Category Archives: Mmmm …. books

Q and A with Deacon Jim Knipper of Homilists for the Homeless

If you’ve ever attended church, you know the power of a really good sermon.  Well-chosen words can change lives, in ways both subtle and profound.

Someone who knows this firsthand is Deacon Jim Knipper.  A deacon in the diocese of Trenton, NJ, he decided to harness the power of good preaching and use it as a vehicle for helping the homeless.  This vision has resulted in two terrific books: Hungry, And You Fed Me and  Naked, and You Clothed Me, both compilations of sermons for the liturgical year (Cycles C and A respectively).

It’s a pleasure to welcome Deacon Jim back to this blog (you can see my interview about his first book here) and to get his take on spiritual writing, encouraging social justice, and taking kids to church (as a deacon and the father of four, he knows a thing or two about that!).

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For those who arent familiar with Homilists for the Homeless, whats the soundbite description?

Homilists for the Homeless is a moniker used by a group of Christians who are dedicated to spreading the Good News through their ministries, especially in their preaching.  Each Contributor has donated their works to be published in a compilation of homilies that cover the Liturgical Years.  Proceeds from each book go to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and visit the sick.  So far we have published the books for Cycle C and A and will release this October  Sick, And You Visited Me: Homilies and Reflections for Cycle B.

Who is the intended audience for this book? 

These books speak to a wide audience – not only those who preach each weekend  but also to the faithful who wish to enrich their understanding of the Sunday readings.  We are hearing of many who use our books for their weekly meditation as well as those who are using it for their prayer groups.

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What is one unexpected gift youve received from this project?

There have been many gifts that I have received with this project that have been unexpected – but one of those at the top has to be the outpouring of appreciation and love from the contributors as well as the readers.

Homilists for the Homeless combines two important things: social justice, and writing about spirituality.  Who are some of your own personal heroes in these two areas?

Wow – hard to limit this to identifying just a few, but when it comes to social justice both Fr. Michael Doyle in Camden and Fr. Greg Boyle in Los Angles have to be two people who have truly lived lives that show all of us what it means to be there for our sisters and brothers.

When it comes to writing about spirituality…the best?  This one is easy: Fr. Richard Rohr.  Over the past 40 years his books, his talks, his conferences have opened the eyes of so many.  He reminds us that we are not humans learning to be spiritual…rather, we are all spiritual trying to learn to be human.  If one listens to Pope Francis it would be hard to believe that he has not read the books of Richard Rohr, as should you!

What can parents do to encourage their kids to care about social justice?

When parents are present at the baptism of their children, they may be distracted with all that is going on and may miss the prayer that is said over them at the end of the liturgy….when they are reminded that they are the first and best teachers of their children by what they say and do.  You want your children to care about social justice?  Pick a cause and be passionate about it and bring your children into early on in their lives.

Do you have any advice for how to make Mass meaningful for kids?  (the $64,000 question!)

Better asked – how do we make mass meaningful for everyone?!  But to your question in particular, the answer varies from region to region, diocese to diocese, parish to parish, and within each individual.  When I was growing up in the 60′s and 70′s, Mass or Church was a place where people gathered as a community.  There was no internet, social media, email, etc.  While technology is great,  we need to see what is taking place in the building up or the decay of ‘community’.  There is no doubt that many kids do not see benefit in going to mass.  Why?  Mass is longer that 140 characters and requires 60 minutes of attention…..many times the priest/deacon have not given enough time or lack the talent to provide an enriching homily…in some places liturgy is weak….some parishes do not serve the youth well…and so on.

So what to do?  As we heard in Matthew’s gospel on July 13th (15th Sunday in Ordinary Time) the seed falls on the different types of ground but only yields harvest in fertile ground.  So see what you can do to enrich the ‘ground,’ i.e. the liturgies  for kids in your own parish.  If impossible, then go looking for a parish/church that nourishes your child, yourself, and allows the feeding of your body and soul and empowers you to do the same to others.  That is where you will find Christ.

Whats one thing that your own kids have taught you about faith? 

Faith comes in all different shapes, sizes and colors. And in the words of our beloved Pope, “Whom am I to judge?”  Amen!

Naked, And You Clothed Me and Hungry, And You Fed Me are both available at Clear Faith Publishing.  These books are a marvelous way to support the homeless, with the added benefit of providing rich spiritual food for thought.  Thanks to Deacon Jim for being my guest today!

