Want some help finding just the right book for your loved one?

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EDITOR’S NOTE: This week, we asked master shopper Susan Stitt, the head of Georgia-based Morgan Street Media (and the marketing director for Front Edge Publishing) to help us all with our holiday lists. Got a tough one on your list? Consider some of these tips …

Morgan Street Media

Want to make your loved one happy this holiday season? All of the books I’m listing today are inspiring and informative. They’re also true—and many levels, you’ll discover. If you can match some of these tips to a friend or loved one, then you’ll wind up with a perfect choice.

And remember, with a book, you also can add a personal note inside the front cover. How many of us have books on the shelf that, when we open them again, we discover names and dates that warm our hearts.


Struck by Hope—The True Story of Answering God’s Call and the Creation of Little Pink Houses of Hope by Jeanine Patten-Coble.

The day after a diagnosis of breast cancer, Jeanine Patten-Coble was struck with a calling that turned her world upside down. In this book, she weaves her tale of running away from that calling—to finding her purpose. Her vision led her to found Little Pink Houses of Hope and a way for cancer patients to find hope in weeklong family retreats. In this book, she invites us along on this journey toward becoming “ridiculously present.” She includes questions for personal reflection and group discussion.

Buy it here.



Tiny Homes In a Big City by Reverend Faith Fowler.

This is the amazing story of how Cass Community Social Services, a Detroit-based nonprofit, is building a new neighborhood of tiny homes in a corner of the city where everyone else had vanished—not even their previous homes were left standing in these empty blocks. The new homes are being built to allow low-income individuals a way to eventually own their own homes. Cass’s unique rent to-own approach to building a neighborhood has drawn millions of people around the world to follow the rise of Faith Fowler’s community. In the book, she explains how the decision to build was made, compares this build with other organizations, explains the philosophy behind their plan, offers the logistics of building, and responds to online feedback.

Buy it here.



Can You Just Get Them Through Until Christmas? by Pastor Margie Briggs for Cass Community Publishing House.

When Margie Briggs was asked to provide pastoral leadership for two tiny rural congregations, the men and women who continued to love those churches had hit rock bottom. Regional church leaders were so desperate that they begged Margie, a lay person, to work with the broken-hearted people in order to get them through the holidays. Instead, Margie’s creativity and compassion inspired these men and women to reach out in new ways and sustainably grow their two churches into vibrant communities.

Buy it here.


For your college student
Or the teacher who needs some help

To My Professor—Student Voices for Great College Teaching by Michigan State University School of Journalism.

This helpful book is filled with honesty, savvy, very helpful advice by students about their instructors. They tend not to be the kind of remarks that professors usually hear, and some are harsh. Others are full of gratitude for teachers who inspire and motivate. The “To My Professor” statements are really just starting points that lead to advice from master teachers. Teaching is difficult and this book has some potential solutions. More than 50 chapters cover situations including expectations, communication, technology, race, gender and religion, mental and physical health.

Buy it here.


For the ELL or ESL learner in your life

American History Made Easy by Kathleen Gripman.

A book designed for the millions of English Language Learners (ELL), including English as a Second Language (ESL), and can be used either in classrooms or for self study. Written at an intermediate reading level, the chapters are illustrated with black-and-white drawings and charts designed to deepen reader recall. But, this book is not a list of facts to memorize. The engaging narrative style is fun to read – ideal for anyone who wants an overview of the essentials of American history.

Buy it here.



Never Long Enough by Rabbi Joseph H. Krakoff and Dr. Michelle Y. Sider.

A unique book about the end of life, Rabbi Joseph H. Krakoff and artist Dr. Michelle Y. Sider brought together their many years of professional expertise with families. Krakoff drew on lessons learned in many years of counseling adults and children wrestling with death, grief and remembrance. Sider’s years working as an artist, arts educator and psychologist influenced her approach in creating evocative images that demonstrate how art can help to unlock emotions and heal the heart. Together, they crafted an interactive keepsake book for families and friends, complete with pages to add personal reflections thereby transforming the book into an individualized tribute to a loved one.

Buy it here.


For your female friends

Friendship & Faith, 2nd Edition from The Women’s Interfaith Solutions for Dialogue and Outreach in Metro Detroit (WISDOM).

This is a book about making friends, which may be the most important thing you can do to make the world a better place-and transform you own life in the process. Making a new friend often is tricky, as you’ll discover in these dozens of real-life stories by women from a wide variety of religious and ethnic backgrounds. But, crossing lines of religion, race and culture is worth the effort, often forming some of life’s deepest friendships, these women have found. In “Friendship and Faith”, you’ll discover how we really can change the world one friend at a time.

