faith in God’s vision for justice and peace. The writers who contribute to this pamphlet offer reflection questions that can help one move from busyness into contemplation, and from contemplation into action.

Sr. Patricia Chappell, executive director of Pax Christi USA, opens the pamphlet with an invitation. She writes, “Take time apart to honor, praise, and thank God throughout this Advent season, building a deeper sense of peace and calm, an unshakeable belief that peace, not violence, is God’s plan for all creation. Then, moving outward from prayer and the study of these Advent reflections, what action will challenge you in Advent 2013?”

Readers are invited to turn away from greed and commercialism, from fear and ignorance, and to turn hearts toward God’s love coming into the world, God’s love already present among us. Contributing writers include Darleen Pryds, professor at the Franciscan School of Theology in California; Msgr. Ray East, pastor of St. Teresa of Avila parish, Washington, DC; Kimberly Mazyck of Pax Christi USA and Catholic Relief Services; and Alex Mikulich, of the Jesuit Social Research Institute in New Orleans. These writers are not afraid to ask challenging questions, to nudge hearts in the direction of confident faith in God’s love for us all.

I highly recommend this encouraging and inspiring pamphlet as a companion during this holy season.

Disclaimer: An electronic copy of this pamphlet was provided for review purposes. No fee was received.

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Everything written by Joan Chittister, OSB, challenges me to live with more purpose and integrity. Her words are infused with a deep knowing that God does not want empty praise, but wholehearted commitment that results in active love. In For Everything a Season, she reflects on a well-known passage from Ecclesiastes. Her powerful voice will help you see more in this small passage than you ever thought possible.

Chittister calls us to look closely, consciously, with fresh eyes as life unfolds. She challenges readers to not be dulled by the cultural norms and expectations of consumerism; rather, we should strive to pursue goodness, that for which God has created us. For Everything a Season is the gift of a spiritually mature, self-reflective writer who calls to readers with urgency in her voice.

When I think of this Bible text I usually hear the music of The Byrds conveying the rhythms of our lives. The verses seem a simple collection of observations on the ups and downs. A time to weep? Of course, because sometimes we are happy, and other times we are sad. Yet in Chittister’s view, this is a much more pressing matter, critical for our spiritual life. As Jesus wept for his people in Jerusalem, so we are called to weep over the broken in our midst. “We must stay eternally restless for justice, for joy. Restless enough to cry out in pain when the world lacks them.” Our lives are a holy responsibility to our Creator God and to one another, and Chittister pleads that we take this seriously.

I am thankful for the fresh perspective I gained on this familiar Bible passage. Whether you read the book in one sitting, or take time to savor each topic individually, this volume promises rich opportunities for reflection.

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

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Singer and recording artist Stanley Porter has written a beautiful testimony to the power of God’s love at work in his life. In Every Song Has a Story, Porter takes readers on a deeply personal journey that is honest, relevant, and hopeful. My prayer is that, through hearing the author share that he trusted God and received help, readers also will grow in trust and feel their suffering lifted.

I learned of this book because the author and I were high school classmates. We both grew up in Boston during the 1980s and 90s, and witnessed the traumas caused by violence, drugs, and poverty in our communities. The gangs and guns were not on my block, but I knew the pain of hearing the news and fearing that a classmate was lost to a stray bullet. When I read Porter’s chapter on those struggling with addiction, and the words from the gospel of Luke that God has sent Jesus “to heal the brokenhearted,” my tears flowed. My own heart continues to break from the violence and poverty in our communities, and I am grateful for those who are called to work in a healing capacity with people who are hurting.

In each chapter, after sharing his own testimony on a particular topic, Porter draws upon the riches of the Bible to further encourage readers. He shares stories of Joseph, Daniel, David, and the prodigal son to help us remember we are not alone in our struggles. It is powerful to have someone say, “I was in a place of darkness and my prayers were answered.” Through his honesty, Porter goes beyond pious language or feel-good sentiments. Clearly he does not wish merely to evangelize, but to truly reach hearts that are suffering.

