Book Review: How to Keep a Spiritual Journal

How to Keep a Spiritual Journal: A Guide to Journal Keeping for Inner Growth and Personal Discovery Revised Edition

Author: Ron Klug

Publisher: Minneapolis: Augsburg

143 pages, ISBN: 0-8066-4357-9

Reviewed by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

When one begins to undertake something new, often the most helpful teachers are those who practice what they teach. At the time of publishing this work, Ron Klug was a freelance writer and editor in Amery, Wisconsin. As one who has kept a journal for many years, he is definitely a “go to” teacher on journal writing, and this is a most practical and helpful guidebook.

There are plenty of gems of wisdom in this volume, which consists of thirteen chapters, plus a “Guide for Forming a Journal Group,” and a very helpful annotated “For Further Reading” list.

In this review, to draw readers’ interest, I’m going to share a few quotations, which hopefully inspire some to pursue journal writing.

In chapter one, “Why Keep A Spiritual Journal,” Klug states: “If the Christian path is one of grace, what is the place of self-discipline in spiritual growth? Our disciplines—things like fasting, prayer, contemplation, and journaling—are a response to grace, not an alternative to it. They are a way of being open before God, of giving the Spirit a chance to work in us.” (p. 10)

In chapter two, titled, “Experiencing the Benefits of a Spiritual Journal,” Klug shares ten of them, and then adds other uses as well. The ten are: i) growth in self-understanding, ii) an aid to caring for your soul, iii) guidance and decision making, iv) making sense and order of life, v) releasing emotions and gaining perspective, vi) greater awareness of daily life, vii) self-expression and creativity, viii) clarifying what you believe, ix) setting goals and managing your time, x) working through problems. According to Klug: “Journal writing is an antidote to “spiritual sleepwalking.” It can aid us in that basic Christian discipline of wakefulness.” (p. 20)

In chapter three, the author suggests all kinds of practical tips on “Getting Started.” For example, some people may choose to keep only one journal and write about every aspect of life in it; whereas others find it helpful to keep a variety of journals on books, family, dreams, work, nature, projects, and so on. He offers some tips on the how, when and where to write, and even on how much to write.

In chapter four, “The Daily Record,” Klug covers seventeen areas for journaling: i) personal events, ii) reactions to events, iii) conversations, iv) prayers, v) questions, vi) memories, vii) insights, viii) joys, ix) gratitude journal, x) achievements and failures, xi) world events, xii) your reading, xiii) quotations, xiv) letters, xv) travel, xvi) observations of nature, xvii other materials like drawings clippings, photos. I fully agree with his emphasis on joy: “Remembering your joys helps you focus on the good life and helps keep you in a positive attitude. It’s a good antidote to self-pity and depression.” (p. 44)

In chapter five, “Maintaining Momentum,” the author offers this word of advice: “In my view, there is one cardinal rule about keeping a journal: There are no rules for keeping a journal! Your way is the right way.” (p. 55) I would edit that last sentence like this: “Your way is the right way for you.” Hence it may not be the right way for me.

I hope these quotes have given you enough curiosity and inspiration to check out this volume yourself and consider writing a journal if you haven’t already. I have kept a journal for many years, and this resource has proven an inspiration in that it has reinforced some of my journal writing habits, and opened up other possibilities for the future.

One final, more lengthy quote, I think, is where a lot of people live these days, and an encouragement to write a journal: “Although a few people are inclined to be overly introspective, most of us have the opposite problem. In our overly busy society, when we are pulled in many directions and there are many demands on our time, our problem is not that we think too much. Our problem is that we are too busy to think at all. This is one reason why a journal can be such a helpful practice.” (p. 120)

Highly recommended—five out of five stars.

 

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Book Review: Finding God At Harvard: Spiritual Journeys Of Thinking Christians

Finding God At Harvard: Spiritual Journeys Of Thinking Christians

Author: Kelly Monroe Kullberg, Editor

Publisher: Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, A Division of HarperCollins Publishers

360 pages + Index, ISBN: 0-310-21922-1

Reviewed by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Editor, Kelly Monroe Kullberg, served Harvard graduate students as a chaplain and started the Harvard Veritas Forum, which inspired the publication of this volume.

