Posts Tagged With: book reviews

RevGalBookPals: Healing Spiritual Wounds

Lately, I have been paying attention to negative space. Not just space where the energy is 515o5ugeajl-_sx329_bo1204203200_less than positive, but negative space with regard to art-
making, language, and emotional processing. Negative space focuses on what isn’t. What wasn’t. What didn’t. Wha wouldn’t. Negative space can drive us to the other extreme in all kinds of ways, sprinting away from pain into a overzealous commitment to do the opposite of the thing that scarred us deeply.

The negative space created by a wounding church or hurtful church people leaves space that aches in its emptiness. The echoing lies in the negative space speak untruths about God and about our own goodness. That echo reverberates in our lives- affecting our health, our choices, our habits, our relationships, and our faith. In order to live with this hollowness, we set up a system that feeds on the negative space. But negative space has nothing to give.

3a Carol Howard Merritt writes that people who are inclined toward faith will find themselves at the edge of this negative space, again and again. They long to be filled and yet the echoes of the negative spce seem too broad, too deep, and too loud to be overcome. Overcoming this pain with healing, positive truth is a real and tangible possibility. This is the premise, the structure, and the achievement of Merritt’s book Healing Spiritual Wounds: Reconnecting with a Loving God After Experiencing a Hurtful Church.

Within the book, Merritt shares some of her own story as well as that of others she knows. The pain of church lies, leader deceptions,  and the religious idolatry of the appearance of perfection and prosperity are not the telos (end) of God’s desire for the church or for any part of creation. Resurrection and renewal as a spiritual person, in communion with God and others,  is entirely possible, achievable, and worth desiring. This book teaches those lessons gently, like learning how to swim.

You don’t need to conjure God; you simply need to find ways to awake to God’s presence and deepen your connection. (61)

Beyond her gentle prose, Merritt offers clearly structured exercises for contemplation and action. Her metaphors and examples help the reader sit with pain and roll it over like a stone in the mind. As the hurtful thoughts are rolled, their sharpness slowly smoothes. Their ability to inflict pain dulls.

Merritt’s own story- with the religion of her college years, with her father, with her spiritual journey- allow the reader to see that trauma can cause physical pain, grief, illness, and long-term internal and external work. The act of helping someone else in healing can bring healing to one’s own heart, as she often demonstrates.

Toward the end of the book, Merritt writes a litany of the power of biblical women. She reclaims their stories into her own and sees their strengths as a witness to God’s love and work through women. Merritt’s awakening in this section feels very open-ended, as though she wants the reader to know that she is still healing, still discovering, still being loved by the Divine into a new fullness. And because it is happening to and for and through her, the same is true for you.

I highly recommend this book. It would, in particular, make a good Lenten reading for individuals or small groups. Take a positive step to fill negative space in your life with healing and hope. Reading this book can be that step.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

The Reverend Julia Seymour serves Lutheran Church of Hope in Anchorage, AK. She blogs at and She contributed to There’s A Woman in the Pulpit. 

RevGalBlogPals encourages you to share our blog posts via email or social media. We do not grant permission to cut-and-paste prayers and articles without a link back. For permission to use material in paper publications, please email revgalblogpals at gmail dot com.

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RevGalBookPals: The Cure for Sorrow

There are some books that you just need. Not because you are a pastor or a particularly dedicated lay person or because you preach or are waiting for a call or are even a Christian, but you need this book because you are human. You need this book because it will give you words for when you don’t have them and it will help you shape your own words of which you feel you have too many.

Jan Richardson‘s The Cure for Sorrow: A Book of Blessings for Times of Grief is such a 512z96heoql-_sx312_bo1204203200_book. Written after her husband’s unexpected death in the days, weeks, and months that followed, this book is a rending and ashen path of what it is like to feel the gape, pull, and scar of deep grief. Each blessing is like a contract with the reader- words that Richardson has rolled around in her heart, head, hands and is giving to you, like a rough-edged rock, to handle and contemplate.

The titles like “Blessing in the Anger”, ” Blessing for Falling Into a New Layer of Grief”, “Blessing for Dining Alone”, or “Blessing of Courage” draw you to their pages only to find what you didn’t expect. These are not hearty, feasting blessings nor are they small amuse-bouche snippets. These are the bone broth of blessings- the words and phrases that come when everything else has been stripped away, most nourishing and the violence of the sourcing was inescapable.