Inscriptions in books = love on a page

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My grandmother wrote the above inscription  in 1975.  It’s on the flyleaf of this ABC book, which is falling apart:

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In case the reading is too hard to read, here’s what the inscription says:

To my dear little Ginny who at the tiny age of two sings the “Alphabet Song” like a real pro — With lots of love, Grandma.  March, 1975.

My grandma died twenty-five years ago, but when I pick up this book and see her handwriting, she feels very close.  I’m touching something she touched; her handwriting, always so distinctive, triggers all sorts of memory centers in my brain.  I think about the fact that she not only chose this book for me, she thought about what to write, and sat down — probably at the dining room table underneath the oil painting of a still life with fruit and goblets — and put pen to paper.  If I think about it, I can see her sitting there, in that house I loved to visit, writing something that her granddaughter would cherish and blog about thirty-nine years later.

That’s the power of an inscribed book.

I have quite a few of them in my library, and they are precious.  This copy of Little Women  was signed by all three members of my nuclear family:

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Years later, when I was a senior in high school, I was obsessed with the idea of having a villa in the south of France someday (probably due to the movie “Jean de Florette” and the musical “Aspects of Love.”)  For Christmas, my parents gave me the just-published book A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle, and my mom wrote the following inscription:

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Absolutely, Mom!  You’re welcome anytime!  (I just have to get the house first.)

My mother-in-law wrote this beautiful inscription in the book she sent me before Matthew was born.  She couldn’t be at the shower, living across the country, but these words, written for  her first grandchild, meant so  much:

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As much as I love receiving inscribed books, I don’t always write in the ones I give as gifts.  I’m  never sure if people like inscriptions as much as I do; I’m also afraid that they may have the book already, and re-gifting a book with a heartfelt inscription in it just doesn’t work.

But maybe I just need to get over it and get out the pen and write.  Because while any gift of a book is precious, it’s all the moreso when there is an inscription that charges the book with tangible evidence of family and love and friendship.

When Matthew turned three, his godmother — our friend Mary, whom we referred to as “GodMary” — gave him this Curious George treasury.  She wrote in it, too:

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This book has been loved by both boys.  The last time Matthew ever saw Mary, when she was dying of cancer, he sat next to her on the couch and read to her from this very book.  He was just learning to read, and he was slow and halting and stumbling.  Mary sat there so thin and frail, with Luke cuddled up on the other side, and she stroked Luke’s hair and listened to Matthew read and it was heartbreaking and beautiful all at the same time.

With this inscription in the book, there’s a little bit of her there to jog Matthew’s memories of his godmother. A few words in pen are far more than a few words in pen when they are written in a book.  They are love on a page, love that stays.

The Book Pile: Jesus, “Fiddler on the Roof,” and three novels

So my last Book Pile post was in … January.  Oof.  I’ve been reading; I just haven’t been blogging about it.

Let’s fix that, shall we?

Here are some of the highlights of the last few months.

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The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene

The Power and the Glory was – in a word – powerful.  It’s the story of a priest on the run in Mexico in the 1930s, a time and place when Catholicism was outlawed.  You know what’s coming as you read it — you know there’s no way the priest will avoid his persecutors forever — but it’s the journey that makes this book. It’s a journey not only through Mexico, but also into the heart of an all-too human priest who loathes himself for his flaws but still allows himself to be a conduit of grace to others. The tenacious, sacramental beauty of Catholicism is a big part of this book; faith isn’t an abstraction, but a concrete, and it is lived out in every one of the priest’s interactions with others.  I love it when a novel affirms my faith as powerfully as this one does.

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Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

This was a very readable coming-of-age novel about a somewhat awkward teenage girl whose beloved artist uncle dies of AIDS.  What I found striking is that the narrator is fourteen in 1987, and I was fourteen in 1987, so the book was an uncanny trip back into the past for me.  It made me remember that there was a time when you never heard the word “gay” in the media without hearing the word “AIDS” in the very next breath (so grateful that is no longer the case).  The book as a whole is a very poignant story about grief and friendship and the complexity of love, and a testament to the fact that some relationships can’t be neatly labeled or categorized.

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Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof by Alisa Solomon

“Fiddler on the Roof,” is near to my heart, in part because I was in a production of it  in high school.  Wonder of Wonders was a  fascinating and very thorough book about how Shalom Aleichem’s stories about Tevye the milkman turned into the Broadway musical we know and love.  What  I found most fascinating was the process by which the play took shape, such as how the song “Tradition” ended up being the thematic key that made everything else fall into place.   The composer and lyricist also ended up discarding a lot of songs, many of them probably very good, when it turned out that they didn’t fit with the overall tone and flow of the play … a good lesson for any writer  who really loves that paragraph she wrote but has to cut it out for the good of the chapter as a whole.