The work contains ten chapters and a concluding Epilogue: A Taste of New Wine. Each of the chapters addresses a particular subject and is written by students and professors studying or teaching in that field. The format of each chapter is as follows: A list of authors and titles of each essay in the chapter, one or more quotations complementing the chapter’s subject matter, a brief introduction to each author, followed by his or her essay.

The wide array of subjects and authors makes for an interesting, informative and, on occasion, inspiring read. Although most of the authors either attended or taught at Harvard, not everyone did—for example; two of the most prophetic and challenging essays are by Mother Teresa and Alexandr Solzhenitsyn. Solzhenitsyn’s was an address he gave at Harvard in 1978; the year Harvard awarded him a doctorate in literature. Here are a couple of quotes, the first one is a sober reminder that freedom is not always what it seems on the surface: “Mere freedom does not in the least solve all the problems of human life—and it even adds a number of new ones.” (p. 99) The second one takes aim at the consequences of the West’s emphasis on human rights: “The West has succeeded in truly enforcing human rights, but our sense of responsibility to God and society has grown dimmer and dimmer.” (p. 100) Mother Teresa addressed the 1982 Class Day exercises at Harvard College. One of the most inspiring quotes in this volume is by Mother Teresa on love: “For God, it is not how much we give but how much love we put in the giving. That love begins at home, right here.” (p. 317)

To further the interest of would-be readers of this work, here are a few more quotes from various authors: In “My Search for the Historical Jesus,” Todd Lake makes an excellent point concerning an historically erroneous statement in the Koran concerning the crucifixion of Jesus: “The fourth sura of the Koran, for example, suggests that someone else was crucified in Jesus’ stead. However, this conjecture was written six centuries after the eyewitness accounts in the four Gospels, much too late to have any historical value.” (p. 45)

In an excellent essay by a seasoned professor of medicine at Harvard, Armand Nicholi Jr., “Hope in a Secular Age,” the author cites several research projects of depressed open-heart patients and their either high likelihood of not surviving or the more lengthy recovery period than those who have hope. “A noted physiologist, Dr. Harold G. Wolf, writes: “Hope, like faith and a purpose in life is medicinal. This is not a statement of belief but a conclusion proved by meticulously controlled scientific experiments.” (p. 118) As a chaplain and pastor, I definitely agree with this conclusion.

Ruth Goodwin, after seeing the magnitude of human suffering in Ethiopia, in her essay, “In Sorrow, Joy,” writes: “I became angry. I became angry because only a few care enough about the suffering of others for it to make a difference in their lives. Some appreciate the agony and injustice many have to endure in this world; few act to change it.” (pp. 220-221) However, she eventually realized that life cannot be motivated by anger; rather, it is Christ’s love that gives life and heals. “I am no longer angry, but I still grieve over suffering and injustice. I now know, however, that it is only love which will ultimately overcome it.” (p. 221)

Elizabeth Dole, reflecting on the life and purpose of Esther’s divine calling, in her essay, “Crisis and Faith,” finds instructive parallels in her life: “Yes, the story of Esther is actually a story of dependence. It is a story not about the triumph of a man or a woman but the triumph of God. He is the real hero of this story. And in the same way, I have come to realize there can be only one hero in my story, too: God in Jesus Christ.” (p. 243)

In her “Epilogue: A Taste Of New Wine,” editor Kelly Monroe Kullberg provides an outline of the origins of this volume as well as that of “The Harvard Veritas Forum,” and the struggles on her own journey of faith in the Harvard Divinity School. “Ironically, all seemed tolerated except that for which Harvard College was founded—Truth for Christ and the Church.” (p. 248) Christians are definitely up for the challenge, and can survive and thrive in an intellectual environment like Harvard.

I recommend this volume as a worthwhile read for atheists, agnostics, seekers and people of faith. By way of one wee closing critique, I don’t know who decided or how the process worked in deciding the title of this book—however I adamantly disagree with it. God is The One who finds us, not the other way round!

