Enjoy book reviews written by our CFDM community!
"A Burning in My Bones" - The Authorized Biography of Eugene H. Peterson
By Winn Collier
Reflection by Amanda Whaley- CFDM Cohort 14
Eugene Peterson’s biography is a beautiful, honest look at the life of someone I highly admire. The way he made every aspect of his life incarnational is inspiring. Several things struck me as I reflected on my own journey and specifically this season of my life. The landscape of Montana shaped who he was as a man and pastor. I have been thinking about the landscape of my childhood, not metaphorically, the physical land I grew up on. We had sheep and dusty acres with fallen trees to climb like jungle gyms, and as an only child, I spent a lot of time with my imagination and the sheep. That land fostered a space where I was able to talk to God uninhibited.
Peterson was heavily influenced by Karl Barth and Dostoyevsky. One of the aspects of Barth’s life that impacted Eugene was that Barth was not “indifferent to getting it right, he was just more concerned with getting it lived.” I know this is the transition I’ve been in for a while, moving from getting it right to living it out. It feels like a lot of unlearning to move from connecting rightness with righteousness. As a result, my compassion for others is deepening.
Eugene Peterson grew up Pentecostal and became a Presbyterian pastor. And as his story unfolds, it is made clear that he grew away from sectarianism and instead learned from others, even having a Carmelite nun for a spiritual director at one point in time. He didn’t let the constraints of bounded set theology take away from his desire to be a pastor of prayer and connection. He learned from and remained open to others. This posture expanded his relationships and broadened the scope with whom he interacted and read.
In this biography, Winn Collier doesn’t talk of Eugene’s life and ministry as a perfect example to emulate, but rather it is a vulnerable picture of a man who walked, as Jeff Tacklind puts it in his book, the winding path of transformation. I found many points that intersect my own story in surprising ways and many things that I cannot relate to but found myself very heartened by. I think this story will impact me as a spiritual director because it added a layer of appreciation for the diversity of encounters we have with God.
"Prayer in the Night"
by Tish Harrison Warren
Review by Rev. Jourdan Turner
Tish Harrison Warren clings to the Episcopalian prayer practices of Compline in a season of her life full of darkness and grief. She posits that the prayers of the church give shape and foundation to our prayers and faith especially in times we are feeling the most grief, loss or darkness. They hold us together in God. “Faith, I’ve come to believe, is more craft than feeling. And prayer is our chief practice in the craft.” (pg. 8) Warren expounds on various sections of the compline prayer and what they might offer in our modern era as the words take on new meaning.
“Keep Watch”— Warren speaks here of the importance of God’s presence, especially in the face of pain and suffering. She suggests that God explaining Godself might not actually be what we want, rather perhaps we just long for God’s presence. We trust God to “keep watch” with and for us. “God does not take away our vulnerability. He enters into it”.
“Those Who Weep”— In this section Warren suggests that grief is not so much a season as it is an ever-present reality in our lives. Yes, there are moments of acute and major grief, but we are all carrying sadness and struggle in us all the time. “It is a real and right response to our vulnerability.” (39)
“Those Who Work”— Warren reminds us that work is part of God’s good creation from the beginning. And our work ties us together- we need each other, and we need others to do their work as we do ours. Work makes us interdependent and gives us a place to contribute to the common good. “Our shared human vulnerability calls us to action—to work.” (67)
The book goes on to explore the entirety of the prayer in beautiful, practical and profound ways. This book is deeply meaningful and helpful as a human walking through a broken world with the paradigm of faith. It gives voice and permission to things we feel in the human experience and allows us to humbly embrace them. At the root of it all is vulnerability and fragility. Warren presents these as realities rather than points of shame and in doing so we breathe a sigh of relief. Even for those who grew up in traditions that use extemporaneous prayers, you may come to love the liturgy and pre-written prayers offered, as I did. The gift that these prayers can offer from prayer books, the psalms, tradition or even our own writing us when we are beyond words. Often, we are too tired, too sad, too lost, too shocked or hurt to find words. These prayers offer the gift of words when we can’t find our own. Like Warren, I have come to value the structure and tether that they consistently provide. This kind of prayer practice helps me as I continue to dig up the fallacy that I have to “conjure up” God’s presence somehow. They help me rest in the knowledge that God is already present. She describes how these prayers helped her to be “held by God” rather than trying to hold on to God.
This book also provides great ground for understanding and practicing Spiritual Direction. It seems to me that most people come to spiritual directors feelings some portion of their vulnerability. Perhaps that is not how they would describe it, but it gives directees a framework for understanding their humanity and our own. This is a good place to start and to create space as we sit in direction. We perhaps can imagine ourselves in the position of “keeping watch” with a directee. Not that we are God, but we can be present with people in their vulnerability as they present their grief (weeping) and work, suffering, joy, and identity. It also helps to remember this from Warren, “categories of human vulnerability—the sick, weary, dying, suffering, afflicted, joyous—are clearly not little boxes that we fit neatly inside.” (10) Warren suggests that they all blur together but we pray for them individually. Warren offers a beautiful and helpful perspective on one prayer that offers a foundation of our understanding of ourselves, others and the shape and value of prayer itself.
"The Winding Path of Transformation: Finding Yourself Between Glory and Humility"
by Jeffrey Tacklind
Review by Gini Downing
"The Winding Path of Transformation" is an invitation to think deeper, bigger, and broader, about life and faith and paradox. Jeff Tacklind, a master storyteller, offers his life, his experiences, and his own questions to the reader as a gift. One can almost imagine Tacklind sitting in a rustic chair by a fireplace, maybe even smoking a pipe. As he considers a question, perhaps he blows a smoke ring or two, as he sifts through his experiences for just the right illustration to bring light to the conversation. His eyes sparkle as he finds the memory he was searching for, and he begins the story.