Buy it here.




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Friendship & Faith: Celebrating transcendent moments in our Lives

Click on the photo to visit WISDOM’s website.


Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page to learn about the print and the Kindle editions.

This week, please welcome Adey Wassink, the lead pastor of a thriving church in Iowa City, Sanctuary Community Church, which is part of the Blue Ocean Faith movement of congregations that promote inclusivity. If you already have a copy of the new Friendship & Faith book, by the Michigan-based WISDOM women, then you have seen Adey’s name on one of the first pages. She appears in the opening of the book to help us recommend these 52 inspiring stories to readers.

Now, as the year-end holidays approach in 2017, Adey’s story about this recommendation strikes a timely note for many families—especially the millions of households across America where someone has crossed religious lines. As Adey explains in this story, she grew up Jewish, now is Christian and shares our passion for ensuring that everyone feels welcome in our communities—whatever their faith may be.


Pastor of Sanctuary Community Church

Reading the remarkable stories from the women of WISDOM, I was reminded of two of the most fraught and transcendent moments in my life.

I grew up in Skokie, Illinois, a largely Jewish suburb of Chicago that served as a refuge of sorts for Holocaust survivors and their families. One out of every six of my neighbors had numbers burned into their arms. The Holocaust hung over our city like a thick cloud—silent, unacknowledged, but darkening everything.

In spite of this horror perpetrated against us, anti-Semitism was alive and well. The big gentile country club in the middle of Skokie forbad Jewish membership. At day camp, we learned from other kids that our noses were big and we were cheap. The secluded neighborhood of nice houses in the southeast corner of town kept Jews out (compelling my sister and I to fearfully explore its secret streets in our Jew-concealing costumes every Halloween).

In the midst of all this were our next-door neighbors, Bill and Ria. They were a sweet retired couple who had moved from Germany to Skokie, of all places, before the war. I was just a girl, and so never learned much of their story. But I do know that most of my Jewish neighbors hated them, ignored them, threatened them, feared them. Our neighbors certainly didn’t know Bill and Ria.

And, somehow, it was different for my parents. Bill and Ria loved our family and we loved them. Bill had attended medical school in Germany, and I had life-threatening asthma. So it was Bill who, when I was sick, would come over to our house and put a towel over my head, teaching me to breath in steam from fragrant boiling water. When Bill and Ria’s daughters didn’t have outfits for their small children to wear to school, my parents brought them bulging bags of clothing.

Bill and Ria had the best climbing tree in the neighborhood. It was one of those trees where the branches started low and you could safely climb high and look out over your neighborhood, and lots of kids could be in the tree at once. Mostly the other kids stayed away, but I felt completely loved and safe.

My favorite place was their kitchen. My family didn’t have a lot of sweets laying around because my mom derided all candy as empty calories. But Bill and Ria always had a peppermint ready to slip into my hands when I came through their screen door. And their house had amazing smells that would never be found in my kosher home.

Bacon. I still remember the first time I smelled bacon sizzling in the frying pan. My family had the typical kosher “bacon” that we called beef fry, but I could tell just by the smell that it wasn’t nearly as good as the real thing. So from Bill and Ria I learned resolve—saying “No thank you,” to every bacon offer—and how to make the most of yummy smells.

The neighbors didn’t approve of our families’ friendship with them. But my parents never cared. I have the sense, looking back, that we were all refugees—Bill and Ria having left something behind to come to this strange land and settle in the midst of others, my family, all my Jewish neighbors—and that somehow my parents paid more attention to what united us than to what made us different.

That served me well when, many years later, faith-based differences threatened to produce for me a sad and lonely first Christmas as a Christian.


Adey Wassink

This Jewish girl, as a young woman, had encountered Jesus and decided to follow him. I became a Christian and joined a church. I never felt myself to be leaving behind my Jewishness, but my family, while doing their best to understand, were mostly hurt and confused, and many in my community despised me.

Meanwhile, in my church, a small group of friends and I had begun partnering with World Relief to help settle immigrating Indochinese refugees. I absolutely loved it. I mean: I loved it!!!

As a wanderer who had just been jettisoned into loneliness myself, I jumped at the chance to help anyone who tugged at those heartstrings.

So I met families at O’Hare airport, brought them to their apartments, showed them how to use the El trains, drove them to get documents, carried furniture upstairs, held babies, and played with kids. I talked, with those who were interested, about my spiritual journey, and watched with wonder as they showed me the treasured spirit homes that they had carried with them here from afar.