 

 

Brief Book Review: The Faces Of Jesus

The Faces Of Jesus: A Life Story

Author: Frederick Buechner

Publisher: Brewster, Massachusetts: Paraclete Press

97 pages + Introduction, ISBN: 1-55725-455-9, Hardcover

Reviewed by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

 

Frederick Buechner is an ordained Presbyterian minister and, over the years, has become somewhat of a popular and prolific author of both fiction and non-fiction works.

This little volume is divided into six chapters in addition to the Introduction: 1 Annunciation, 2 Nativity, 3 Ministry, 4 Last Supper, 5 Crucifixion, and 6 Resurrection.

Buechner—in this reviewer’s humble opinion—has the gift of attention grabbing turns-of-phrase that surprise and inspire the reader. Sometimes these turns-of-phrase have the capacity to confront readers with the foreboding judgment of God and the all-encompassing grace of God that are able to make readers laugh and cry—perhaps at the same time. Such is the brilliance of Buechner. Here are a few examples:

When you think the world is on fire, you don’t take time out to do a thumbnail sketch. Nobody tells us what he looked like, yet of course the New Testament itself is what he looked like…(p. ix).

If he [Jesus] is the Savior of the world as his followers believe, there never has been nor ever will be a world without salvation (p. 4).

It is no wonder that from the very start of his ministry the forces of Jewish morality and of Roman law were both out to get him because to him the only morality that mattered was the one that sprang from the forgiven heart like fruit from the well-watered tree, and the only law he acknowledged as ultimate was the law of love (p. 42).

God makes his saints out of fools and sinners because there is nothing much else to make them out of. God makes his Messiah out of a fierce and fiercely gentle man who spills himself out, his very flesh and blood, as though it is only a loaf of bread and a cup of sweet red wine that he is spilling (p. 59).

If the world is sane, then Jesus is mad as a hatter and the Last Supper is the Mad Tea Party (p. 61).

He could be Dostoevsky’s Father Zossima, who said, “Fathers and teachers, I ponder, ‘What is hell?’ I maintain that hell is the suffering of being unable to love” (p. 65).

If ever there should turn out unbelievably to be a God of love willing to search for men [and women] even in the depths of evil and pain, the face of Jesus is the face we would know him by (p. 79).

Thus for Jesus the only distinction among people that ultimately matters seems to be not whether they are churchgoers or non-churchgoers, Catholics or Protestants, Muslims or Jews, but do they or do they not love—love not in the sense of an emotion so much as in the sense of an act of the will, the loving act of willing another’s good even, if need arise, at the expense of their own (p. 91).

This is a powerful little volume, and I hope it will be regarded as a spiritual classic for many years to come. Highly recommended.

 

 

Brief Book Review: Making Sense of the Cross

Making Sense of the Cross

Author: David J. Lose

Publisher: Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress

187 pages, ISBN: 978-0-8066-9851-9, Paperback

Reviewed by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

 

At the time of writing, the Rev. Dr. David J. Lose held the Marbury E. Anderson Chair in Biblical Preaching at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. He is now the President of Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia.

Making Sense of the Cross is written in very accessible prose—actually it is a conversation between an imaginary professor and student. In Lutheran pedagogical style, it takes the catechetical method of questions and answers.

The contents of the work are as follows: Acknowledgments, Introduction, Chapter 1: A Man Hanging on a Tree, Chapter 2: Portraits and Perspectives, Chapter 3: Ransom and Victory, Chapter 4: Substitution, Satisfaction, and Sacrifice, Chapter 5: Example and Encouragement, Chapter 6: Event and Experience, For Further Reading.

After focusing on the different and unique material of each gospel, especially their Passion Narratives; Professor Lose reviews the three theories of atonement. The theories are: the Classic theory, also called the Ransom theory and the Christus Victor or “Victorious Christ theory, made popular by Swedish theologian Gustaf Aulén; the substitution or Satisfaction or Sacrifice theory by Anselm in the eleventh century, who later became the Archbishop of Canterbury and then revised by Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century, and tweaked further by John Calvin in the sixteenth century; and the Christ as Moral Example or Christ the Exemplar or the Divine Example theory by Peter Abelard, who was born some fifty years after Anselm.