It will take your breath away/ how the grieving waits for you/ in the most ordinary moments. (42) 


People will want to help/ when you cannot know/ what could help, what could ever make/ the world stop falling away/ from beneath your feet,/ from your heart that/ will never be here,/ will never beat here,/ in the same way. (27)


Because I do not know/ any cure for sorrow/ but to let ourselves/ sorrow. (122)

Do not buy this book anticipating funerals or how it be useful in Lent or on Longest Night or even for a friend. I recommend this book for you- a book to read when you feel your feelings, think your thinks, and are overwhelmed by the doings of the day. There is deep grief afoot in the world and in our lives. It is good to have a friend who speaks the language. A Cure for Sorrow is the friend that such a horrible, quotidian journey requires.


The Reverend Julia Seymour serves Lutheran Church of Hope in Anchorage, AK. She blogs at and She contributed to There’s A Woman in the Pulpit. 

RevGalBlogPals encourages you to share our blog posts via email or social media. We do not grant permission to cut-and-paste prayers and articles without a link back. For permission to use material in paper publications, please email revgalblogpals at gmail dot com.

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RevGalBookPals: I’m Judging You

In the past week, I’ve struggled to finish a book, any book. I have half-read books all over the place, but they have too much plot or not enough, or I need more attention to learn from them, or I just can’t bring myself to care about the people or characters in the book. This is not my usual style. In fact, it is a sign of depression that I have learned to recognize.

However, I did manage to RE-READ something this week. Actually, I listened to the audiobook of I’m Judging You: The Do-Better Manual by Luvvie Ajayi. I already read this book. (In fact, I was so hyper in my pre-ordering that I bought it twice. Whoops.) Listening to the book as I flew across the country, crocheting my feelings like I do, brought home all the things that I like about this book. Which I had already read two times since it came out in September.

I am terrible at beginning a sermon with a joke. I don’t like to do it and I don’t often enjoy it when other people do it. However, that is Luvvie’s forte. The book begins with hilarious 51leduid2bal-_sx332_bo1204203200_judgments about friendship, social media, and how the world works. It is observational humor- tightened up and with an edge that leaves you recognizing yourself and laughing at the same time. Yet, as you laugh, Luvvie pulls you into deeper and deeper subjects. You are reflecting on ridiculous places that you have seen the Comic Sans (the font) used and then you are in the middle of her well-paced and trenchant commentary on racism, privilege, or feminism.

Frankly, the chapter on feminism is a MUST read for all white women. It is embarrassing to consider the ways  in which white women have seized feminism as their own cause, defined on their terms- without ever acknowledging how black women and other women of color have contributed to the realities of this country and the women’s movement. This book describes this reality (and its aftereffects) in one of most concise ways you will ever read. If you don’t think you can bear hearing Luvvie’s voice convict you with the audio, read the book (especially that chapter) yourself, but prepare for self-examination. If you didn’t or don’t think this divide is a real thing, please break here and read Luvvie’s post on how women of different races voted in the presidential election. Then come back.

The whole book is like being in a confessional with a witty and charming priestess. She already knows your sins and she will tell them to you. You will realize where you have erred and will long to do better. And she believes that you can.

In the epilogue, Luvvie writes:

Sometimes, we feel the pressure and self-imposed expectation that when we do something, it needs to be big and perfect. That can render us useless and ensure that we do nothing because we’re so afraid of not doing enough. That’s tapping out before we begin. Damb [sic] that. I am here to tell us all to drop that. Small acts can go far, so you thinking you cannot do enough is not okay. You can, and I am asking you to at least try.

In the wake of recent world events (wars, rumors of wars, earthquakes, etc.), it can be overwhelming to try to figure out what to teach, where to start, and how to tackle the painful realities of our present situation. The thing is, racism is real. Sexism is real. Body shaming is real. Online bullying is real. Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, and anti-immigrant words and actions are real.

Our stands against these things cannot be metaphorical. They must be solidly anchored not only in our intentions, but from our cores where we seek bind and heal, not wound and warp. I’m Judging You: The Do-Better Manual is a book for such a time as this. You can laugh until you weep and then weep until you laugh. Then you wipe your nose, straighten your shirt, and figure out which part of your act needs cleaning up.

And, trust me, as Luvvie will assure you, some part of it surely does.

The Reverend Julia Seymour serves Lutheran Church of Hope in Anchorage, AK. She blogs at She contributed to There’s A Woman in the Pulpit. 

RevGalBlogPals encourages you to share our blog posts via email or social media. We do not grant permission to cut-and-paste prayers and articles without a link back. For permission to use material in paper publications, please email revgalblogpals at gmail dot com.