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The Fever Tree by Jennifer McVeigh

Saw this one at the library and picked it up on a whim.  Good call.  It’s historical fiction, about a young woman in England who ends up traveling to South Africa, where she finds herself acclimating both to a new marriage and to the brutal world of the diamond trade.   I don’t want to say too much for fear of spoilers, but  I think it’s a book that every young woman should read because it is a witness to the importance of sharpening your powers of perception when it comes to men.   The writing is excellent, too, walking that line between being believable for historical fiction yet still feeling modern.

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Under the Influence of Jesus: The Transforming Experience of Encountering Christ by Joe Paprocki

I’ve read other books by Joe Paprocki, and I love his  concrete, accessible way of approaching big concepts of faith.  He grabs you with engaging and funny anecdotes, and before you know it, you’re suddenly exploring the core ideas of Christianity.  This book is eminently enjoyable, but also challenging in all the right ways.  It offered some new angles for thinking about my relationship with Jesus, and I’ll be going back to certain passages for more reflection.  It’s really a book for every Christian who wants a spiritual shot in the arm.

Now it’s your turn!  What have you been reading (and enjoying) lately?

Nancy Drew was then, Mary Stewart is now: An ode to books that keep you reading

Can you remember the last time you were so engrossed in a book that the rest of the world receded?  Can you remember that delicious feeling of being utterly in the thrall of a gripping plot, turning pages rapidly, staying up far later than you should and letting dishes and laundry pile up because all you wanted to do was find out how the story ends?

It’s a great feeling.  It’s one of the highlights of life, as I see it.   And something about summer, with its longer days and more leisurely schedule, makes it the perfect time to acknowledge and celebrate the writers that have, at two different points of my life, provided such beloved reading experiences.

Let’s start with Carolyn Keene, who wasn’t a real person, but who is the name on the yellow spines of all the Nancy Drew novels I loved as a kid.

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It’s probably time to re-read a few of these and see if I can recapture the delicious feeling they gave me as a fourth-grader.  I was forever checking these books out of the school library, and Nancy’s adventures — her travels to various places around the country (and globe), her brushes with serious bodily injury, her fun times with loyal friends Bess and George, her narrow misses — captivated me.  There was a comfort in knowing that Nancy would always solve the mystery, even though my ten-year-old mind was skeptical enough to know that such a track record was pretty unrealistic.  (My friends and I once did the math, and realized that since Nancy was eighteen throughout fifty-plus books, it meant she solved more than one mystery a week.)

 

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But in the end, I didn’t read them for the realism.  I read them for the sheer excitement of following the clues, unraveling a mystery, and biting my nails as the action reached its climax.  I loved them, pure and simple.

Today, my hunger for this kind of reading is sated by the suspense novels of Mary Stewart, who died last month at age 97 (brief overview of her work here.)  The first novel of hers I read was The Ivy Tree, which blew me away, and I’ve since read all her “romantic suspense” titles. (I hate that label.  It sounds so cheesy, when her books are anything but).

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Mary Stewart knew how to spin a plot.  She pulls you along on all sorts of twists and turns, and boy, does she keep you guessing.  I’d comment on a few of her most memorable tricks, but it’s better to refrain because even to hint at them may spoil the reading experiences for those of you lucky ducks who have yet to pick up her books.  Trust me: she’s good.

She’s also a master (mistress?) at evoking a mood.  Whether she’s writing a novel set in an old farmhouse in the English countryside, a chateau in France, the ancient ruins of Greece or a beach in Corfu, you feel a part of the setting, in all its particular uniqueness.    And her heroines are admirable women in their own right; not quite as perfect as Nancy Drew (really, who is?), but smart and adventurous and utterly likable.   Stewart was also a formidable scholar, and her books often feature snippets of great literature and Shakespeare and the classics as teasers for each chapter.

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It was a sad, sad day when I read my last Mary Stewart suspense novel.  I do re-read them from time to time, but it’s never quite the same as that first initial thrill.  Is it wrong to wish for selective amnesia, so I can have the pleasure of rediscovering them?   I wonder.

But when I think about Ms. Stewart’s recent passing, there is one thing I know for certain.  A life spent writing  books that bring such pleasure to others is a very well-lived life indeed.