Dr. Lose examines each theory and highlights their strengths and weaknesses. He employs four questions to analyze each theory: i) What is God like? ii) What’s broken about the relationship between God and humanity? iii) How does Jesus’ cross repair what’s broken? iv) What picture of the Christian life is given? (p. 84)

After finding each theory wanting since they are merely theories; Professor Lose turns to event and experience in his final chapter. Herein he draws a lot on Pauline theology; emphasizing the scandal of the cross; as well as the all-encompassing love of God in Christ on the cross. The motifs of dying and rising for Christian daily living in relationship with Jesus is what sets us free to love, serve and forgive one another—hence carrying out the ministry of reconciliation in response to Jesus’ reconciling work on the cross.

Students, laity and adherents of non-Christian faiths who are not familiar with the theories of atonement will benefit from this volume. It shall also serve as a helpful review for more seasoned pastors and scholars, and inspire further conversation and study. To compliment this work, one can order from Augsburg Fortress a Leader Guide and DVD.

 

 

Book Review: Healing Of Soul, Healing Of Body

Healing Of Soul, Healing Of Body: Spiritual Leaders Unfold the Strength & Solace in Psalms

Author: Edited By Rabbi Simkha Y. Weintraub, CSW A Project of the Jewish Healing Center

Publisher: Woodstock, Vermont: Jewish Lights Publishing

115 pages, ISBN 1-879045-31-1, Paperback

Reviewed by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

In the “How To Use This Book” section, the purpose of this little volume is stated: “This book is intended to help you—struggling with illness or helping someone who is—derive spiritual healing from Psalms” (p. 11). Accordingly, the focus then is on what the late 18th century, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov referred to as the ten “healing psalms,” they are: Psalms 16, 32, 41, 42, 59, 77, 90, 105, 137, and 150. Readers will find helpful, practical suggestions on how to use these psalms.

In the “Introduction” chapter, Rabbi Simkha Y. Weintraub provides an overview of who Rabbi Nachman was, and the ten different kinds of songs found in these ten “healing psalms.” Each song has a corresponding Sefirot… “of the Kabbalah, the mystical attributes through which the Creator brought the universe into being. These Ten Sefirot are called “Direct Light,” shining from the Creator to the world” (p. 19). For example, one type of song is called a Niggun, “Melody,” and its corresponding Sefir is Hessed, “Lovingkindness.” In “Notes To Introduction,” there is a list of all ten Songs and corresponding Sefir.

Ten rabbis from four denominations—Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstruction—each write one of the chapters; providing a wide range of insights and approaches to these psalms.

The structure of each chapter is as follows: A Hebrew and English translation of the psalm, along with a commentary on it.

For this reader, the most helpful chapter was by Rabbi Maurice Lamm, commenting on Psalm 105. Rabbi Lamm offers several insights regarding the importance of songs and singing to facilitate communion with God and healing if not of the body, then of the mind and soul. For example: “The word shir, meaning song, also derives from shur, meaning insight. When we sing we raise our souls to God, and we gain insight into Him” (p. 83). I think this emphasis on singing songs regardless of our situation is most timely in our day and age, since very few people seem to sing anymore—one wonders if they are the poorer in health as a consequence.

In addition to this volume’s chapters, there is information about each of the contributors, suggested resources for further reading, helpful organizations, information about the Jewish Healing Center, and Jewish Light Publishing and several of their publications.

 

 

Book Review: Leaving North Haven

leavingnorthhavenLeaving North Haven: The Further Adventures Of A Small-Town Pastor

Author: Michael L. Lindvall

Publisher: New York & Berkeley: The Crossroad Publishing Company, A Crossroad Carlisle Book, 2002

251 pages, ISBN 0-8245-2013-0, Paperback

Reviewed by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

In this sequel to Good News From North Haven, the Reverend Michael L. Lindvall continues to tell his heartwarming stories of many of the characters in his first novel.

The Reverend David Battles has now served Second Presbyterian Church for some ten years. He hadn’t expected to stay that long. He has learned much in those ten years. Yet, it is with a humble heart that he observes: “In these last ten years, I have come to know that I know less than I once did, but I do know this, just this: to see anything that matters, you must always bring two things to your looking—attention and love” (p. 23).