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RevGalBookPals: Spiritual Sobriety

In the past year, the congregation I serve has welcomed some new disciples who had recently left the local mega church(es). I worry about sheep stealing, but I also accept that 515ho2vwhtl-_sx322_bo1204203200_sometimes a new church home is what is needed for spiritual and emotional health and growth. One of these couples referred to themselves as “spiritual refugees”- unable to return to the church home they’d known and trying to deal with having had it fall down around them.

Spiritual Sobriety: Stumbling Back to Faith When Good Religion Goes Bad is a slim manual for processing one’s bad habits around religion and religious practice. Elizabeth Esther has written a book combining her own research and experience with notes from psychologists and social science researchers on how spiritual highs can become as addicting as the highs one could attain from other substances or habits. Her light touch with scripture and application of spiritual disciplines allows a person with religious addiction to slowly begin to see themselves and to wrestle with what spiritual sobriety would look like.

The implication of the book is not that sobriety would look like a life without religion, but that it would be a spirituality judiciously and soberly applied. Rather than a frenetic search for God’s approval, often confused or conflated with having the approval of other Christians or Christian leaders, sober religion would be content with slow movement, simple prayers, and a matching of service and quiet to the amount of time spent in worship. Each chapter concludes with journaling or group question prompts.

This is not a memoir like Rachel Held Evans’s or Lauren Winner’s work. Nor is this as heady as something by Barbara Brown Taylor or Lillian Daniel. This book is for the person who has spent most of his/her/their life in a fairly to very strict religious upbringing. This is for the person who needed some structure in healing from painful church or religious experiences. This is for the person who has always been churchy because that defined “goodness” and now needs help to be honest with themselves and with God.

While the majority of people reading this review may not feel that the book is for you (and you may be right), I would recommend keeping the name in the back of your mind. As religion continues to be misused in the public square, you find yourself welcoming spiritual refugees and having the right toolkit for their healing will be necessary. I believe I will be contacting a few people in the congregation I serve to see if they’d like to read and talk about this.


The Reverend Julia Seymour serves Lutheran Church of Hope in Anchorage, AK. She blogs at She contributed to There’s A Woman in the Pulpit. 

RevGalBlogPals encourages you to share our blog posts via email or social media. We do not grant permission to cut-and-paste prayers and articles without a link back. For permission to use material in paper publications, please email revgalblogpals at gmail dot com.

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RevGalBookPals: A Life Everlasting

Sarah and Ross Gray found out that they were expecting twins. And then they found out


that one would live and one probably would not. Learning about the life of their oldest son, Thomas, was almost immediately paired with learning about his death due to anencephaly. Throughout the rest of her pregnancy, Ross and Sarah walk a road of hope and grief.

They ultimately decide to have Thomas’s organs donated either for transplant or research. This is not a common decision, for many obvious and not so obvious reasons. The ups and downs of the birth and what transpired after are gripping and as moving as one might expect. However, the real triumph of the book happens in what Thomas “achieves” in death. His corneas, liver, and  blood, among other things, are part of extensive life-saving and life-transforming work in research labs and universities up and down the eastern seaboard.

Gray includes other stories of parents who chose to donate the bodies or organs of their deceased infants. In many instances, these parents had to really push to find a way for their children to be accepted. Research can only advance so far without the ability to be put in context. The donation of bodies- organs, tissue, bones, and whole bodies- for research allows for the fighting of disease at a different level than one life at a time.

Religion does not play any kind of significant role in this book, though there are two kind souls- a priest and a chaplain- who do show up and show up well. Yet, Sarah Gray goes on a holy quest to see her son in the afterlife of his body. She goes to the research facilities that received his organs. As she begins to see the work that Thomas is helping, the researchers are moved to see the family of a donor who has made furthering their work possible. The meeting of hearts and minds- sharing grief, joy, and purpose- is a blessing to those present and to those reading about it.

The story itself moves very quickly. While the various organizational acronyms make a little bit of an alphabet soup, it is not impossible for the reader to follow. Gray’s own curiosity and energy in pursuing the channels of donation to research pull the reader along with her. This book is ideal for people who already loved learning about Henrietta Lacks or who wanted to but found that book overwhelming. This is an easier read.

What boosted the rating for this book in my mind was the material. Gray’s grief pushed her into creative thinking about how her son’s donations were being used. There wasn’t actually anything to stop her, but- at any point- people who were worried about lawsuits or misinterpretation or just encountering a grieving mother could have stymied her search. Instead, the book reveals a web of people who were interconnected by a short life that was actually more full of meaning and possibility that most people would think and most parents would dare to dream.

