Recommended Reading
 

Often people ask me what I am reading.  Among the works currently in print, I would highly recommend the following for anyone who is interested in successful Christian living…

 -- John Dalles, Pastor, Wekiva Presbyterian Church

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From Jesus to Christianity: How Four Generations of Visionaries & Storytellers Created the New Testament and Christian Faith by L. Michael White; Harper: San Francisco, ISBN: 0060526556; Hardcover; $16.47. 528 Pages.
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This is a BIG book, both in size and in information provided and a bargain at the price. It offers the reader a sweeping view of how the various eyewitnesses to Jesus of Nazareth took what they learned from Him, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, grew the Christian Church. Michael White, who holds the Ronald Nelson Smith Chair in Classics and Christian Origins at the University of Texas at Austin, has written what ought to be a standard reference on every Christian's bookshelf. . Moreover, lots of people are reading it; it is one of the best-received new Christian books for 2004.

The author presents the Biblical world at the time of Christ's birth, with all of the social and religious factions that contributed to the climate in which He healed, taught, called disciples and began the movement that is Christian faith. For those who want a less than one page, but scholarly, account of groups such as the Pharisees, Saducees, Essenes and the Zealot party, White's book offers them all, in one easy to use reference.

I especially like the tables and outlines, both of familiar works such as Luke and Acts but also of some of the books that did not make it into the Bible, such as the so-called Gospels of Thomas and Peter. In his review of such non-canonical works, White helps us better understand some of the conflicts that shaped the Early Church. Decisions made then have been normative for how the majority of Christians understand our belief, down until today. If you want to know why the Christian Church has emphasized what we have about Jesus, for example, then the chapter called "Christology and Conflict" is essential reading.

White also talks about the teachings of such Early Church leaders as Marcion. No, we don't hear much about Marcion in the 21st century congregation, but the four issues he brought to the discussion are still with us: Emphasis on Paul's letters as the only true or normative Christian theology; rejection of the Old Testament; insisting only on Luke's Gospel to know the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth; emphasis on the proper or "original manuscript" of scripture. Such tendencies to narrow-down and obscure the impact of the Gospel, although rejected by the Early Church, continues to influence some misguided Christian thought today.

Moreover, White gives a good overview of how we went from house-churches to buildings that were specifically set aside for use as churches. (I really enjoyed that part of the book, complete with photos and floor plans of recent archeological discoveries).

This work is filled with outstanding footnotes and references for further reading. It could be the start of much exploration into not only what made the Early Church "tick" but also what makes the present-day church what it is.


 

When Better Isn't Enough: Evaluation Tools for the 21st Century Church by Jill M. Hudson; Alban Institute: Washington DC. 2004; ISBN 1-56699-289-3.
170 pages, paperback. Cost: $ 21.95.
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Many sociologists and a growing number of church scholars have noted that we live in a time of transition--from the modern era to the postmodern. Such information is no longer breaking news; it has been with us for more than a generation. However, the Church is still in the process of recognizing and responding (or reacting!) to the paradigm shift. One instinct might be to try to react to the situation by digging in one's heels and, like a dog with a bone, cling to what worked in the dim recesses of the past. In some communities, this is effective. Even so, in many other places, churches are discovering that programs and approaches have a life of their own (one might even call it a shelf life), and that, sometimes, a fresh approach is not only warranted, but necessary, lest the church become stale.

Author Jill Hudson presents her book When Better Isn't Enough from this standpoint, saying, "We must identify new criteria for success, and perhaps even for faithfulness, and hold ourselves accountable to them." Hudson's view is that the Church has a marvelous opportunity for prayerful and careful response to current realities. She identifies 12 characteristics to help us measure effective ministry today. Moreover, Hudson presents evaluation tools based upon those 12 characteristics. Real, practical ways that any congregation or group of leaders therein might help the church they love focus their future.

For those who are skittish about change, Hudson makes the point clear that not changing is not an option. She also makes it clear that insisting on all of the modes and methods of the past, without revisiting their effectiveness, will get a church into dire straits. Instead, why not aim for a church in which some of the past will be kept and honored, some of the past will be reshaped and refreshed and some will in fact be seen as unproductive and superfluous? A congregation that truly wishes to see its members grow and reach others for Christ can use Hudson's methods to select the right mix for their unique opportunity for ministry and mission.