But my sweetest moment was watching the movie, The Killing Fields, with them on Christmas Day, 1984. I had started the day alone. My Jewish family was not one of those who celebrated Hanukkah as a stand-in for Christmas, so no Hanukkah Bush for this girl! It would be years before I could put an ornament on the Christmas tree with my husband Tom without hyperventilating. My new Christian friends didn’t know me that well yet and so weren’t aware of my plight.

As I was checking my paltry VHS library and ordering takeout, I got a call from one of the Cambodians, a teenage young man: “Adey,” he said, “we know it’s Christmas and you’re probably busy, but if you’re not, there’s a movie we’d like you to come see with us tonight.”

“Okay!” I said. “When and where?”

And so, unsuspecting, I went with my newfound family to see The Killing Fields, a movie about the Cambodian civil war of the 1970s, itself a spillover of the Vietnam War, with the film featuring prominently the notorious Killing Fields of the Pol Pot regime that contained the bones of millions of slaughtered Cambodians. Not exactly It’s A Wonderful Life!

But it was their story. My Cambodian friends, up till that night, had been unable on their own to summon the will to tell me their stories. After they had someone else tell me their story, however, their tongues were loosed. So there we were, not even waiting till dinner or an apartment, but spilling out onto the State Street sidewalk in Chicago’s Loop, with big white movie-quality Christmas snowflakes falling gently on us under a darkening sky, our hair matting down, with friend after friend, talking over each other, telling story after story after story of lost relatives, forced travel, expulsion from villages and homes, harrowing escapes, and the gratefulness to be here, all of us sobbing in a huddle. I felt profoundly privileged.

Their travails reminded me, just a bit, of the little I knew of the story of the first Christmas for Jesus and Mary and Joseph. And it was my best Christmas ever because I was not alone anymore; they had let me know them, and I belonged.

So thank you, women of WISDOM, because you caused me to again remember these stories. You caused me to think of them.You caused my husband and I to recount them again over dinner. You caused me to write them in this column.


These precise kinds of stories are so important right now, when voices of strength and privilege are telling us to defend and isolate and protect and deride, are telling us that differences matter more than similarities, are telling us that anxiety should motivate instead of love. These precise kinds of stories have extra potency because they violate reprehensible prohibitions, showing those prohibitions to be pathetic and empty constructs of fear that serve only to restrict joy.

So, as I read Friendship & Faith, I reveled with Raj Chehl as she secreted surreptitious visits with her friends-of-another-faith who her grandmother had forbad her to see. I crossed the mountains of Afghanistan on foot with Parwin Anwar, as she fled persecution, pregnant, with two little ones in tow, and brought out of it to Detroit her passion for multi-culturalism. And I was with Ayesha Khan, newly arrived in L.A., husband busy at work, family across the country, suspicious of others, baby just born, as the recently widowed Libby entered her apartment to provide a brief bit of help with the kids, and Please help! turned to an afternoon of conversation turned to years of family-like friendship.

And Ayesha, like so many of the others, shook loose for me yet one more story from the dusty attic of memory. My husband and I, like Ayesha and her husband, have just recently left family and friends to travel to a strange and distant land—in our case, Iowa. My husband works hard in his training program while I care for our four little ones and a fifth grows in my womb. Our neighbor is Shazia, a young Muslim woman, far from home with her husband and their young children. Shazia and I become fast friends who love each other and laugh, and it is Shazia who takes our children into her home, a profound statement of trust from me and caring from her, when the time comes for Caleb to be born.

It is my prayer that a book like this could contribute to the voices of love and hope and friendship across lines.


Care to read more?

‘Find yourself a teacher … and a friend’

RABBI MARLA HORNSTEN draws on Jewish tradition as well as practical spiritual wisdom in urging readers to explore the stories in this new book. She urges all of us to gain strength from the examples in this book to form our own new friendships.

Just Imagine: No more ‘in’ group and ‘out’ group

MAGGIE ROWE is familiar to regular readers of our online magazine. In April, we published a cover-story interview with Maggie about her wonderful new memoir, Sin Bravely. Because that book is all about Maggie’s struggle to free herself from religious rigidity—she now welcomes this new Friendship & Faith as a vision of what diverse friendships can become. Enjoy Maggie’s column, too.

Got a story to share?

Got a story you want to share with the Women of WISDOM? Want to inquire about a group order of this newly expanded book for your small group? Interested in bringing a WISDOM program to your community? Please, reach out to WISDOM through this “Contact Us” page.


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Welcome Sadie into your family! And turn your kitchen into an art studio.

ReadTheSpirit Editor

Click the cover to learn more about the book.

“I miss my Penny!” moans the heartbroken, good-as-gold dog Sadie.