I found the testimony of healing from the wounds of racism extremely compelling. Personally, I pray for more honesty in all our religious communities regarding racism, and I offer praise when I hear of congregations working toward restoration in this area. While I was lucky to grow up in one of Boston’s more integrated neighborhoods, the pain of racism was ever-present. In this past year I had a memorable opportunity to worship at an AME church in my old neighborhood, where my pink skin put me in the minority. I was welcomed warmly by those who shared my pew, and invited to visit with fellow worshipers. While I know that worshiping side by side is only the beginning of healing, I was grateful to be present among a congregation that strives to heal racial divides at all levels, working for peace and social justice inside the church and throughout the community.

The songs mentioned in this book come from Porter’s popular recording “Square One,” produced by his 4:12 Records Inc. Most recently Porter was the featured artist at the Haley House’s Summer Gospel Jamboree and he was nominated for an Angelic Award this past April (for Best Artist). This September he will be starting as the Chapel Team Music Director at Eastern Nazarene College. Stanley Porter is currently consulting and performing throughout the Northeast.

[This giveaway now is closed.] I am happy to offer a giveaway so that a lucky reader can have a chance to read this book. In order to enter:
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A winner will be chosen on Monday, September 10, and contacted by email. Good luck, and thank you in advance for helping me spread the word about this book.

Disclosure: The opinions expressed in this review are my own. No fee was received for this review.

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Karen Armstrong is a gifted and inspiring scholar.  In this volume she details the process by which the editors of the Bible fixed the canon, and the many layers of discussion and debate this required. Armstrong describes the key early developments in the Jewish faith and identifies central figures for Torah study. The book covers an immense amount of history, from recording the books of the prophets to the fundamentalist movements that arose in the modern period. Though she covers a broad scope of history, Armstrong’s focus remains clear throughout.

The book opens in 597 BCE and describes the historical events experienced by the Hebrew people during this time, and the process through which their religious practice was developing. Armstrong describes how reading the scriptures came to be a way to be in the presence of God—an alternative to prayer in the temple. The Jesus movement is set in this historical context, as well as the Pharisaic revival that took place about 50 years after the death of Jesus. Most importantly, Armstrong highlights the many ways that rabbis and the leaders of the early Christian church interpreted and applied religious texts, and the implications of these varied viewpoints.

The first century rabbi Hillel famously observed, “What is hateful to yourself, do not do to your fellow man. That is the whole of the Torah and the remainder is but commentary. Go and study it.” (p. 82) In the 5th century, Augustine of Hippo came to a similar conclusion: “Whoever thinks that he understands the divine scriptures or any part of them so that it does not build the double love of God and of our neighbor does not understand it at all. Whoever finds a lesson there useful to the building of charity, even though he has not said what the author may be shown to have intended in that place, has not been deceived.” (p. 124) These examples highlight the centrality of compassion in the practice of religion.

The renaissance brought the development of many religious orders, and within these orders traditions of scriptural interpretation developed. Meanwhile, the kabbalist mystical movement of Judaism flourished. There was lively discussion of whether the allegorical, mystical, literal, or historical sense of scripture offered more richness. Armstrong brings the read through the Protestant reformation, with Martin Luther’s emphasis on “scripture alone,” through the rationalist-humanist movements of the 17th century, to the modernist pull between poles of secularists and fundamentalists. Through this discussion, the reader gains a clear sense of the Bible’s roots and of its life in an ever-changing environment. It becomes abundantly clear that for each pull toward the literal, a mystical response will emerge, as an impulse toward balance.

The glossary of key terms provides a helpful reference for Hebrew, Greek, and philosophical vocabulary. The footnotes give the interested reader a map for further study, and the index of biblical citations appears thorough.

Armstrong concludes by noting the critical importance of emphasizing compassion in our religious traditions. Sadly, it is easy for someone to pick up a book of scripture and use the words for ill.  People of faith have a responsibility to educate themselves, and to practice loving our neighbor in an expansive way.

This book is part of the Books That Changed the World Series, published by Atlantic Monthly Press, 2007. I reviewed a copy from my public library.

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