Hudson calls the church to ask questions, and indeed she has a wonderful list of them at the end of the book. Questions a congregation's leaders and members could ask themselves about how they are listening to God's direction. For these questions, alone, the book is well worth reading. But only if we give them a try, to bring about God's vision for the church.

Jill M. Hudson is a minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and most recently served as Executive Presbyter of the Presbytery of Whitewater Valley in Indiana. Jill served for thirteen years as vocational staff for the Synod of Lincoln Trails. A lecturer, trainer, and consultant with special expertise in church systems, Jill is also the author or co-author of: Beyond the Boundary: Meeting the Challenge of the First Years of Ministry; Congregational Trauma: Caring, Coping, and Learning; and Evaluating Ministry: Principles and Processes for Clergy and Congregations.


 

The Seven Last Words from the Cross by Fleming Rutledge, Wm. B. Eerdmans: Grand Rapids; 2005, Paperback. 81 pages. $9.00.
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One of the great traditions of the Christian Church is to take time, during Holy Week, to reflect upon the words that Jesus spoke from the Cross. Sometimes, this happens in a three hour service on Good Friday, in which the combination of the crucifixion accounts in the four Gospels are read and interpreted in turn. Out of this tradition, Fleming Rutledge has created a series of mediations that are helpful for personal reading, reflection and devotional use at any time of the year.

The author, the Rev. Dr. Fleming Rutledge, is a widely acclaimed preacher, who for many years served as the preaching pastor of Grace Episcopal Church in New York City. She now devotes her vocational life to a nationwide ministry of preaching, writing and teaching.

A friend in ministry recommended her writings to me, and having begun reading them, I must say that I am hooked and think you will be as well. In this slim volume, she expounds upon each of the seven words, to help the reader reflect upon what Jesus said as He died upon the cross, from "Father, forgive them" to "Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit". Even the most familiar of these passages receives fresh treatment under Rutledge's scrutiny. Perhaps this is due to the fact that Rutledge seeks to acquaint the reader with the deep pain and humiliation of crucifixion, making the contrast of Jesus' words of hope, inspiration and promise from the cross all the more gripping.

As those who have read Dr. Rutledge's other collections of sermons know, she is a gifted wordsmith, but her engaging words are surpassed by her rock-solid theology. Dr. Rutledge might be called a traditionalist; her Christology is high and Presbyterians will find much in it to help elevate their own views of who Jesus is and what His saving work means for us. Rutledge does not hesitate to show us the gritty reality of the cross, nor does she eschew disclosing the coarse realities of our own time. For instance, "Sin is not a misdeed here and a misdeed there, but an autonomous, enslaving Power. The Apostle Paul is very clear about this: `All human beings,' he writes, `both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin.' (Rom. 3:9). In our own time, however, we have done our best to get rid of this idea." (page 42). Contrasted with these are the forceful messages and powerful accomplishments of Christ that make salvation possible for us: "On the Cross, Jesus voluntarily and willingly bowed His head to the power of sin..." (page 44).

This book is small but mighty. Each of the meditations conclude with a hymn, some familiar and some new, to assist the reader's reflection upon each of the scripture passages. Not only a prized work in itself, this volume could serve as an introduction to all of Rutledge's books, perhaps the best known of which is The Bible and The New York Times.


 

The Simple Faith of Mister Rogers: Spiritual Insights from the World’s Most Beloved Neighbor, by Amy Hollingsworth, Integrity Publishers: Nashville; 2005, 165 pages, hardback ISBN 1-59145-229-5; price $19.99.
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When Judy’s Mom gave me this book for Easter, I tore through it in two days. Not because it is an “easy read” but rather because it gave me a chance to visit with a dear friend who has earned his eternal rest. Fred Rogers was and is one of the most influential persons of faith of our times; and, as we can all be proud to say, a fellow Presbyterian. A Pittsburgh Theological Seminary graduate, Fred Rogers found his calling to ministry in a different sort of pulpit, one that took him from fledgling public television’s WQED Pittsburgh into the homes and hearts of children and all who have a childlike faith.

Amy Hollingsworth is a pastor’s wife and reporter and it was as a reporter that she first interviewed television’s Mister Rogers in the early 1990s. The interview turned out to be the beginning of a friendship between two prayer partners and Christians. Amy and Fred wrote and spoke often, especially when they were facing life transitions. Sometimes they sensed from afar that the other was in special need of prayer, and then found out afterward that had indeed been the case. So after Fred Rogers died, Joanne Rogers permitted Amy the great honor of exploring some aspects of Fred’s Presbyterian faith as it was expressed on the air and in his daily living.