That’s the moment in the middle of the new picture book, Sadie Sees Trouble, when many readers make a spontaneous, audible response. My wife Amy, reading the book for the first time, couldn’t resist exclaiming: “Ohhh, poor Sadie! Ohhhh! Penny! Come on! Sadie needs you! You need her!”

The problem is: Penny is a little girl who has become so fascinated with her high-tech tablet that she is giving a cold shoulder to her beloved Sadie!

Here’s how Sadie explains her problem with Penny:

I sit by her on the sofa.
I sit by her on the chair.
But her eyes and hands are on the tablet—
It’s like she’s not really there!

Educators will immediately recognize this story as helping with one of the most important early learning priorities of our time: Reducing children’s “screen time.”

Click the logo to read more about reducing screen time.

“Because of all of the work we’ve done as educators over the years, we hear from lots of parents and teachers all over the country,” Linda Jarkey said in an interview. “Right now, we are hearing about the problem of technology becoming the baby sitter in so many families—cutting off the interaction with other people that is an important part of early learning. It’s an attractive option: Give a child a tablet or a smart phone and many children will sit quietly while you’re free to do other things around the home. But, very quickly that technology can replace interaction with your children.

“Yes, this is similar to the old problem families have had with too much TV time. Now, many parents are realizing that they need to limit ‘screen time’ on tablets or other devices like smart phones. And, the real challenge is that this awareness does not come naturally to everyone. The message of Sadie Sees Trouble tells this story, not in a preachy way, but through the eyes of this lovable dog Sadie who sees the problem first hand. It’s a fun way for parents to begin the conversation about the balance of technology in a person’s life.”

That’s the first reason you should get a copy of this new book. Educators nationwide are beginning to zero in on this problem in creative ways. Sadie Sees Trouble is on the leading edge of that effort.

How can you get involved right now? The book goes on sale nationally via Amazon in January. If you want to be an early ally in this important project, email us at info@FrontEdgePublishing.com and we will respond to your interest. The author and the illustrator of this book both are veteran educators who plan to crisscross the country in 2018, providing workshops, talks and training events for parents and teachers who want to understand and respond to these challenges. Are you interested in organizing such an event? Email us at info@FrontEdgePublishing.com


There’s a lot more to this book than the basic message to reduce screen time. This book is a first-ever invitation to jump into the pages of a picture book with your children by turning your home into an art studio. Educators in communities across this country teach literacy to young children starting with building blocks such as colors, storytelling and the arts.

Illustrator Julie Jarkey-Kozlowski is a noted arts educator who, among her many accomplishments, served as chair of the Visual Arts department for the huge Utica Community School District in Michigan. Over the years, Julie and her sister, the author Linda Jarkey, have presented popular sessions across the U.S. and Canada for parents and educators, including workshops, conferences and retreats.

Is this a pantry? Or, an art studio?

They’ve got a unique idea to share in these sessions: Turning your home into a treasure hunt for art supplies.

“Our idea of coloring this picture book with things you can find in your kitchen really started as an accident,” Julie says about their collaboration.

“We were talking on the phone about this project and Julie was traveling, at the time. She didn’t have her studio supplies with her, but she got so excited about sketching the first illustrations of Sadie that she simply grabbed some things she saw in front of her on her dinner table. The first sketch of Sadie was colored with mustard!” says Linda.

That led to a brilliant idea for these educators! Coast to coast, countless social workers and educators make home visits to families, especially in vulnerable communities, encouraging early learning by using the basic materials found in any home—even in low-income households.

Linda and Julie made it their mission to create everything in these pages from materials families could find at home.

“We turned it into a challenge that springs from the pages of this picture book: Read the story and enjoy that experience. Then, look closely at how we created these pages. What was used to create this color? Or that color? Now, how far can you and your children go in creating new colors with things you can pull off your kitchen shelves? That’s a new way families can experience a book,” Julie said.

In the pages of this book, you may be able to discern the following materials: Strawberries, beets, tomato skins, mustard, food coloring, lawn grass, blueberries, coffee, tea and Worcestershire sauce.

The creators of this book invite you to turn your kitchen into a studio. One of the unique offerings with this book are six black-and-white illustrations from the book that you can download for free at http://SadieSeesTrouble.com to color with children. As a kick-start to your own creative ideas, the download page provides a list of all of the materials Linda used in illustrating the book. Linda and Julie invite you to discover your own color combinations and let them know about your discoveries! The instructions are on the download page.