This is probably not the book to hand to a freshly grieving parent, although, within the book, parents who learn about anencephaly support each other. This IS a book for anyone who is interested in science, health or medical research, organ donation, or grief/process memoirs. One of the preschool teachers at the congregation I serve has already called dibs on my copy and I think I am going to buy a copy for at least one of the hospital chaplains in the congregation as well.


I asked for and received an advanced review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.


The Reverend Julia Seymour serves Lutheran Church of Hope in Anchorage, AK. She blogs at She contributed to There’s A Woman in the Pulpit. 


RevGalBlogPals encourages you to share our blog posts via email or social media. We do not grant permission to cut-and-paste prayers and articles without a link back. For permission to use material in paper publications, please email revgalblogpals at gmail dot com.




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RevGalBookPals: Good Christian Sex

We are all facing the need for hard conversations these days. There are conversations that must be had about race, about social structures, about power and privilege, about insectionality, about culture, about values, and about how to be in the world. One (only one) of the topics to discuss in the giant wheel of “how to be in the world” is about sex. I say that as though sex itself was a simple thing. Either you are having it or you aren’t. Either it’s good or it isn’t. Either it’s consensual or it’s rape. Either you’re thinking it though or you’re using the other person or people.

I realize some of you are wondering what else needs to be said on the topic of sex, especially in the Christian arena. However, the reality is that we have not closed the circle on the conversation on healthy human sexuality as experienced in solo and partnered activity. In trying to demarcate virginity, purity, and time/place/tab/slot, we have missed a whole range of conversations on the beauty, diversity, and holiness of sex as a means of grace in our lives and in the world. So writes Bromleigh McCleneghan in her new book, Good Christian Sex: Why Chastity Isn’t the Only Option-And Other Things the Bible Says About Sex.

51tw-fztofl-_sx326_bo1204203200_McCleneghan writes the book that seminarians will want to discuss, campus pastors will discuss, and young adults in faith communities will be glad to read (and should ask their partners to read as well). Her chapters on a theology of intimacy, vulnerability, faithfulness, and other pertinent topics make the ethical discussion that has happened elsewhere accessible to the parish, campus, and community reader. She writes, “The experience of good sex—and the delightful things that lead up to it—is one of risking showing and sharing oneself with another, of giving and receiving care and attention, of connection and delight. It tends to require a partner, and an enthusiastic, sensitive one as well. ”(48f)

 McCleneghan dares to put out (ha!) the idea that the God-given gift of sex (and sexuality) are not to be packed away until some future when a switch will magically be flipped via a ring and certain phrases and then all will fall into place with no awkwardness and mutual orgasms for everyone. Instead, she argues that there is a real discipleship in approaching sex with thoughtfulness and care for one’s self and one’s partner. “Sex—intimacy—opens us up to change. It asks us to trust and let go, to relax and experiment. It draws us into play and pleasure, but also the work of communicating with another person who cannot get inside our heads. Through sex we can practice attention, invitation, hospitality, and the means of grace. “ (150)

 This is the conversation starter that many pastors, parents, godparents, confirmation sponsors, grandparents, and peers are longing to have. This book provides structure for having a conversation that is between “Sex is horrible, but you save it for someone you love” and “Sex is great. Have fun!” That ‘and’ covers a multitude of sins, but also of grace moments and ways of learning about one’s body, mind, and soul. The author carefully covers the reality that marriage can be an unsafe place for sex. She also discusses the reality, often overlooked, that sex within a shorter-term partnership can still be holy and fulfilling.

I recommend this book for all pastors’ shelves (to read and to share), as well as for anyone I’ve mentioned above. If you have several books on sexual ethics that you’ve wanted to read or you’ve only read a bit of, this may prove to be a good synopsis of those books or that larger discussion. That is not to say that the author makes the conversation simple, but rather that she makes it more accessible.

I received a free proof of this book for review. No promises were made in exchange for that copy.

The Reverend Julia Seymour serves Lutheran Church of Hope in Anchorage, Alaska. She blogs at


RevGalBlogPals encourages you to share our blog posts via email or social media. We do not grant permission to cut-and-paste prayers and articles without a link back. For permission to use material in paper publications, please email revgalblogpals at gmail dot com.



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RevGalBookPals: Summer reading

IMG_8048I read seven books on my one-week vacation last fall, so I am serious about getting some reading done this summer, starting this last week in June. By the time you read this, I will be sitting on the front porch of the UCC Headquarters building at Chautauqua, no doubt holding a book in my lap. The question is, which book will it be?