Hollingsworth uses the image of “toast strips” (a favorite after school childhood treat of Fred’s) as the headings for many chapters that deal with his concepts of neighborhood, the importance of time, the work of the Holy Spirit, the power of forgiveness and what to do in difficult times. Again and again, I found myself reminded of how Mister Rogers’ ministry touched my life. As a small child, my first “crush” was for Josie Carey, the hostess of the show on which Mister Rogers’ famous puppets first debuted. It was broadcast in the old manse of the Bellefield Presbyterian Church, which had become the headquarters of WQED. After one of them, I named my look-alike Steif tiger puppet “Daniel” Later, one afternoon when I came home from school, I found my youngest brother smack dab in front of the TV watching (to my amazement) the same puppets, but now on his own show. Little did I know that my call to ministry would eventually take me to Pittsburgh and a friendship with Fred Rogers that led me to cherish him as an exemplar of what it is to live a Christian life.

People have asked me “What was Fred Rogers like in real life?” and the answer is, “Exactly the person you see on his show; even more so.” Simple but always profound, caring to the utmost degree, Fred always hand-wrote his letters to me, always talked about things that mattered when we were together, always treated the people in his life with thoughtfulness. Read more about this remarkable Presbyterian and his life-ministry suffused with grace, by reading Amy Hollingsworth’s book.


 

The Purpose Driven Life: What on Earth am I Here For? by Rick Warren.
Zondervan: Grand Rapids, MI. Hardback; 2002. 334 pages. ISBN:
0-310-20571-9. $19.99
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I suspect that there is no other volume that has been read by more Christians, today, than this book-including the Bible. Two of our congregation's adult education classes have made it part of their reading and discussion this past year. You may very well have it on your nightstand.
The author, Rick Warren, has struck a chord in the lives of men and women everywhere, asking as the subtitle of the book says, "What in the world am I here for?" Most every person reflects upon that question. As the book unfolds, Warren points the reader toward answers.

The most familiar sentence in the book is the first sentence, "It's not about you." I've seen it on T-shirts and bumper stickers. Too many people don't remember the second sentence, "The purpose of your life is far greater than your own personal fulfillment, your peace of mind, or even happiness." The majority of persons who pick up this book are in search of all three of these. And the book is helpful in finding them.

But how right Warren-a 51-year-old ordained minister and founding pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California-is to point the reader toward a larger understanding. Which is made clear in the chapter title on that same page, "It All Starts with God."

This makes perfect theological sense...and practical sense. When we begin to understand and appreciate the centrality of God in all of creation and in our lives, then the rest of our realities fall into their proper place.

The author makes it clear that the book is intended to be a 40-day spiritual journey. In the front matter there is a covenant that the reader signs to apply him or herself to that 40-day journey. I hope everyone who reads the book will do just that. Especially, paying attention to Day (Chapter) 23: "How We Grow."

Day 23 is concentrated upon Jesus molding and guiding the work of the Holy Spirit upon the believer as one matures in Christian faith and practice. As Warren says, "God wants you to grow up." It is also one of my favorite themes. It cannot be said too often; for just when we feel we have "graduated" from a particular time of learning or "achieved" a goal, we fall into the sloppy thinking that we are "there"-that we have completed every bit of growth and understanding.

Not so. Warren says, "You must want to grow, decide to grow, make an effort to grow, and persist in growing." I firmly believe that anyone who takes Day 23 seriously, open to what God can do, will find their lives blessed beyond measure. Not to mention the lives of those around them.

So, do I recommend this book? Yes indeed. And if you read it when it was new in 2002 or `03 or `04, why not read it again, in 2005? It is like a spiritual retreat that you can take whether at home or away. A vacation better than the mountains or the seaside. If you will, read it. And may every day be a Day 23 for you.


 

The People's New Testament Commentary by M. Eugene Boring and Fred Craddock; Westminster-John Knox Press, 2004, Hardcover; 827 pages. ISBN:
0-664-22754-6, $26.37.
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Here is a one-volume commentary on the New Testament with up to date information that is also very much in line with what contemporary Christians believe. I am tempted to say, "This is the commentary for you." Because I firmly believe that every household should have one handy reference work that helps them understand Scripture, and you would find this book to be exactly that.

Yes, I know you will tell me that we live in the age of the Internet with many commentaries available on line. But have you noticed? It is not always easy to tell whether you are reading a blog by someone with a theological axe to grind or some dusty old eighteenth century "divine" who, scholarly as he may have been, is unquestionably passé.