The sisters behind the Sadie project have been a part of professional arts since childhood. Their father was a performer—best known as a standup comic and later a TV host. Their mother was a professional dancer—head of a Detroit-based troupe of dancers who performed at the landmark Fox Theater in a style similar to New York’s Rockettes.

“Both Julie and I have done a lot of public speaking—and we’ve run a lot of workshops and training events, too. Appearing in front of people has been a natural part of our lives really since childhood,” said Linda. “Standing in front of an audience may seem scary to most people, but it feels very natural to us.

“It’s because we had an unorthodox childhood. We didn’t have a house for our family until I started school, when we settled down in the Detroit area,” Linda said. “When we were very young, we traveled the East Coast circuit with our father and mother, living in hotels and motels where our parents were performing. We spent a lot of our early years on the road.”

On the road, the family packed lots of books for the girls! “Our parents read to us—and we read ourselves,” Linda recalls. “It seems to me as though, even before we started school, we were reading all the time. I still have my Tiny Golden Library. And I remember The Snow Queen and other stories by Hans Christian Andersen, plus Nancy Drew mysteries and so many more.”

Can you imagine the treat of having any story read to you by Harry Jarkey? Longtime Michigan residents still recall the late comedian, who finally settled his family in the Midwest. In 1956, he began hosting WXYZ-TV’s Our Friend Harry, a two-hour morning variety showcase of Harry’s many talents along with friends and guests. Then, for a while, he hosted the original Fun House, a Saturday-morning TV kids’ show packed with cartoons, races, games and stunts. (Want to read more about Harry? Here’s one online profile at DetroitKidShow.com and here is Harry’s 2014 obituary on the MLive news site.)

“And don’t forget that our mother also was a professional performer. Her professional name was Jennie Marchione and she was well known for her dance work at the Fox Theater in Detroit. We grew up surrounded by so many people who really knew how to engage a crowd,” Linda said.

“My sister and I still chuckle about this: In a way we wound up becoming performers. Here’s what I mean: We did perform when we were young. My sister was a dancer and I was more drawn to plays in high school and college. But we understood that real working entertainers face a very hard life. We’d seen our parents’ successes, but we’d seen all the struggles as well. So, we both went into education. Julie pursued arts education; I went into language arts. We’ve devoted our lives to improving education in the many different roles we’ve held over the years.

“It’s true—good educators are performers. You’re in front of an audience all the time. Many educators do five shows a day! Hopefully you’re successful with whatever routine you develop as a teacher. In this new Sadie series—and we really do hope it becomes an entire series—we want to help parents and teachers enjoy working with their children in early learning. It can be fun! That’s the message of this book. You can have lots of creative fun along the way!

“I want people to know that this first book is the start of a journey with Sadie. We are inviting everyone to come along and help us shape the journey.”


Want to suggest a direction for Sadie’s journey? Want to organize an appearance—perhaps a workshop or training event or retreat—with the Jarkeys? Remember http://SadieSeesTrouble.com for all the resources you’ll need to get involved.

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Auden, the Psalms and Me: A hot new book about liturgy?

Treasure hunters in the Episcopal tradition: In this movie still, Nicolas Cage and Harvey Keitel visit Trinity Episcopal Church in the Hollywood thriller National Treasure.


ReadTheSpirit Editor

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

Hey! Psst!
Wanna buy a hot new book about liturgy?

We are, indeed, recommending an intriguing new book on this often-ignored topic. And, we admit this may seem like an eccentric idea. After all, when was the last time you spontaneously started discussing “liturgy” with your friends? Perhaps … never?

Search that word—”liturgy”—in Amazon under “Books” and the thumbnail results form a mosaic of our love-hate relationship with the idea of following a traditional cycle of prayers. Among the prominent attempts to encourage people to embrace liturgy, we find:

  • Shane Claiborne’s and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s Common Prayer: Liturgy for Ordinary Radicalsfrom 2010, in which these progressive evangelicals offered a fresh collection of prayers and readings.
  • Pope Benedict XVI’s attempt at reviving a deeper appreciation of the Mass in his 2014 volume, The Spirit of the Liturgy.
  • Tish Harris Warden’s The Liturgy of the Ordinarya creative evangelical approach to this basic concept from 2016—although, to be fair about this, Warren’s book actually redirects our attention to what she calls: Sacred Practices of Everyday Life.

Pretty quickly in those search results, Amazon displays a list of heavy-duty books about Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican liturgy. The most impressive books in recent memory about reviving a practice of daily prayer—the wonderful series created by Phyllis Tickle—doesn’t even show up right away in that search for “liturgy.” (Please note: If you’ve ever wanted to start Phyllis’s cycle of daily prayer, now is a great time to order her Christmastide volume.)