The photo illustrates the challenge ahead of me. From top to bottom I count 16 volumes – first four I have finished and want to tell you about in this blog post, then two thick ones I have started to read but still have a long way to go, then 11 more I’ve either purchased or received to review and cannot quite get around to reading, and on my Kindle there are two more invisible to your eye, dear readers.

18 books. Where to start?

I’ll tell you a little about each one, and in the comments I invite you to tell all our readers about the stack on your desk or bedside table.

  1. Intrusive God, Disruptive Gospel: Encountering the Divine in the Book of Acts, by Matthew Skinner (Brazos Press, 2015) – Skinner, Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary, may be familiar to you from Working Preacher. His wonderful, readable book is a great resource for preachers but would also be a wonderful choice for a Sunday School class or study group. It’s clear he loves the book (so do I), and the 26 passages he chooses to open up for the reader give a great overview of the adventures of the early church and its evangelists. I’ve already marked up my copy, used it to lead a Narrative Lectionary Bible Study and quoted Skinner in a sermon. Highly recommend.*
  2. She: Five Keys to Unlock the Power of Women in Minstry, by Karoline Lewis (Abingdon Press, 2016) – Lewis, also a professor at Luther Seminary, and the successor to David Lose as the author of Dear Working Preacher, tells the God’s honest truth that women need to hear about a life in ministry. I had the opportunity to read the book in galleys and liked it so much I purchased a copy. Lewis exhorts clergywomen to know the Biblical and theological basis for defending their ordination and offers up straight talk about sexism. Each section ends with questions and exercises for reflection. This book should be on every clergywoman’s bookshelf, and clergymen, I recommend you read it, too. My only critique is one the author owns in the preface: it is written from the perspective of a privileged, straight person and does not address the additional complexities of intersectionality.
  3. Christ Beside Me, Christ Within Me: Celtic Blessings, by Beth A. Richardson (Upper Room, 2016) – Richardson is a member of the RevGals webring (All the Wonders), the Director of Creative Content at the Upper Room, and the Managing Editor at Weavings Journal – please pause for a moment of mournful silence in acknowledgement that Weavings is soon to publish its last print issue; it will continue in digital form. This slim volume of blessings in the Celtic style touches on ordinary life experiences from walking the dog to drinking coffee to birthdays and losses. Although I have read it for purposes of review, I will be tucking it into my bag, probably beside my knitting, for those moments when a blessing seems needed.*
  4. RuinedRuined, by Ruth Everhart (Tyndall House, due out in August) – This is the first invisible book on my list. I had a chance to read much of the manuscript as a member of Ruth’s writing group and to follow the process as she worked on the book, and to read a digital galley copy. In it, she tells the story of a brutal rape in college and its implications for her life and her faith. Her writing is frank and visceral, lyrical and even humorous, as she tells the story of her girlhood in the Christian Reformed Church, her traumatic experience while a senior at Calvin College, and the impact on her personal life and her faith life. While the descriptions of the attack on Ruth and her roommates are distressing, Ruth brings you into the room in a way that is powerful without being gratuitous. Her theological reflections are profound. Her wrestling with the racial component of the assault is honest and unselfconscious. Ruth is one of our longtime RevGal bloggers, a member of our Ask the Matriarch panel, and a Presbyterian Church (USA) pastor. You can show her some love with an Amazon pre-order. I did.*
  5. Alexander Hamilton, by Ron Chernow (Penguin, 2004) – How does a bastard, orphan, son of a — okay, okay. I am on page 229 or 800+. This one is coming with me in its Kindle version. We have tickets to the show in late July. Yes, I know some of the original cast will be gone by then.
  6. Theory U: Learning from the Future as it Emerges, by C. Otto Scharmer (Berrett Koehler, 2009) – I have a lot more pages to read in this one, which was recommended by the instructors in Auburn Seminary’s coaching program. Not a vacation read, but fascinating. His view of the future is on point for what we are seeing in this year’s US election cycle.
  7. The rest of these books I haven’t cracked open. The Art of Memoir, by Mary Karr (Harper, 2015) – This one has a good chance of making the trip.
  8. The Givenness of Things: Essays, by Marilynne Robinson (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2015) – Probably staying home. I really loved When I Was a Child I Read Books, although she is very tough on my Cousin Jack in it. Reading more Marilynne Robinson is part of my commitment to becoming smarter in 2016.
  9. This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, by Ann Patchett (Harper Perennial, 2013) – She will be at Chautauqua, so I’m going to say this one is coming along, in case of signing opportunities. Her Bel Canto is one of my all-time favorite novels, Patron Saint of Liars made me weep, and her memoir of a friendship, Truth & Beauty, is gorgeous. (Note from Chautauqua – this book is delectable. I am 1/3 of the way through it.)
  10. Immunity to Change, by Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey (Harvard Business Press, 2009) – Another ancillary textbook. Also a no for vacation. Or even quasi-vacation. I’m the UCC Chaplain for Week 1, so I do have some responsibilities. And I would note that the authors of these books about leadership and change have never heard of total depravity.
  11. Cryptomnesia, by Christine A. Chakoian (Abingdon, 2014) – My wife read this one, so I’m catching up, but later.
  12. The Art of Authenticity: Tools to Become an Authentic Leader and Your Best Self, by Karissa Thacker (Wiley, 2016) – We’ve never met but have friends in common, and I am really looking forward to reading Thacker’s book later this summer.
  13. Outlaw Christian: Finding Faith By Breaking the “Rules,” by Jacqueline Bussie (Thomas Nelson, 2016) – Also for later.*
  14. Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy, by John Shelby Spong (HarperOne, 2016) – Did I mention Cousin Jack will be at Chautauqua, too? This may be the book in my lap all week.
  15. Jesus Before the Gospels, by Bart D. Ehrman (HarperOne, 2016) – I love Ehrman’s books, most of which I have read, which makes it all the funnier that I just misread the title of one of his previous books listed on the cover as “Mansplaining Jesus.” Ehrman also makes me smarter, but he doesn’t convince me he is right about faith matters. I will read this book … eventually.
  16. The Digital Cathedral: Networked Ministry in a Wireless World, by Keith Anderson (Morehouse, 2015) – I like to think I already know a lot about the online world and ministry, but based on things I’ve read by Keith in the past, my guess is he will teach me something new. (But not on my vacation.)
  17. Last among the hard copy books, but far from least, Grounded: Finding God in the World – a Spiritual Revolution, by Diana Butler Bass (HarperOne, 2015) – I’ve been saving this one up. How many books can I read in a week? This one is coming with me.
  18. The second invisible book on my list is Coffeehouse Contemplative: Spiritual Direction for the Everyday, by Jeff Nelson (Noesis Press, 2016), who has been one of the supportive BlogPals to the RevGals almost from the beginning – You can get the book on Amazon. I am admittedly slow in getting through it because I have it as a review PDF. But it’s on my Kindle now! So it’s going with me.*