You need fear none of that with these authors, Eugene Boring is anything but boring. He is the Briscoe Professor Emeritus at the Bride Divinity School of Texas Christian University. Fred Craddock is Distinguished Professor of Preaching and New Testament Emeritus at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University. Dr. Craddock is undoubtedly America's dean of contemporary preaching and Biblical interpretation. Published by the Presbyterian Church (USA)'s Westminster-John Knox Press, it is rooted firmly in the Reformed tradition, and designed to serve a broad range of Christians well. It was also one of the top selling religious books of 2004.

Looking inside, each New Testament book is treated in this way, first with background information about the author, sources, readership, date and place and structure and outline. There are a few choice suggestions "for further reading". Then the outline of each book is fleshed out with up to date information. There are sidebar articles about such things as "Interpreting the Miracle Stories" and "Testing Prophesy." As one further inducement, there is a fine article called "Interpreting Revelation's Violent Imagery". All well worth your time and attention. Also, the authors include "Figures" that show summaries of The Sermon on the Mount, Apostles Listed in Scripture, Comparative Chronology of the Passion and Form of Greeting in Letters. These are all tremendously helpful study tools.

The meat of the book offers insights on the verses of Scripture. The Introduction does an outstanding job of setting the tone, describing terms such as "Testament" "New" and the realities of the formation of the cannon. There is a good summary of that time period, called "The Church's Book" in which the authors remind us that the New Testament was written by, selected by, edited by transmitted by and translated by "the Church." As the authors state in the Preface, "...This commentary is an expression of the fundamental conviction that the New Testament is the people's book The book and the community of faith belong together, and out of the conversation between the text and the people come the preaching, teaching, believing and behaving of the church."

The book is handy in size (about the size of a hardback novel) and convenient to use. The print, while on the small side, is crystal clear and easy to read. Long after pseudo pundits of the faith have been forgotten, this work will still be a sure and steady reference. I encourage you to buy it.


 

Inscribing the Text: Sermons and Prayers of Walter Brueggemann by Walter Brueggemann; Minneapolis: Fortress Press. ISBN: 0-8006-3646-5; Hardcover; $14.96. 127 pages.
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This is a good book to spur your Biblical curiosity and to satisfy your longing for something new, yet trustworthy, in the way of a devotional resource. The subtitle only hints at the richness of this collection of prayers, poems, meditations on Biblical passages, sermons and what might better be called essays on Biblical themes. It provides the careful reader with concepts that will be helpful as devotions and for deeper reflective study.

Professor Brueggemann talks about the preacher’s role as scribe-which may seem a startling notion for those who recall Jesus’ warnings about the Scribes and Pharisees-however, the role of “truth speaking to power” is what he has in mind. In other words, offering those who can make a difference a view of God’s truth, so that it can become a motivating factor in the church ’s work and witness. It seems like a good approach for all Christians, by the way.

I particularly appreciated the sermon “Missing by Nine Miles” about the visit of the Magi. Dr. Brueggemann contrasts the halls of power in Jerusalem with the simple profundity of the stable in Bethlehem. Reminding me of the old saying “a miss is as good as a mile”, the prophet in Dr.
Brueggemann provides a Biblical argument for the efficacy of such overlooked character traits as vulnerability, neighborliness and generosity, in contrast to what “wise guys from the East” might have, at first, thought.

The way that the words are set onto the page, the reader can almost hear Dr. Bruegemann speaking-and those who have been fortunate enough to hear him in person will indeed sense the tone of his voice in the ink on the paper.

Walter Brueggemann is a towering presence of our time, for the Presbyterian Church at large, having served as a professor in several leading seminaries and as a preacher and writer whose words are consistently inspirational. He is professor emeritus of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary PC(USA) in Decatur, Georgia. If you ever have a chance to hear him speak, take it. And if not, this book is a good alternative.


 

Answered Prayers: Love Letters from the Divine by Julia Cameron; Jeremy P.
Tarcher / Penguin: New York. Paperback; ISBN 1-58542-351-3, 202 pages.
$8.96.
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This book was one of the top selling religious books in 2004.

Why is it called "Answered Prayer"? Let us say that you are dealing with any of a number of personal challenges, and in the middle of them, you are hoping to hear some word from the Lord. Perhaps you are worried about diminished income, or you are wondering if you are a loveable person. You may have concerns about life being dull and humorless. You are weary. You are afraid to reach out to someone in friendship. You are afraid to take the risk of trusting another. Cameron addresses these and many more concerns, in her book.