Given that steep climb to market liturgical books, then—this week, we send out an enthusiastic salute to the folks at Church Publishing (an official arm of the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in the United States). Just in time for the holiday gift-giving season, these folks have produced one of my own favorite “finds” of this publishing season: J. Chester Johnson’s Auden, the Psalms and Me

Johnson is better known as a widely published poet, “and it also is relevant to this story that I’m a member of the Episcopal church,” Johnson said in an interview. He belongs to New York’s historic “Trinity Wall Street,” chartered in 1697 by King William III. In popular culture, Trinity was the site of a major scene in National Treasure (2004), starring Nicolas Cage.

Perhaps that reference to a treasure hunt isn’t too far fetched. In his new book, Johnson summons his own literary talents to weave an engaging story that circles around and around his central subject, touching on a host of spiritual and historical references along the way.

“Other than the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer is the most commonly referenced work in the English language in terms of the phrases it introduced into our way of describing the world,” Johnson said in our telephone interview. “The Book of Common Prayer is a spiritual, historic and literary monument in Western culture, even if the many gifts this book gave to us now are taken for granted. There is a direct link between this book and the Elizabethans like Shakespeare who lifted so much from its pages and transformed and transferred its words into our larger culture.”

Johnson leads us on an exploration of those connections through the specific story of Auden’s interest in the American revision of the book, a lengthy process that unfolded in the 1960s and 1970s.


W. H. Auden

Here’s the short version:

Did you know that the world-famous poet—who millions of tourists now find honored with a plaque in Westminster Abbey’s Poet’s Corner—played a key role in the creation of the current Book of Common Prayer used in Episcopal churches on a daily basis? Well, he did. Auden played a brief but passionate role within the editorial team producing the current version. Auden’s main concern was awakening church leaders to the timeless power of Divine language to draw together truly Cosmic forces.

“It takes a while to explain why Auden cared so much about this. That’s quite a story,” Johnson said. “But you can start to appreciate his interest by considering his family. Both of his grandfathers had been Anglican clerics. He had been a very active choirboy himself. His mother remained very high church and had a lot of influence on him. Auden really wanted to bring his own personal ear as a poet and his own deeper associations with the liturgy to this project.”

In two paragraphs, that’s the main narrative thread that connects the covers of Johnson’s book.

Johnson has a valuable viewpoint because he also worked with the Book of Common Prayer team, in that era, so he is able to tell the story in a vivid way. On that level, this book has an archival value in preserving a key chapter in Auden’s biography. But that’s not really the reason to buy this book. In pop culture, Auden doesn’t have the rabid following of the Beatles or Bob Dylan, whose every new book, film and audio clip goes viral.


So, why buy this book for yourself or for small-group discussion? Because, in these pages, Johnson awakens our interest in the power of language and liturgy—and that’s true whatever our religious tradition may be! He charts for us a circular pilgrimage toward the mysterious intersection between human language and the sacred. Along the way, his chapters are packed with rest stops where we encounter a host of remarkable figures who similarly struggled with this mystery.

Among the people we meet is the frequently overlooked Inkling: Charles Williams, the one-time friend of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Where does Williams fit in this new book? Auden loved his work. In fact, once a year, Auden would pull Williams’ Descent of the Dove off his bookshelf and reread it. That particular Williams book is so dense—almost poetic in some passages—that it makes sense for a fan of that volume to read it more than once. Williams’ goal in Descent is to lay out an overview of Christian theology and history with a focus on how God’s Spirit connects all things in the Cosmos.

That is how Auden viewed the liturgy of the Eucharist in particular, as invoking and entering into God’s Cosmos across time and space. This placed such a high expectation on what the Book of Common prayer could achieve that Auden, at one point, even advocated turning the English liturgy back into Latin to regain some of that ancient language’s authority and evocative power.

Of course, as Johnson points out in his book with grim humor, if the founders of the English Reformation had been alive and in power today—they would have eagerly burned Auden at the stake for proposing such an idea! Latin, indeed!


J. Chester Johnson photographed by Jonathan Barth. Used with permission.

Johnson takes us back centuries to the earliest era of the English Reformation, not to relish in the drama of Henry VIII’s court, but to the throw a spotlight on the monumental writing and editing by Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer, the originator of the Book of Common Prayer. Millions of Americans are familiar with tales of Cranmer, at least from hit TV series such as The Tudors. But Johnson focuses on Cranmer’s literary brilliance and Johnson also takes time to introduce the lesser-known Myles Coverdale, who produced the first complete printed translation of the Bible into English.

Why should we care? Isn’t this merely trivia, perhaps fit for the “Extras” disc on future DVD sets of The Tudors?