What are you looking forward to reading this summer? And have you read any of the books listed above? Let me know your thoughts about them in the comments. (Also, there are three more on my bedside table…)

*Reviews marked with an asterisk indicate I received a free or early review copy in exchange for my honest assessment.

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RevGalBookPals: Sparrow

Jennifer DurantA wife and mother of two teenagers, recently ordained in the Episcopal Church, receives the worst kind of bad news: she has ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis). The Rev. Jennifer Durant tells her own story in Sparrow: A Journey of Grace and Miracles While Battling ALS (Morehouse, 2016), a book published just a year after her death. It was her hope that telling this story would build on the increasing public recognition of ALS developed by the Ice Bucket Challenge, and she pushed through to finish the book using assistive devices.

Called as an Associate Rector, she shared her diagnosis with her new colleague, David M. Stoddart, the Rector of Church of the Saviour in Charlottesville, Virginia. When she offered to resign, he recommended keeping her condition quiet as long as possible, so the congregation could learn to love her. She writes:

He assured me my gifts — my God-given, Christ-blessed gifts — had not changed. That is a message for every person who feels they are less than whole. God sees us as whole and perfect. Our Got talents are not lost simply because our muscles don’t work like everyone else’s, or because we are bling. Or deaf. Or old. Or weak or broken. (p. 31)

Durant goes on to share the painful truth of her loss of ability and her faith that God was with her all along the way. She owns that the loss of her capacity to function as a mother and a wife hurt deeply. She names the things she will miss and the parenting role she has surrendered to her husband, Matt. She compares her children to baby sparrows, raised “in a nest of God’s love.”

And so my sparrow-darlings, though I can no longer speak, I can pray. (p. 85)

Readers may well weep at this point, as this reviewer did.