The book is like a journal of prayer, but most prayer journals record the voice of the one who prays. Not this book. Instead of prayers that are addressed to God, these prayers are presented as responses to the one who prays, in other words, as if one is hearing back, from God. It sounds like this: "I am the peace that passes understanding." Or, "Open the door just a foothold. I can work with you as you are. You are not the first disillusioned one I have encountered." (Page 149).

Every chapter is a prayer. Every prayer is deeply steeped in Scripture. You will find these prayers to be in accord with God's many promises we find there. These "love letters from the Divine" allow us to hear what God longs to say to us, when we find ourselves in deep and troubled waters.


 

Testimony : Talking Ourselves into Being Christian. Jossey-Brass Practicing our Faith Series by Thomas G. Long. San Francisco:
Jossey-Bass. 2004. Hardcover, 179 pages; $14.93. ISBN: 0-7879-6832-3.
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Professor Thomas Long is well known as a major representative of Christian faith. He has served on the faculty of Princeton Theological Seminary and is currently the Bandy Professor of Preaching at Candler School of Theology, Emery University. Ever since the first time I heard him speak in 1987, his witness has blessed me. So too in this book, in which Dr. Long addresses the importance of talking about what we believe about God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit and the Church.

He starts the book with a wry observation made by a New Yorker, "At fashionable dinner parties in this town you can talk about anything... But if you mention God more than once, you probably won't be invited back." (Page 3). I have been to parties like that and perhaps you have as well.
Where, when people find out that you are a follower of Jesus, they glaze over, say something like "How nice for you..." and then drift away.

Now, aside from the fact that we might want to avoid such fashionable dinner parties in madcap Manhattan, what Dr. Long is also saying to us: "Christians of the world, speak up and be heard!" And then he goes on to say how and why and what we might want to be talking about, in matters of faith, in everyday conversation. I like that. Saying what we believe is a gift, even an art-the well chosen word can attract, peek the interest, engage, encourage and convince the listener. You have that ability as you go about your day to day routine. Your faith can lead others to Christ and help them along life's narrow way. But only if you will speak up.

Dr. Long's book (one of the top ten best selling religious books of 2004) is not a book about personal witness or evangelism so much as it is on telling the truth about who God is, for us. He says that how God has engaged our life is a story that just has to be told: to our children, in the midst of meetings, when a friend has a bad medical diagnosis, when people are disagreeing about school policies, our the fence I the yard and yes, even at a dinner party. He also address the difference between a time to speak and a time to keep silence-as we honor both God and the person God has put us with, in the situation in which God has placed us.

My personal favorite portion of this book is on page 46, when he says this, "It has been said that if we really knew how to see with the eyes of our souls, we would see angels going before every person we meet, saying, `Make way for the image of God! Make way for the image of God!'" We know from John 3:16 that God loves us that much... would that we would love one another as God loves us all. So we could equally look at each person we meet and reminder ourselves, "Jesus died for him. Jesus died for her."

Dr. Long ends the book with a story that is the point of the entire book. Contained in it is the vital question: If someone were to hear you speaking, could they tell who you are? Could they tell that you are a child of God and a follower of Jesus?


 

Calvin for Armchair Theologians by Christopher Elwood; Westminster - John Knox Press: Louisville. ISBN 0-664-22303-6; 2002. 182 Pages; paperback.
Cost $12.95.
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Dr. Elwood - who is Associate Professor of Historical Theology at Louisville Seminary - gives us a guidebook to the John Calvin the man and his message. Elwood traces Calvin's youth and education in the simplest of terms, and along the way, gives a broad overview of the other Protestant movement in Calvin's day.

Thereafter, the book shows the way that God led Calvin to Geneva, to a friendship with Guillaime Farel and the effect of that association upon the faith life of the city. Giving plenty of information in a clear narrative, Elwood help the reader see the inner workings of the renewal of the Church as guided by Calvin.

We are shown the leadership structure of the church and its' basis in Scripture. Then, Elwood provides us with a summary of the main topics in Calvin's great work "Institutes of the Christian Religion". I found the book particularly helpful, here, as Elwood showed that Calvin's approach toward theology stemmed from the view of Anselm: Theology is faith seeking understanding. So, Calvin's approach is to begin with belief; since it is the groundwork of a trusting relationship with God. Then, building upon that belief, we seek to know more and more about God and His will for humankind, including our own lives. If this sounds self-evident, it is because Calvin's view has become the prevalent view in the Presbyterian Church.