Well, Johnson is ready for that question and quickly convinces us that this deep dive into history is worth far more than esoteric footnotes. In the section of Johnson’s book that you are most likely to want to share with friends or in small-group discussion, Johnson provides examples of the many ways this Coverdale-Cranmer connection wound up affecting the rest of English literature and culture to this day.

That’s right. These guys had a direct impact on centuries of English writing—and on things you’re likely to say, today. There are pages of examples. Here is one short excerpt:

Through Cranmer’s and Coverdale’s work on translation and the creation of the Book of Common Prayer, numerous memorable phrases in the English language have come or have been derived from Coverdale’s Psalms. To acknowledge only a few, consider: “gray-headed,” “apple of my eye,” “poor and needy,” “tender mercy/mercies,” “softer than butter,” “heart’s desire,” “saving health,” “put to shame,” “strength to strength,” “green/greener pastures,” “green as the grass,” “corners of the earth.”

Just, for example, the use of the phrase “greener pastures,” which we frequently include in normal speech, harkens back to Psalm 23: “He shall feed me in a green pasture.” Or the “distant” or “four corners of the earth”—again, going back to Coverdale in Psalm 95: “In his hand are all the corners of the earth.” Of course, we poets and writers owe him a ton of gratitude for sprucing up and enriching our native tongue with phrases like these, which we have often stolen without the slightest hint of attribution or acknowledgment.

Now are you seeing an opportunity to discuss “liturgy” with friends or in your small group?

Have you glimpsed the treasure at the end of this literary hunt?

One more suggestion: If you’ve read this far and you’re curious about Johnson’s work, consider visiting his Amazon author page, where you will find a brief bio and links to some posts related to his publishing projects and personal appearances. You’ll also find a link to his 2017 volume of longer poems, Now and Then.

“My most recent book before that had been the 2010 publication of St. Paul’s Chapel and Selected Shorter Poems,” Johnson said as we concluded our interview. “I have also written longer poems over the years and they had been published here and there. Now, those longer pieces have been published into this new compendium, Now and Then. As I look back over 2017, this has been an important year for me.”


Care to read more?

Looking for more great reading? Perhaps shopping for holiday gifts? Please take another moment to explore our own ReadTheSpirit Bookstore as well.



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Terrific children’s books on your holiday shopping list? Consider these opportunities for discovery!

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

Editor of ReadTheSpirit

Every year, ReadTheSpirit makes a point of highlighting great “children’s books,” and we always stress: The best books in this genre always appeal to adults, as well, because early literacy depends on a spirited interaction across generations. As we reach November, and the start of the “holiday shopping season,” we are recommending three new children’s books by Candlewick Press.

All three of these books are opportunities for fun—and all of them include surprising opportunities for discovery and even further learning with the curious kids you love.

And, all three are from Candlewick Press. If you haven’t already discovered Candlewick—you’ll want to make note of this publisher’s name. Like ReadTheSpirit magazine, Candlewick was founded around a public list of basic principles that include a commitment “to make the world a better place, not just through the books we publish but also in the way we work.” (Want to know more about Candlewick’s collective values? Check out the Candlewick Cares page in the publisher’s website. Want to know more about our own 10 founding principles? Check out this About Us page.)


I wish I had a copy of Walk This World at Christmastime when my own children were young. As a journalist who specializes in religious and cultural diversity—including coverage of religious holidays—I love the way this book literally opens doors to year-end observances around the world. The book is focused on Christmas, but there are lift-the-flap doorways that provide opportunities to touch on Hanukkah and Kwanza as well.

Each page is a collage of illustrations from various countries as we slowly “read our way around the world.” Children are invited to spot the lift-able flaps on each page. There also is a numbering system scattered through the book from 1 to 25, so adult readers could go through just a page or two per day. If you are intrigued by global cultural diversity, you could easily talk with young ones about a wide range of questions. Why is “Santa Claus” represented by “Father Frost” in former Soviet republics? Why do some communities celebrate the holiday on December 6—or even early January? You’ll see a range of lights and lanterns pictured in this book, and you could go online for do-it-yourself versions of these symbols of the season.

At first glance, you won’t see much text in this book. However, there is a surprisingly extensive array of micro-stories, as well, because every flap holds more text. Got kids who love Where’s Waldo? You can ask them to search for particular scenes on each page. Can they identify each country’s landscape as we make our way around Earth? You may be surprised at how much children have picked up from television and pre-school. And note: As part of my review of this book, I invited five adults in my family to sit through a reading of the book. Everyone was intrigued—and we took time to lift every single flap, reading every word!

