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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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This month three million Muslims, including more than 11,000 from the U.S., will make the Hajj, insha’Allah (God willing). All Muslims who are physically and economically able are expected to make the Hajj, a pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, sometime during their life. The Hajj takes place at a set time of year and requires pilgrims to follow a series of prescribed rituals and procedures. The pilgrim’s actions commemorate events in the life of the Prophet Abraham (Ibrahim), as described in the Qur’an.

Author Na’ima B. Robert has written Going to Mecca, a lyrical children’s book that makes a beautiful introduction to the Hajj. Her text provides enough facts to properly inform and to create splendid scenes in the reader’s imagination; yet her language is spare enough to not overwhelm younger readers, or those unfamiliar with Islam. On page 6, a pilgrim arrives in the Sacred Mosque and recites talbiya, the pilgrim’s prayer:
Call with a pilgrim
As she utters a prayer,
And says the words
That will make her draw near:
“Labbayk Allahumma labbayk.”
“Here I am, O my Lord, here I am.”

The narrative carries the reader on a journey of accompaniment through the rites of pilgrimage to the welcoming home. At the end of the book the reader will find a small glossary, providing further detail about important places in the story.

The pages of Going to Mecca are richly illustrated by Valentina Cavallini with scenes of mixed media collage. The colors are varied and cheerful, and the people in the story realistically reflect the varied skin tones of humanity. When I shared the book with my artistic 8-year-old daughter, we took turns exclaiming over the detail and patterns within each page. I would not be surprised to see my daughter create some artwork inspired by Cavallini’s style. The textures and patterns in the artwork are absolutely lovely.

This book would be an ideal choice to share with children who have family members and friends making the pilgrimage, or for teachers to share with their classes. Parents will find that the text provides many openings for sharing more detail with children as their level of interest deepens. For this reason, the book is suitable for a range of ages. Older children even might use the poetic phrasings as models for their own writing.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and enthusiastically recommend it. May all of those who are making the Hajj have safe journeys.

Note: The number of estimated pilgrims cited above is based upon US State Department figures from September 2012.

Disclosure: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes. No fee was received for this review.

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Bookshelves and airwaves are full of voices that describe Islam as a monolithic religion, and Muslims as a homogenous body. This could not be further from the truth. Muslims are an extremely diverse worldwide religious group, and in the U.S. that diversity is especially pronounced. When we overlook diversity, we render invisible our fellow humans. With the book I Speak for Myself: American women on being Muslim, White Cloud Press highlights and lifts up the voices of individual, diverse Muslim women.

The essay collection is invaluable for furthering public understanding about the diversity of Muslims in the U.S. Editors Maria M. Ebrahimji and Zahra T. Suratwala have done a superb job, selecting writings from forty women under the age of 40. The featured writers include artists, teachers, lawyers, journalists, PhD candidates, recent high school graduates, and CEOs. A few of the writers were familiar to me from their other published work, or their humanitarian achievements.

The emphases of the essays are as diverse as the writers, yet common themes emerge. Several authors describe their experiences of negotiating complex identity. Since each writer was raised in the U.S., encounters with the presumption of Christian identity were not uncommon. The authors typically had to balance religious expectations with cultural norms of contemporary U.S. life, such as high school proms, dating, and media consumption. (It is notable that these cultural expectations also become issues for religiously observant members of other faiths, as well.)

Another theme was the need to discover and embrace one’s faith independently. While these women had religious training either from parents, religious classes, or both, each woman had to live her own life before seeing what role her faith would play. Each woman had to discover on her own what it means to be a person with God-consciousness. Readers of other faiths likely will resonate with this experience.

In one of my favorite essays, a Muslimah shared about her calling to assist families affected by Hurricane Katrina. She writes, “I wanted to go out & help, but I knew I was only one person. Then I remembered the Prophet Muhammad (peace & blessings upon him) was just one person who’d had the guidance of God. I knew if I allowed God to guide me, even little ole me could make a difference.” In many essays, it was clear that strong faith had contributed to a wish to be of service to others.

I Speak for Myself should prove very useful for anyone interested in learning about the practice of Islam, or in sharing the faith with others. I would encourage readers with an interest in interfaith dialogue to read this book and to purchase a copy for the library of their house of worship, as well as their public library. The message of I Speak for Myself deserves a wide audience. It is one of the finest books I have read this year.

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

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faith

This photo essay introduces world faiths through images of children participating in various elements of spiritual life: prayer, study, cleansing, holy places, holidays, food and drink, rites of passage, caring for others. The focus is on what we hold in common, while the differences among world cultures and religions are self-evident in the photos. The book has a valuable aim: “respecting and working to understand the differences among faiths helps create a more peaceful and just society.” Authors Maya Ajmera, Magda Nakassis, and Cynthia Pon have done a commendable job.

Children and adults alike should enjoy the visual beauty of these images from around the globe. Readers can observe the diversity of special garments, ritual celebrations, and places of worship. Photos provide an opportunity to glimpse aspects of religion, such as water baptism, that might be outside of one’s usual experience.

Each double-page has a sentence or phrase of text, plus captions for the photos. After the photos, there is a map indicating areas in the world where the photos were taken. The map is followed by four pages of detailed description of the topics covered, including a wonderful two-paragraph summary of what “praying” means.

At the end of the book there is a five-page glossary, especially useful for explaining less familiar terms. (For example, I had heard of Zoroastrianism, but could not have explained it without help.) I was pleasantly surprised by the inclusion of images from shamanism and indigenous religions, as well as Rastafarianism and the Baha’i faith.

Parents and teachers can read the explanatory text (written for ages 9 to 13), and use the background information to help their child when looking at the photos. The text that accompanies the photos is suitable for children ages 4 to 9. This book would be a valuable reference for anyone teaching about world religions, regardless of the age group involved. Certain images might spark a reader’s curiosity and lead to further explorations. The book would be a helpful tool for people living in diverse communities, to introduce the religions of their neighbors.

This highly recommended book was developed by the Global Fund for Children, and proceeds will go to support that organization’s work. Published by Charlesbridge in 2009, Faith is available in both hardcover and paperback.

A slightly different version of this review was published in Friends Journal: Quaker thought and life today (Dec. 2009).

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