One of the best features of the book is the chapter called "Calvin's Children". It looks at those movements and ideas between the time of Calvin and our own time, which may or may not claim Calvin as their forebear. The book is generously illustrated with drawings that catch the spirit of the text, conveying information in a way that is lively and often humorous. It is part of "The Armchair Series" published by Westminster - John Knox Press that has grown to include titles about Augustine, Wesley, Luther, Aquinas and The Reformation.


 

Where The Light Shines Through: Discerning God In Everyday Life, by Wes Avram. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2005, Paperback: 160 pages. ISBN: 1587430886. Price: $14.99
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Reviewed by John A. Dalles

This is an anthology of sermons designed to assist thoughtful Christians as they consider how God is present in their lives. The title fits the collection well, for each message sheds uncommon light upon our common lives.

Wesley D. Avram is a preacher who has served as a college chaplain and as the pastor of a large suburban Chicago congregation. He is the pastor-elect of the 3500-member Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church, on Philadelphia’s Main Line, one of the denominations’ twenty largest. Avram will be leaving the academic world (he is currently Clement-Muehl Assistant Professor of Communications at Yale Divinity School) but taking with him to the parish an approach to the faith that is deep-rooted in Scripture and full-leafed in articulation.

Unlike the "don’t worry - be happy" style of preachers, Avram does not subscribe to quick, easy and pat answers to life’s imponderables. Indeed, he expresses the rich ambiguities of Christian faithfulness in ways that are so articulate one might be tempted to call them poetic. They certainly are gracefully sensitive and allow the listener to think along with Avram as he thinks out loud. For example, in speaking of the providence of God he writes, "So let there never be preached a theology so glib as to imply that as long as Air Jesus has got the ball, it’s okay if we’re down in the fourth period. For the waters of God’s providential care are much deeper, choppier, and more life-giving. For rather than simply winning at the buzzer, God’s sovereignty sometimes changes the game." (Page 29). When one is struggling with a difficult personal situation, this kind of a message offers a large measure of integrity as well as hope.

Avram explores some of the hard realities of life, with engaging titles, such as "9/12 Living in a 9/11 World". He responds to them with wisdom, notably this: "We are called to a kind of living that is attentive to the world around us in ways we just can’t sustain without God." (Page 42). He honors his listeners' intelligence and engages his listeners’ feelings.

Throughout his sermons, Avram recounts personal stories that are accessible to the reader, from the circus, to the annual nativity pageant, to the world of advertising. One can picture the congregations who first heard these sermons being uplifted and supported by their lyrical messages, whether on the campuses of Bates College and Yale Divinity School, or in the sanctuary at First Presbyterian Church, Wilmette. Indeed, the messages are finely tuned to reach a wide-ranging, attentive audience.

Here is a people’s preacher with a pastor’s heart. Throughout this volume, one gets a strong sense of what a joy it would be to hear Dr. Avram’s sermons week by week, and an equally strong sense that the congregation at Bryn Mawr will be in very good hands indeed.



BREAD OF ANGELS, Barbara Brown Taylor; Cowley Publications, Boston; paper; 160 pages. $11.95
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It used to be, not so very long ago, that ordinary people read sermons the way they now read novels-in their spare time, for both edification and enjoyment. If this idea seems strange to you, then chances are you have not read anything written by Barbara Brown Taylor. Taylor is an Episcopal Priest and the rector of Grace-Calvary Church in Clarksville, Georgia. Baylor University has also named her one of the ten top preachers in the English language. That having been said, you will also want to know that she is in such demand as a speaker that she is taking the year 2002 off to decide whether she wants to continue to travel. (How do I know this? Because we invited her to be our 2002 speaker at Central Florida Presbytery’ s Fall meeting; the post filled by Sam Calian last year and Marva Dawn the year before).

It might be enough for us to say that Dr. Taylor is a preacher of uncommon skill. That she is, but we must not stop there. Her fresh images and stimulating ideas are so engaging that this book really can work as a personal devotional tool. It would serve equally well as a neighborhood or small group study, or something to read with one dear friend or family member and then talk about in detail over a pot of tea or by a crackling fire. For, just as you “think between the lines” during the course of a sermon, so too, in Taylor’s book, you have the perfect chance to allow your own Christian experience to engage with the truths Taylor presents.