Had I not met Jeff Tacklind prior to reading The Winding Path, I would have expected someone quite different – more like Gandalf, perhaps. But no, Jeff is a young pastor of a small, unassuming church in a small beach community in Southern California. In addition to pastoring his church, he is a devoted family man, a scholar, and a surfer. And I am told he doesn’t smoke a pipe. Even so, perhaps it is this conglomeration of abilities and passions that gives the book its character: Gandalfian wisdom emanating from the pen of a long haired, bespectacled California wave-surfing preacher. And in the context of this contradiction of terms, Tacklind is maybe uniquely situated to tackle some of the conundrums residing amidst the Christian walk of faith.
Each chapter of The Winding Path invites the reader into the reality that the way of the Christ Follower is not a straight road. Rather, the path is complicated. Some of the subjects covered include the confluence of glory and humility, the importance and necessity of seasons of desolation, waiting and questioning, and the slow process of transformation in the midst of brokenness. Tacklind uses rich metaphors and imagery of nature – of tree roots, rivers, and waves – to underscore the narrative.
The tension of being “in the world but not of the world” is itself an invitation into a larger way of thinking that encompasses not only our victories but our missteps as well. With humility and vulnerability, Tacklind offers his own insecurities and missteps as an encouragement to those of us whose paths seem to be a series of trips and falls, but whose trajectories remain focused on the Christ we attempt to follow.
In reading The Winding Path, you are not necessarily going to find answers. Rather, you will be invited to stretch the borders of your understanding, to sit within the tension of paradox and gently dismantle the protective walls that have been constructed in self-preservation. As Tacklind writes, we must not stay small. Our hearts must enlarge. And to that end, Tacklind offers questions to ponder. Perspectives to consider. Paradoxes and tensions to contemplate. In fact, this is not a book just to be read – it is a book to be mulled over.
"Shades of Light"
by Sharon Garlough Brown
Review by Marilyn Crawford
I commend to our CFDM community the novel Shades of Light written by Sharon Garlough Brown. You may know this author from her Sensible Shoes series. This book is not part of that collection but a few of the characters from those stories are also present here. The main character in this story is Wren Crawford (already I liked her with that last name!) who is a social worker, an artist and a person who has endured anxiety and depression throughout her life. Wren is especially sensitive to the needs of others and to the suffering she sees in the world.
Sharon Garlough Brown has written an honest account of mental health issues which several of the people in this engaging story live with and struggle through. There is recognition that the easy solutions from Christian friends and co-workers often don’t help. Well intentioned phrases- “pray your way out of it”, “memorize more scripture”, “anxiety and depression are all about a lack of faith” hurt more than help. Fortunately Wren has a Pastor who knows how hard her journey is and who walks with her patiently, wisely, and lovingly. She has a good Therapist and ultimately medications which are beneficial.
In the Church we are coming to an increased awareness of mental illness and learning helpful ways of accompaniment. This novel describes how anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder and panic attacks affect a person’s life. We see the difficulty of managing these and as we come to know the people in the story our compassion increases. We see the real struggle with darkness, fear and uncertainty as healing is sought from God and from mental health services.
There is a true picture of how families seek to understand and deal with a loved one who is suffering. We can identify with the desire to help and the sadness when we are not able to fix. There is theological wrestling with God in the midst of it: Why would God allow this suffering? Why is God not quick to heal? We see the power of the cross as witness to Jesus, our companion in sorrow.
Wren’s favorite artist is Vincent Van Gogh. From an early age she has been inspired by his paintings and loves to read his letters to Theo, his brother. This connection to Van Gogh is a major theme throughout the story. Those of you who have read Learning from Henri Nouwen and Vincent Van Gogh (A Portrait of the Compassionate Life by Carol A. Berry) will be fully alert to Van Gogh’s influence on Wren. It is a great companion book to this one. Wren reflects on Vincent- “He had been a master at finding beauty in the ordinary, beauty in the suffering, beauty in the broken and the poor, in the wounded and the neglected, in the forgotten and the discarded. Vincent knew how to see.” (pg. 50)
For those of us who are pastors, spiritual directors, leaders in spiritual formation practices, this story has lovely and helpful images of how spiritual practices can be part of everyday life. The Pastor and Spiritual Director use visio divina, imaginative reading of scripture, prayer of examen, breath prayer, the teachings of Julian of Norwich in very natural ways. None of it seems forced but all is explored as pathways to draw closer to God. Scripture and Communion are present as gifts of sustenance and hope.
We read of family dynamics, close friendships, healing from trauma, mother-daughter relationships, art as therapeutic, the hardship of loss and grief. There is darkness and there are shades of light. Sharon Garlough Brown, a Pastor and a Spiritual Director, has written a beautiful story where our humanity and God’s creative love for us are woven together. Not many novels are as rich for us as followers of Christ.
At the conclusion of the book are resources:
For Mental Health
For Grief and Spiritual Formation
For Art and Spiritual Formation
For Vincent Van Gogh
She has also written a sequel, a novella about finding our way to the cross called Remember Me which follows up the story of Wren and Kit (a spiritual director and director of the retreat center). In this brief book Wren paints the stations of the cross and explores with Kit the meaning of Christ’s suffering. It includes the paintings and questions for each station. It is a perfect book for Lent.