Sparrow_rgb (1)As a pastor, I am delighted to read a book in which the church does not fail a person who is suffering through challenges. Church of the Saviour made numerous accommodations for Durant, including buying a lighter-weight paten to use at the Eucharist, carpooling while Durant rode shotgun, and literally feeding her at church potlucks when she could no longer manage utensils herself. When a church member expressed concern that her deteriorating condition might upset the children, Father David supported her continuing presence. Parishioners read her sermons aloud. At the end of the book, Durant includes her final sermon, delivered ten days before her death.

It’s worth noting that Durant writes strictly from her own context, including the use of fairly traditional descriptions of men and women and their family roles.

Sparrow is a brave, honest book. Durant writes in simple terms about her faith and her life experiences. This is a book accessible to all readers. It could serve as an encouragement to those suffering terminal illness and as a helpful guide to their family, friends and caregivers. The book contains a Bible Study guide with readings to accompany each of the short chapters and could be used readily by a group.


I received a free copy of Sparrow from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.


Martha Spong is the Executive Director of RevGalBlogPals and a United Church of Christ pastor; she lives in South Central Pennsylvania (US) and blogs at She is the editor of There’s a Woman in the Pulpit (SkyLight Paths, 2015).


RevGalBlogPals encourages you to share our blog posts via email or social media. We do not grant permission to cut-and-paste prayers and articles without a link back. For permission to use material in paper publications, please email revgalblogpals at gmail dot com.

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RevGalBookPals: Still a Mother

Trigger warning: infant loss, miscarriage, stillbirth, abortion, depression, spiritual pain, motherhood stress




There came a time when I was very aware that I had not yet done a funeral for a child or young adult. I was in no way looking forward to doing such a service and preferred for that type of spiritual leadership to be deferred as long as possible. Then, one day, it occurred to me that I was doing spiritual care around the loss of children- adult children and miscarriages. When a parent loses a child, no matter where in the lifespan, it is always too soon.


Then I did a funeral for a three-month old. Followed shortly by helping to midwife a miscarriage of a parishioner’s son at 19-weeks of development. When I baptized that tiny body with water from a seashell, it seemed like there was simultaneously not enough water and too much.


In reading Still a Mother: Journeys Through Perinatal Bereavement  by Joy Freeman and Tabatha Johnson, I have come to realize that my issue with the water is often the issue with words after the death of a child- in utero, in arms, in a bed,… wherever it may occur. There are too many words (often not helpful) and not enough. The loss of a child, especially during the course of pregnancy or shortly after birth, is an indescribable fear and regular occurrence in creation, yet it is one which we rarely discuss.


This book allows eight women to tell the stories of the loss of their children. They describe their surprise, their pain, their frustration with God at the same time they felt God’s presence, their peace with God when feeling God’s absence, the reactions of their partners, the grief (sometimes) of their older children, and the on-going space in their hearts and families for the children who died.


The book is structured as a tool for pastors, chaplains, parish nurses, counselors, or other “helping” professionals who often are not presented with helpful resources for coping with mothers or families experiencing perinatal loss. At 170 pages, the books is a fairly quick, but intensely emotional read. Each essay concludes with some questions or points to ponder for the person who might be responding to a pre or post-birth death of their child.


The book could be useful for some women (or men) in realizing they are not alone in their experience, but that would have to be at the discretion of a caregiver. This is not a resource to take lightly (but it is one that I recommend for your shelf!). I can imagine giving this book to a close relative or friend of a person who has recently experienced a loss. Sometimes friends or relatives ask for resources for themselves. Having this book in the church library (2-3 copies) would be extremely useful.


I have not quoted any of the stories, in part because they are so intense and form their own encapsulated experience in reading. I shall long remember the parents who weren’t able to console one another in grief, the older sister who was very young, but still needed help to process the death of her expected sibling, the woman who was pushed toward abortion as a teen and then blamed herself because of that for the loss of her second child at seven months of development. I will remember the pain at words that were said to fill space, the friends who pulled away, the uncertainty and pain in how to count one’s children or family members.


There is one thing that was not addressed in the book, but that I learned from a friend of mine. This friend lost a son to a genetic abnormality at 37 weeks of development. It is important to remember that past a certain stage, a mother will have to labor and push forth a child, regardless of whether that child in still alive in the womb. Labor and delivery costs money, regardless of the outcome. My friend spent three years paying off the hospital bills for the delivery of her dead son. The financial aspect of medical expenses, funerals, and on-going treatment for physical issues or mental health is a very real part of infant loss and can be one of the most painful.


I encourage you to think about where this book might be useful in your life. Who might benefit from a copy? This topic needs light, air, and conversation. The more open we are about this reality, the more we can reduce the magical thinking that talking about it makes it happen. And that, frankly, cannot happen soon enough.