If the names of each chapter, such as, “The Trickle Up Effect,” “How Not to Hinder God” and “Why the Boss Said No” begin to peak your interest-well, they should! Taylor has a style that is accessible without being pedestrian; she speaks to the modern mind and heart. Consider this passage, from the book’s title sermon: “Jesus is God’s manna in the wilderness, the one who reminds us day by day that we live because God provides not what we want, necessarily, but exactly what we need: some bread, some love, some breath, some wine, a relationship with this ordinary looking man, who comes from heaven to bring life to the world.” (Page 11).

If you read this book, and I hope you will, I would suggest reading one chapter a week-reading that chapter several times in the week, and living with the insights presented there-as a spiritual discipline. Taylor’s bread of angels will prove to be an excellent guide in your devotional life.


 

THE FOUR WITNESSES, Robin Griffith-Jones; Harper, San Francisco; hardback; 405 pages.
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Here is a book to sink your theological teeth into. Robin Griffith-Jones takes the reader on a journey of discovery as he compares and contrasts the four chief sources of our understanding of Jesus Christ. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John all answer Jesus’ question, “Who do you say I am?” And they present us with Jesus in such a way that it demands a response from us. Even so, each of the Gospel writers answers with a distinct voice. We are so used to hearing bits and pieces of all the Gospels; we often merge their messages. Griffith-Jones invites us, instead, to see Jesus in the distinct ways he is presented in each.

The subtitle of the book tells us we will look at Jesus as: the Rebel, the Rabbi, the Chronicler, and the Mystic. If these are attributes of Jesus you have not yet considered, you will want to read more about each. The author is a former chaplain and professor of New Testament at Lincoln College, Oxford, now serves as Master of the Temple Church in London, one of the most influential positions in the Church of England. He gives us the state of the world and the state of the fledgling Christian community, so we may better understand the concerns each Gospel writer addresses in their individual portraits of Christ.

Just as artists have cast light on particular aspects of Jesus ministry and message, so too, says Griffith-Jones, those inspired witnesses. The Rebel who turned the world upside down, the Rabbi who taught in the tradition of Judaism yet with an authority unlike any other, the Chronicler who told the wonders of God’s kingdom, and the Mystic who helped us the eternal realities behind everyday living. If you want to delve into these aspects of our Lord, you will find Griffith-Jones the perfect guide. The book is not quick read; and you will want to keep your New Testament open as you study the contributions of the Gospel writers.


 

JOURNEYMEN, Kent Ira Groff; Upper Room Books, Nashville; paper; 168 pages.
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Men are notorious for not asking directions in life; yet, beyond that truism may lie a truth: People expect men to know where they are going. It is just that simple. Life, on the other hand, is complex in the extreme. So it is not a surprise that men often find themselves, psychologically and spiritual in the back of beyond without a clue how the got there or how to get out of there. At such times (and daily living presents too many of them!) how good it would be to have a helpful guide.

With this premise in mind, and with the wealth of Christian experience at his fingertips, Kent Groff has created for men (and for women who want to understand them) this book, as a spiritual guide. Topics addressed in the book are topics that keep men awake at night. If you have ever felt stuck, if you have wondered if you are making a real difference in life, if you feel as if you have too many expectations put upon you, if you are grieving an absent father-this book has many ideas that can provide direction, hope and encouragement. And if your life is just great, there are still many resources here for rejuvenating your inner life of prayer and thought. For example, this cross-shaped prayer for daily living (from page 33):

GO
Risk
Play
Do good
Give love
Journey out
Live as if you had a thousand years to live
Live as if you were to die tomorrow
Return home
Receive love
Trust God
Pray
Rest
BE

Kent Ira Groff is an ordained Presbyterian minister and the founder of Oasis Ministries for Spiritual Development. He has served as pastor, chaplain and retreat leader, as well as adjunct professor at Lancaster Theological Seminary. His book is already in use among the men of our congregation who meet for prayer time each Wednesday morning at the church. They will tell you what a positive difference it is making in their lives. They would also invite you to consider joining them each week, or joining the unfolding of your own spiritual journey, by reading this book.


 

TRANSITIONS by Julia Cameron; Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam Press, New York; 194 pages; $9.95.
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There are some books that are so good, you almost want to keep their existence a secret-somewhat like finding a hidden treasure in a field, a needle in a haystack or a pearl of great price at a rummage sale. Julia Cameron’s Transitions strikes me as one of those books. Cameron is better known for her popular and sensitive book called The Artist’s Way, which is a combination of creative and devotional insights and incentives for all who have the urge to paint, sculpt, build, compose and design from a faith-center. That book has been a much-thumbed companion for many artist friends of mine.

