Prayers from the Ark: Book Review

In one of her books (I love them all and don’t remember which one), Madeleine L’Engle reflected on the challenges of convincing publishers that A Wrinkle in Time was a children’s novel. It was too complex, too scientific, too fantastical, too emotionally heavy, too emotionally fragile. Adults — publishers — thought it would be difficult for children. What they meant was that it was difficult for themselves. Children had the imagination for A Wrinkle in Time. Adults did not.

Prayers from the Ark is described as a children’s book of prayers. I wonder if some adults might find the prayers too fantastical, too poetically complex, too emotionally provocative for children, which suggests to me that Prayers from the Ark is precisely the kind of book that adults should read too — to challenge our imaginations, to provoke our wonder, to surprise our hearts, to unsettled our spiritual settledness.

Written by Carmen Bernos de Gasztold during World War II and translated by Rumer Godden for English publication in 1962, with illustrations by Jean Primrose, Prayers from the Ark gives devotional voice to a congregation of animals, each in their own unique style & perspective:

The tortoise prays,
“A little patience,
O God,
I am coming.”
Aren’t we all working our way toward God, slowly, slowly?

The giraffe confesses,
“I feed on exalted things
and I rather like
to see myself so close to Your heaven.
Humility!”
Shouldn’t we all confess such a diet?

The donkey pleads,
“Give me great courage and gentleness.
One day let somebody understand me–
that I may no longer want to weep.”
And my heart breaks: for me, for the donkey, for all of us.

I wonder where Prayers from the Ark has been all my life: such a gem of inspiration, such an exploration of emotion, such a simple invitation to prayerful honesty. I feel blessed to have a copy now, passed along to me by way of several familiar & treasured hands. It’s the kind of book (along with its companion The Creatures’ Choir from the same talented trio) that doesn’t live on my bookshelves but on my bedstand, where I can read it often to comfort & inspire my spirit.

Give Prayers from the Ark to the children in your life, yes — their imaginations will delight in the animals’ voices — but give it too to the adults in your life whose spirits might be running a little dry, whose imagination for the goodness of God might be struggling these days, and/or whose love of creation informs their love of God.

My Soul Waits: Book Review

Browsing the bookstore of Chartres Cathedral recently, a book stood out to me for its elegantly simple cover and its smooth pages. I found myself completely unsurprised to notice the publisher: Mount Tabor Books, an imprint of Paraclete Press (Paraclete published my first three books), representing Paraclete’s standard of beautiful and compelling books.

That stunning refinement of Paraclete’s books continues with My Soul Waits: Praying with the Psalms through Advent, Christmas & Epiphany by Martin Shannon, CJ, a new release that is perfect to being this Advent. (If you’re worried about getting it before the season begins on Sunday, consider a quick purchase of the Kindle version — although truly, I always recommend hard copies for books. Something about the tactical interaction with text.) In whatever format, My Soul Waits is a simple but beautiful and measured reflection on daily psalms: helping us meditate on the purpose of each psalm, lifting up wisdom from ancient Church Fathers, and offering honest prayers for 21st century faith.

It’s Shannon’s original prayers especially that resonate with my spirit. The prayers long for Home; they confess Hope; they celebrate What Has Been Done; they meditate on What Will Be. With each prayer, my heart wants to dance, to shout, to weep, to whisper, and Shannon ties them beautifully & subtly to the daily psalm readings. Each day’s meditation indicates that a reader should begin with the psalm; personally, I find myself not only beginning with the psalm but repeating it again at the end of the meditation in order to trace the threads between Scripture, the excerpts of Church Fathers, and Shannon’s prayers.

A note: I am increasingly in a faith space in which male-gendered & master/lord language for God is dissonant to my spirit, so that language stands out to me in My Soul Waits … although ultimately it doesn’t interfere with the book’s overall impact of walking gently & pastorally with the reader in this holy season of waiting. Listening deeply for the soul’s essential stories that reverberate across the centuries, Martin Shannon accompanies us through the longing of Advent to the revelation of Epiphany.

My Soul Waits is a balm to the restless spirit — speaking myself as one who is impatient with waiting. It is a patient companion through six weeks of triumph and trembling, turmoil and tenderness. Reading Shannon, my heart believes again that it can wait with hope for Christ’s fulfillment. With every amen, I am renewed.

Womanist Midrash: Book Review

Cyber Monday: Buy Womanist Midrash for yourself.

Christmas list: Buy Womanist Midrash for your pastor.

Year-end sales: Buy Womanist Midrash for your local library.

New Year’s resolution: Study Womanist Midrash. Take your time with the story & study of biblical women. Excavate your assumptions, your childhood Sunday School lessons, and even (or most of all) your seminary studies. Preach about women, named and unnamed. Write about women, empowered and forsaken. Tell the truth about women, enslaved and sexualized, erased and marginalized, ancient and modern. Claim imagination: its place in scripture and its indispensability in faith.

The Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney’s Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne is a stunning and invigorating work. Gafney’s academic depth, breadth of imagination, and contextual integrity to both language & culture make Womanist Midrash an authoritative resource for biblical scholars, pastors & preachers, and lovers of Scripture alike. This book is one to earmark, underline, highlight, and reference thoroughly and regularly — not because the sacred texts & Gafney’s hermeneutic are easy on one’s spirit, but because the womanist lens on Scripture is a holy force that will change & bless all those who wrestle with it.

I am, for example, struck anew and mesmerized by Gafney’s examination of Rachel (Jacob’s second wife): her role & responsibility as a shepherd — how have I overlooked that detail in such a familiar story?; her loyalty to her family’s gods over Jacob’s gods — is this why she died, not because of difficulty bearing Benjamin but because her gods were taken away?; the text’s lack of attention to whether Rachel had affection for Jacob — despite our romanticization of Jacob’s affection for Rachel. Why & how have I come to accept the story of a disempowered Rachel, without say over her faith or her marriage or her sex life or her reproductive choices, when in fact she staked her claim on as many of those choices as she was able? Would I not (do I?) affirm the same authority of choice for women today?

Sometimes biblical texts & stories are so familiar that we neglect the details, or we neglect to realize how many of the details we’ve assumed into the stories. And sometimes biblical texts & stories & people — women, especially — are so unfamiliar that we don’t realize we’ve overlooked them, like how many women are unnamed but essential & present when a phrase such as “Israelites” or “people of Israel” is used in Scripture, or how many non-Jewish women & children are killed or enslaved every time the Israelites invade a new region of the Promised Land.

Womanist Midrash is a gift of remembering what is too often forgotten, of claiming & centralizing those who are too often degraded, of holding fast & fierce onto that which is hard for the sake of life and Life. It is a must-read for those who wrestle with Scripture.

Healing Spiritual Wounds (Book Giveaway)

For those who have been hurt by the Church;

For those trying to hold onto Christian faith in the face of “Christian” hate and rejection and violence;

And, I strongly suggest, for the pastors and church professionals seeking to cultivate safe spaces for hurting Christians who are determined to find healthy faith communities rather than reject Christianity altogether;

For you, I highly recommend Carol Howard Merritt’s Healing Spiritual Wounds: Reconnecting with a Loving God after Experiencing a Hurtful Church.

Better yet, I encourage you to win a beautiful hardcover copy of Healing Spiritual Wounds by entering this week’s book giveaway! Simply drop me an email with the subject “Healing Spiritual Wounds” by Sunday, June 4th at 5:00pm eastern for your chance to win!

As I wrote in an earlier book review, every chapter of Healing Spiritual Wounds unpacks theology & sociology & history in order to give readers the permission to name their spiritual wounds and to claim new, grace-filled understandings. Impressively, Carol Howard Merritt does this work without falling into unhelpful categorizations of “conservative” or “liberal” theologies. She names the Church’s harms topically — emotional, physical, financial, spiritual, etc. — and through personal stories acknowledges that harm is caused by the Church across its theological/political spectrum.

As I was pleased to express in my endorsement: “Healing Spiritual Wounds is a gift of candid and caring space for those who have been hurt by the Church, and Carol is a wise and gentle guide through the complex work of spiritual recovery. Welcome to a deeper, healthier faith journey.”

All submitted names will be placed in a hat for a random drawing at 5:00pm eastern on Sunday, June 4th. I’ll contact the winner for a mailing address to send the free copy of Healing Spiritual Wounds. None of the email addresses received as a result of folks entering the book giveaway will be shared, and you won’t receive unsolicited emails from me after the giveaway has ended. Send me an mail to enter the drawing!

Kids and Prayer (Summer Sunday School)

Have you entered your name in this week’s giveaway drawing to win a free copy of the Kids and Prayer DVD? This fun resource, with four kid-friendly episodes about the basics of prayer, is a $50 value for your church or home library to support important conversations about prayer with the young people in your life. Enter to win by sending me an email with the subject “Prayer DVD” by Sunday May 28.

Don’t just enter to win Kids and Prayer for your bookshelf, however. Enter to win and use Kids and Prayer!

For example, perhaps you have the responsibility of crafting a multi-age Sunday School program for this summer, and you’d like to use Kids and Prayer for a program focused on prayer. For a twelve-week Sunday School summer outline, here are ideas for using the theme of each Kids and Prayer episode across three consecutive Sundays:

  1. “What Is Prayer?” Show the first episode, then ask the youngest kids to explain to the oldest youth what prayer is. Have the oldest ones retell the episode’s Bible story to the youngest ones, along with their understanding of how the story relates to prayer. Cut out construction paper hands, glue wiggly eyes on styrofoam balls, paint a portrait of your neighbor’s ear, and talk about how our bodies experience prayer (mindful of ableism): for example, our eyes might not actually see God, but our hearts try to “see”/understand God a little better every time we pray.
  2. Continue with “What Is Prayer?” If your Sunday School classroom has high turnover in its attendance during the summer months, consider playing the first DVD episode again. Play a game of Telephone to demonstrate how poorly we listen to one another, contrasted with how well God hears us. Ask the older youth especially to reflect on the difference between being heard and being answered, so kids of all ages can wonder together about how to believe that God hears them even if an answer isn’t immediate or obvious. Practice prayers of amazement with Psalm 8 — either use Psalm 8 as an example or read it aloud with kids responding “Wow, God” after each line.
  3. Third Sunday of the “What Is Prayer?” theme and episode. Look at the story in Genesis 18:3-5, sing “Kumbayah (Come By Here),” and discuss how we invite God to come and talk about the world with us. How did Abraham prepare a meal for his guests? How would you set a table where God is one of the dinner guests? Practice setting a table, and get creative in table displays, decorative plates, etc. Let everyone say their own prayer at the table.
  4. Fourth Sunday, it’s time for the second Kids and Prayer DVD episode, “Why Do We Pray?” Once again, ask the youngest to explain to the oldest youth why we pray after watching the episode, and then have the oldest retell the episode’s Bible story to the youngest, along with their understanding of how the story relates to prayer. Take turns acting out various emotions — happy, sad, grumpy, lonely, excited — and talk about why we might pray to God when we’re in these different moods. Teach a prayer to be memorized or use Writing to God: Kids’ Edition to prompt the group with their own prayers.
  5. Continue with “Why Do We Pray?” Bring newspapers and magazines and ask kids to cut out something they want to pray about — a person or place or event that they want to make sure God is paying attention to. Make a display of the group’s prayer concerns and put it in the church somewhere with the encouragement that others add their own prayers to the display. Don’t be afraid of the hard questions in conversation with kids: What difference does it make that we pray for something that we can’t fix? What if God doesn’t fix it either? Be willing to not settle for easy answers.
  6. One more Sunday on “Why Do We Pray?” Paint rocks in class, teaching and affirming that God is like a rock — reliable across time, strong through change, able to withstand even our hardest questions (I don’t recommend limestone). Affirm the good news of Matthew 10:30-31 — God knows you, God loves you, God cares when you feel like you’re flying confidently like a sparrow and God cares when you’re falling.
  7. On to the third episode of Kids and Prayer, “How Do We Pray?” Ask the youngest to explain to the oldest how we pray, based on what they’ve learned from the DVD, and then have the oldest retell the episode’s Bible story to the youngest. If the weather’s nice and you can go outside easily, take a walk and practice praying along the way: “Thank you, God, for the apartment building!” “Wow, God, look at the ants climbing over one small crumb!” “
  8. Continuing with “How Do We Pray?” break the large group into smaller multi-age groups, with an assignment to each group to write a prayer in a different style: confession, thanksgiving, etc. (Encourage younger ones to generate ideas for the prayer, with older ones assigned to write.) Have the small groups put their prayers on poster board, with decorations and designs that reflect the mood/theme of their prayers. Read the prayers aloud.
  9. With a little advance homework on your part, bring psalms of varying moods for another Sunday of “How Do We Pray?” Work together or in small groups to understand the psalms’ meanings — does the psalm pray about a leader? is the psalmist mad at God or scared of God? etc. — and then take turns acting out the psalms once they’re understood. Ask each actor how they might pray in similar circumstances.
  10. The fourth episode of Kids and Prayer is “Where Do We Pray?” which hints of fun excursions for the final weeks of your summer program. First make sure the DVD episode is understood by all, by asking the youngest to explain to the oldest where we can pray and asking the oldest to retell the episode’s Bible story to the youngest. Wander around your church as a group in search of “pray-able” spaces: the sanctuary? the front door? the kitchen?
  11. As “Where Do We Pray?” continues, take time to retell (briefly) the story of the ancient Israelites wandering from Egypt across the Red Sea to Mount Sinai to the border of the Promised Land to random meandering through the wilderness and back to the Promised Land. A map can help demonstrate your point that the people prayed everywhere they went! Ask kids to draw “maps” (can be loosely interpreted) of all they places they go on an average day and identify which locations are “pray-able” spaces.
  12. To conclude the “Where Do We Pray?” part of your summer series, ask kids if there’s anywhere they can go that God is not. Consider the stories of Elijah who God found in a cave on a mountain … of Jonah who God found hiding (not very well) in a fish & then under a bush … of Peter who tried to hide out beside a campfire after Jesus was arrested. Play a game of hide-and-seek. If you’re not anxious about crumbs, include snacks as part of what’s hidden and needs to be found.

Check out other program ideas I’ve posted on my blog this week, but most of all be sure to enter this week’s drawing for a free copy of the Kids and Prayer DVD! All you need to do is drop me an email with the subject “Prayer DVD” and I’ll put your name in the hat. The drawing will be held at 5:00pm eastern on Sunday, May 28.