One character readers may remember is Minnie MacDowell, who had a fall and broke her elbow, was suffering from Parkinson’s and believed she was dying. On at least three occasions, she had gone through the ritual of having Reverend Battles ask her the question, “Are you prepared to die?” Then he was to read the twenty-third Psalm and pray the Lord’s Prayer. After this, she was to close her eyes turn her head to the window and pass away (p. 25). This ritual reminds me of a parishioner of mine who asked me every time I visited her: “Pastor, why am I still here? Why doesn’t the Lord take me home?”

The Reverend Battles, reflecting on if it was time to move on after ten years has this to say: “The town has come to be an unlikely home for us, but we can hardly stay forever. The hard truth is that in a year or two, maybe five on the outside, the church won’t be able to pay a minister a full-time salary.” (p. 38). This reality, of course, is an all-too-familiar one for many a mainline Protestant clergyperson serving in a rural and small-town parish.

In one of his adventures Reverend Battles thought he’d shot a ten-point buck deer. He had placed his gun triumphantly on the antlers, and one of the Wilcox brothers was about to take a picture when the buck suddenly came to life, got up, and ran away with the gun still in his antlers.

Then there is the young boy, James Corey, who is fascinated by a momma killdeer.

There is also the prophetic-like eccentric, Ivar Johanson, a bachelor, everyone is curious about his mysterious building project of Redi-Mix cement and chicken wire.

In the concluding chapter the Reverend Battles is celebrating All Saints’ Sunday, which was also his last Sunday at Second Presbyterian. Something surprises them and gets them laughing on that solemn day.

Those who love the culture and tales of small-towns and their churches will enjoy this novel. Clergy and laity alike will laugh, cry, and be edified by these tales of God’s loving grace.

Brief Book Review: Conquering Fear

Conquering Fear: Living Boldly in an Uncertain World        Author: Harold S. Kushner                                                      Publisher: New York: Alfred A. Knopf, A Borzoi Book, 2009      ISBN: 978-0-307-26664-4, 173 pages, Hardcover                              CDN $29.95

Reviewed by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

conqueringfearFears. Every human being, at one time or another, encounters fears. The question is: How does one deal with such fears? Harold Kushner, who served as an active rabbi for many years, offers some of his experiences, knowledge and practical approaches to the subject at hand.

The volume consists of ‘First Words,’ and nine chapters. Each chapter focuses on a particular theme, and begins with at least one pertinent quotation.

There are over eighty references in the Bible instructing human beings not to fear. According to Rabbi Kushner, God does not want fear to dominate our lives; hence he gives us the Eleventh Commandment—“Do not be afraid.” This means, among other things, that: “Our goal should never be the denial of fear but the mastery of fear, the refusal to let fear keep us from living fully and happily.” (p. 24)

If readers are familiar with any of Rabbi Kushner’s previous books, they will recall that he casts the literary net far and wide, drawing on an array of sources, including: the Bible, the Talmud, rabbinic stories, contemporary psychology and literature among them. This volume continues in that vein.

In chapter after chapter, the author counsels his readers not to be paralyzed by their fears. Rather, the best way to handle fears is to face them and try to overcome them.

For example, Viktor Frankl told his patients, “Go out and do what you are afraid of. Expect the worst to happen.” When they did it and the worst did not happen, he would say to them, “There, that wasn’t so bad, was it?” (p. 168) Of course there are some exceptions to providing such counsel, especially regarding life-threatening behaviours.

My favourite story in this volume is one of hope inside a Nazi concentration camp, when Jews wanted to celebrate Hanukkah. Holiday celebrations were forbidden in the camp, but one man saved a bit of the bread from his evening meal, dipped it in grease from his dinner bowl, fashioned it into an impromptu candle, said the appropriate prayer and lit the bread. His son said to him, “Father, that was food you burned. We have so little of it. Wouldn’t we have been better off eating it?” The father replied, “My son, people can live for a week without food, but they cannot live for one day without hope.” (pp. 93-94)

This volume is written in accessible prose, and readers who are familiar with Rabbi Kushner’s previous books would most likely benefit from this one.