Transitions is perhaps a more intimate version of that better known work. In it, Cameron offers prayers and what she calls “declarations” for a changing world. These are presented in a form much like a daily devotional. There is a quotation from a source familiar or obscure, followed by reflections by Cameron herself. Throughout the book, Cameron seeks to remind both herself and the reader that accepting change is the key to thriving through it. She is a tender and thoughtful traveler through the various life events that some would call surprise, others would term crisis, yet all will experience at one time or another. For those who are convinced that change is always “bad”, there are some outstanding sections on these aspects of change: abundance, clarity, compassion, courage, curiosity, expansion, happiness, love, protection, service, satisfaction and strength. What-you say that you had never considered these things as “change”? All the more reason to explore what Cameron has to say about them.

Then, there are sections having to do with relationships-I particularly like what Cameron has to say about genuine friendship. She begins by quoting our first President George Washington on that subject: “True friendship is a plant of slow growth, and must undergo and withstand the shocks of adversity before it is entitled to the appellation.” Cameron goes on to encourage us to see those relationships we call friendships in the atmosphere of values that help us determine their verity: “Friendships require honesty and honesty requires courage. In all friendships there are moments when we must choose to be courageous. …Honesty is healing and nutritious to my heart and its friendships.” (pages 63-64). Cameron invites you to respond to your yearning for those genuine friendships, which surpass the superficial, the way a solid cherry table surpasses particleboard. You sense the kinds of support Cameron offers the adventurous traveler through life.

The reader may be surprised that Cameron quotes both well-known Christians and those of other faiths; moreover, that she brings gleams of light from cultures other than our own. The timid reader may keep such insights at arm's length. But to do so would miss the wonder and beauty to be had in these pages, as well as our Lord’s pithy observation, “The Spirit blows where it will.”


 

DEAD SEA SCROLLS: THE UNTOLD STORY; by Kenneth Hanson, Ph.D.; Council Oak Books: Tulsa and San Francisco; 223 pages, $16.95.
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Our understanding of Scripture is built upon the inspired texts themselves. They are the bedrock of our faith. Over the past 2000 years, a significant body of scholarship, commentary and proclamation has been constructed above holy writ, forming what we generally think of when we consider a story or saying from God’s written word. We may not know whether it was Augustine, Calvin or Barclay who elucidated a passage in such a way as to help us “own” it; nonetheless, we all depend on the faithful, dedicated witnesses who have preceded us to understand what we read between Genesis 1 and Revelation 22. Great literature has depended upon these insights; as has many of the social advances of the Christian era.

It is most likely that when, in our mind’s ear, we “hear” Scripture, we do so in the language of the English renaissance-the beautiful cadences of the Authorized (or King James) Version. However, remarkable discoveries have occurred since that beloved translation of the 1600s; discoveries that shed new light upon our edifice of faith. From time to time, older, more reliable copies of this or that book or collection of books from the Bible have been found-in out of the way monasteries and ancient libraries. Yet none of these have been as amazing as that day in 1947 when a Bedouin shepherd boy uncovered an entire cache of ancient scrolls that had remained in a desert cave near the Dead Sea for nearly 2000 years. What his toss of a rock revealed was one of the greatest treasures of all time. In this book, Kenneth Hanson recounts the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, relates the adventure of tracking many down (and losing some forevermore!), and offers the reader a first-hand account of the people who wrote and hid them.

Why do we care about a bunch of dusty old scrolls, and their fragments that are too fragile to touch? Because they add their even-older corroboration of many of the Bible passages we have come to know and love. They show how the community of faith treasured and used the texts we revere and read. And they give us a source of greater understanding of the meaning of difficult-to-translate passages that have puzzled Christians for centuries. It is a fascinating, lively account of the importance of God’s written word and the people and faith it shapes. And it points us toward the newer revisions of the King James Version (the best of which is the New Revised Standard Version)-translations that take into account the discoveries revealed in 1947.

If you have made up your mind that the scholar-archeology of the Indiana Jones type is a myth, then you might want to read this book-getting to know its author will be an eye-opening adventure. If you want to know more about the religious and political forces that shaped the society into which Our Lord came, they you will surely want to read this book.


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