So what are the books that keep you avidly turning pages?  I’m always looking for recommendations.  I’d love to hear about the “unputdownables” you read as a kid, too.

Blog tour: Rooted in Love by Margaret Blackie

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Need some spiritual food for thought?  Check out these quotations:

“It is impossible to engage seriously in deepening your relationship with God without deepening your relationship with others.  It is also impossible to do either of those things without coming to know yourself better in the process.”

“Faith, if it is to have any impact on our lives, cannot just be intellectual; it must be visceral.”

“The whole purpose of faith is to know God’s presence right now, in and through whatever it is that we are doing.”

All of these bits of wisdom are from one terrific book. The book is Rooted in Love: Integrating Ignatian Spirituality Into Daily Life by Margaret (Mags) Blackie.  Remember that name, because if you are looking for a book to rejuvenate your spiritual and/or prayer life, this is one of the best ones to cross my path in quite a while.

Blackie’s background is fascinating; she’s a scientist and a spiritual director (more on that later) who has spent years walking with others as they work on deepening their relationship with God.  As she explains early on in the book, she has found the spirituality of St. Ignatius of Loyola (founder of the Jesuit order of priests) to be particularly helpful in her own life, thus leading her to write this book to share the insights with others.

If you’ve never heard of Ignatian spirituality, that’s no barrier to reading this book. Blackie explains it in such a way that both novices and those with more experience can benefit from her insights.  Through her book you see how prayer doesn’t have to involve leaving it all behind and withdrawing from the world.  As Blackie writes, “Ignatius expected that we would find God in all of our daily activities, not just in the ones that appear to be ‘holy’ or intentionally directed towards God … Ignatian spirituality is then a spirituality designed to be lived in the midst of life.”  (On a personal note, this is what I’ve come to love about Ignatian spirituality: it trains you to recognize the touch of God in all aspects of life, not just the “churchy” moments).

I read this book slowly over the course of about a month, and my engagement with it was strong the entire time.  Blackie has a clear and elegant way of writing about spirituality.  She shares helpful personal anecdotes to illustrate the spiritual insights, with the result that nothing is airy or abstract.     I found that the book invited me to think about how I spend my time, where I find my truest joy, and which things I hold onto a little bit too tightly.    It challenged me to realize what lies underneath the things I want, and to recognize which things in my life are pulling me away from my most authentic self, and which aren’t.  It’s hard to think of any adult who wouldn’t benefit from an accessible, wise book like this one.

I had the chance to ask Mags a few follow-up questions about herself and about her recommendations on jump-starting one’s prayer life.  You can also find out more about her and her book on her blog.

DSC_0076-199x300Ginny:  You are both a scientist and a spiritual director.  Some would say that those two fields are wildly different from each other.  How does the scientific part of your life feed the spiritual, and vice-versa?

Mags: This is a question I find difficult to answer. There is no straight line to be drawn between the two, no direct causal effect. Nonetheless I have tried to live as purely scientist or purely spiritual director and neither has worked well. Somehow to be fully myself I need both. I see evidence of the glory of God deeply embedded in both, but quite why it necessary for me to straddle these two worlds remains a mystery to me.

 

Ginny:   Lots of my readers are moms.  What would you say to a mom who says, “Ignatian spirituality sounds interesting, but I just can’t think of adding one more thing to my busy life?”

 

Mags: Having just spent two months with my sister and my two sweet nephews I do understand this. Firstly, don’t feel guilty for not being able to give a chunk of time when you have little children. That phase will pass. I would suggest taking mental time while you perform a task you do every day to just ask yourself three simple questions.

1) How am I?

2) What am I most grateful for in this moment?

3) How is God looking at me?

That exercise can be done in 5 min while you are doing the dishes, or brushing your teeth. Just take a few moments to ground the whirlwind busyness by paying attention to where you are, looking for something to be grateful for and holding that before God.

That mini prayer practice will give you a tether through the years of small children and will be manageable most days.

Ginny:  What would you say to someone who says, “I try to sit down and pray, but I don’t feel like anything is happening when I do?”

Mags: Don’t worry too much about how you ‘feel’ in the time of prayer. Pay attention to the fruit. Do you have a sense that God is present and active in your life? If so, where. Take time to be consciously grateful to God for that. Having said that, it may be time to try a different prayer practice. And I would strongly recommend talking with a spiritual director or a prayer partner.

If you want to know more about Mags, check out her blog.  Rooted in Love is available on Amazon.com.  Read it!   — you’ll be glad you did.