RevGalBlogPals encourages you to share our blog posts via email or social media. We do not grant permission to cut-and-paste prayers and articles without a link back. For permission to use material in paper publications, please email revgalblogpals at gmail dot com.

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RevGalBookPals: Not A Mistake

I found out that I was pregnant with my first child in a Walmart bathroom, three days before presiding at my first Christmas. I still remembering standing in the stall, having driven the four miles to the store (the closest to my house) and not having peed yet. I did not know what to do next. So, when Jordan Sykes goes to POAS (pee on a stick) right before presiding at a church service, I thought, “Don’t do it! Wait two more hours!”

amber2014Yes, reader, I did judge her for her timing, but I did not judge her for her sexuality. And I don’t judge our sister in Christ, Amber Belldene, who wrote Not a Mistake– the story of Jordan, her unexpected pregnancy, and the navigation of deciding how her life will proceed in love and work and parenthood from that (poorly timed) moment in the sacristy when she finds out that she’s expecting.

Amber Belldene wrote an excellent essay  in There’s a Woman in the Pulpit about the intersection of being a priest and writing romance:

Sexual pleasure is a divine gift. It’s a radical message, especially to people who expect the church to be either silent or damning on the subject. Mature romantic love is not saccharine or simple, but a discipline that leads us to transcendence. (“Saint Paul versus Danielle Steele”) 

I can wholeheartedly commend Belldene’s novels to you as well-written, neatly plotted, wholly charactered, and steamy! The editorial trope of looking down on romance novels as unworthy of being read by “real” readers is so cliched, it makes the fight over whether Revelation is literal or metaphorical fresh, interesting, and dynamic. However, I have noticed another trend in a variety of areas of life in which readers express disdain for fiction in general. It usually goes, “I don’t have time for fiction. There’s too much real stuff to learn. How hard can it be to make something up?” (*Sigh of support for all authors*)

I asked Amber to answer this question: “Why does fiction matter, especially for people in helping professions?”

What an interesting question, and I don’t think it has a single or simple answer. It’s easier for me to say why I think fiction matters for people of faith. When I was in seminary, I found I really needed to make time to read for pleasure, especially fanciful, out-there literature. I was a better preacher when I did: more creative and imaginative. And this makes theological sense–if God is ultimately mystery, beyond our vision or our complete comprehension, then our imagination is crucial for knowing God. It makes relationship and intimacy possible; it opens our mind to possibilities beyond our small habits of mind. Prayer, listening for God’s still, small voice and seeing God in others’ being and actions all require imagination.

This is even true for relationship with other people. Inside everyone is mystery, that part of ourselves we don’t reveal to others. What else is empathy but an act of imagination–the mental exercise of putting ourselves in the situation of another? Consequently, I’m pretty sure reading fiction nourishes compassion, and that gets me back to your original question. Fiction helps sustain us and our ability to care for others.

But personally, I don’t read angsty literature or gruesome thrillers. I see plenty of suffering, unnecessary drama, and violence in my life. I read and write romance, because it’s full of passion, emotion, and heroic characters striving toward a happy ending. I embrace the fundamentally optimistic nature of the genre, that doesn’t deny suffering and honors the emotional lives of women, but always demands the author and reader imagine the happy ending that is possible.

To me, this is profoundly faithful and hopeful–to celebrate how love (romantic, erotic, divine) helps human beings heal and overcome our flaws so that we can become our best selves (heroine-material!). We can train our imagination to grow in our compassion for others, and also to find the possibility for transformation and joy in even our darkest moments. This is a useful skill, one that helps us participate in how God is redeeming the world. 

Yes! Exactly!

What I loved about Not a Mistake was the intertwining of the faith life of the characters with their sexuality and their history and their mixed emotions. The absence of real faith practice in non-“inspirational” romance is very frustrating to me. In all these small 41wsaexicpl-_sx331_bo1204203200_towns, no one goes to church other than on Christmas Eve (sometimes)? No pastor expects premarital counseling. No one has discussions of their own understandings about God?

I’m not expecting second date throwdowns about The Institutes of the Christian Religion. However, in Not a Mistake, Belldene provided nuanced conversation about mixed opinions on birth control, Christian Ethics, premarital counseling tools, human sexuality, and life in the Christian community.


I’d love to see us discuss in the comments romance, general fiction, and the way the church and church leaders can be real about life and all its messiness, and if you already read Not a Mistake and loved it too!




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