The coming of spring has always been a sacred time, in the Christian faith as much as any other. For with spring comes Easter, the most sacred remembrance of Christianity, a time for reflection and renewal. This season, four new books arrive to explore these ideas and celebrate the savior who is their source.
About a decade ago, Catholic priest Joseph F. Girzone pursued a radical idea: what if Jesus appeared in a small town in modern-day America? What would he do? What would he teach? The idea became the novel Joshua, which led to a book series and a feature film starring F. Murray Abraham. In his latest work, The Wisdom of His Compassion: Meditations on the Words and Actions of Jesus, Girzone turns to his original inspiration—the life of Jesus as told in the Gospels. Taking short passages from each Gospel, Girzone examines the words and actions of Jesus, finding inspiration, as well as observations and even social commentary that is still relevant today. The author challenges Christians to mimic the heart of Jesus, not only in words and prayers, but in daily life. Written in short, simple passages, The Wisdom of His Compassion makes a thought-provoking devotional book and spiritual guide. As economic turmoil brews uncertainty and fear, Girzone's call to show love and compassion is a welcome reminder of what Jesus displayed—that life is meant to be lived with concern for others, not worry about ourselves.
Finding cultural context
That lesson, of course, is at the heart of the Sermon on the Mount, given by Jesus on the shores of the Sea of Galilee nearly 2,000 years ago. What did his message mean to those who heard the wandering rabbi in the Judean countryside around 30 A.D.? What can we learn today about Jesus' life and teachings through the culture in which he lived? Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus: How the Jewishness of Jesus Can Transform Your Faith explores the Jewish Jesus, placing his life, words and deeds in the context of Jewish culture as it was practiced during the time of his ministry. Ann Spangler, a best-selling Christian author, and Lois Tverberg, a former scientific researcher, join forces to examine everything from archeological discoveries to the origins of Jewish beliefs and traditions. Their efforts bring fresh insight into the beginnings of Christianity, in some cases exposing modern misunderstandings derived from cultural practices that came centuries later. Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus not only helps the reader understand Jesus' culture, but also the deeper meanings within his teaching. Throughout, the authors encourage Christians to contemplate Jesus' Jewish traditions within a modern faith, challenging believers to consider everything from how they pray to how they practice the concept of Sabbath. Engaging, powerful and thought-provoking, Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus calls the reader to discover Christ again, as if to see his life and hear his words for the first time—and from that discovery to renew one's faith.
Examining Jesus' life means little if it does not bring us to examine our own. This is the message of Relearning Jesus: How Reading the Beatitudes One More Time Changed My Life by Matthew Paul Turner. Raised in a legalistic church (an experience he described in Churched: One Kid's Journey Toward God Despite a Holy Mess), Turner discovered the gracious side of Christianity as a young man—an awakening that he is still pursuing. Relearning Jesus is the story of that pursuit, told as the author considers the meaning of faith, grace, mercy, forgiveness and love. Through personal encounters, confessions and experiences of God's grace, Turner shares his growing understanding of who Christ is and who he calls his followers to be. As Turner recalls everything from his "witnessing" disasters to teenagers who harangue him about sex, he weaves between humor and soul-searching, creating a book that is both enjoyable and challenging.
A world of good
Though Easter may be a holy time, holiness and reflection can be found anywhere—this is the theme of An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith by Barbara Brown Taylor. Beautiful and wise, An Altar in the World encourages the reader to see the holiness of the everyday—to find God in the act of living. In gentle, moving prose, the author unveils the sacred possibilities in actions as simple as cleaning the baseboards or as complicated as getting purposefully lost. Life is meant to be lived, and in the living of it we are to notice the presence of love, compassion, enjoyment, fulfillment, purpose and ultimately God. Taylor's explorations are both mystical and down-to-earth, observing the power of blessings and the inexplicable wonder of digging up a sweet potato. Her stories are the ones we all experience—stories of life, illness, friendships, longings—but in which we sometimes journey too stunned or too fast to notice the presence of the Divine. "Stop and savor life," is Taylor's simple message—and An Altar in the World will make you want to.
Enduring a crisis of faith
Few things test faith more than war. War cuts through rituals, platitudes and traditions; what is left behind is naked and elemental. Surrounded by death and pain, the soldier inevitably asks: where is God?
It is never an easy question. But it is hardest of all when the questioner himself is supposed to hold the answer. This was the fate of Roger Benimoff, a U.S. Army chaplain who served two tours in Iraq during the bloodiest days of the war and returned to find he was as wounded as the soldiers he counseled. Drawn from his journals, Faith Under Fire is a riveting account of Benimoff's experience in war, his return home and the crisis of faith that overwhelmed him. As a chaplain, he could not carry weapons, yet he was under threat from IEDs and sniper-fire. He counseled soldiers for grief, divorce, separation from families, or simply the thin edge of stress that a war zone brings. Soon Benimoff was stretched against his own thin edge—an edge that would cut into his family, his work and his faith.
Journal entries from Roger and his wife Rebekah lend immediacy to the narrative, helping the reader share their feelings as Roger's struggle strained their lives and marriage. Powerful and compelling, Faith Under Fire pulls the reader into Benimoff's soul. His struggle leads the reader to ask questions as deep as the chaplain's—and together find, if not an answer, the greater gift of grace.