For parents who love holiday reading and cultural diversity, this is a must-buy book!


A Christmas for Bear is the latest volume in this beloved series of best-selling picture books, which we’ve been recommending for family reading over the years as each new volume has appeared. How popular are they? They’ve made the New York Times best-seller list and during an early November visit to the Macy’s Chicago Christmas department, this new book was stacked up in at least three locations for the holidays.

At this point, the characters are well known to regular readers. Bear is a gigantic, fuzzy and often over-bearing homeowner with few friends. Clever and compassionate little mouse breaks through his gruff exterior and continually warms bear toward the wider world.

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

In this new adventure, Bear is extroverted enough to be planning his first Christmas party—ever. As it turns out, he only is inviting one guest: mouse. But mouse fills the house with mischievous glee. Bear’s carefully scripted plan for the party includes a poem and a special holiday meal involving pickles. Mouse refuses to stay on script, because he can’t see any sign of gifts in bear’s elaborate Christmas display. The two friends scamper around the entire house as mouse tries to plumb this mystery. Bear huffs and puffs, suggesting that gifts will not be exchanged! Mouse simply cannot believe that his friend’s heart hasn’t grown large enough, at this point, to include at least one Christmas present.

What’s the discovery here? If you care to dig further, you can explore the so-called “Christmas Pickle,” which turns out to be a fanciful “tradition” involving a Woolworth promotion of European-made Christmas ornaments in the late 1800s. Those early shipments included lots of colorful glass fruits and vegetables and, for some reason—pickles.

Care to read more? If you’re thinking of a Christmas present for children who have not yet discovered bear and mouse, you might also want to order a copy of the original A Visitor for Bearthe first volume by Seattle-based children’s author Bonny Becker. These characters jump to life in Kady MacDonald Denton’s illustrations—so much so, that you’ll enjoy reading the book over and over again with children. Want even more? Here’s a link to our earlier story about another treasure in the series: A Bedtime for Bear, about a sleepover at bear’s house.


In our family, we have loved pop-up books for several generations, including examples from more than a century ago that are beloved volumes on our bookshelf to this day. While this third book has zero holiday content, we immediately recognized ABC Pop-Up as a marvelous choice for holiday gift-giving.

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

Our publishing-house staff has spent more nearly two years working on early learning materials for nonprofits working in communities with many challenges, from recent immigration of non-English-speaking families to poverty and related issues. One of the major goals in the innovative programs we highlight in our own publishing is engaging as many senses as possible in early literacy. This pop-up book brilliantly invites adults and children to explore several senses: sound, vision and even tactile experiences of exploring the pop up shapes!

My favorite sequence is a pop-up bed that stands up in front of us, as we read the book, without any immediate clue as to the letters involved. Then, if we closely examine the bed, we discover the pillow has an embossed P in one corner and the quilt has an embossed Q. Little fingers can touch the letters and actually feel the raised shapes.

Then, the sequence continues with a stately tree that leaps up with an attached tire swing and, as we look over the entire page, we discover that we can glimpse the tree’s gnarled roots at the bottom of the page. What letters are we discovering? The tire swing actually dangles from a string and, if our eyes are quick, we can see the S for swing. But what about R? Little fingers can detect an embossed R in the tree’s roots. And then what’s the T? Well, you can guess.

In our family collection, we now own more than 100 pop up books and, while this book is, indeed, little in its physical scale, it is truly a work of genius!

Looking for more great books?

As you shop for the holidays, be sure to check out our own bookstore as well!


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Robert Wicks on the enduring power of our stories in ‘Night Call’

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine

“A story buries itself in your heart.”

That’s how Robert Wicks—popular with readers around the world for his books on coping with trauma and restoring resilience in life—explains this unusual new book that’s more storytelling than pointed advice. Wicks’ earlier books are popular for their usefulness to readers, frequently pulled off the shelf and re-read. That’s because he usually packs his books with lists of tips, ideas and questions. A typical Wicks book is half inspirational writing—and half materials for self-reflection and small-group discussion. Rest assured Wicks fans, Night Call does have some of those Wicks-trademark bullet points. There’s even a 55-page guide to a five-day “self-directed resiliency retreat” at the end of this book!

But from the opening page, it’s clear that this volume represents something different among Wicks’ works.

“I’m glad that you picked up that distinctive difference in this book,” Wicks told me as we started our interview about Night Call. “It’s true. This is a unique book. I know that people like my lists—they tell me how useful they are. But lists tend to be tucked away on a shelf.

“People retain stories, because a story buries itself in your heart. Then, when something similar happens in your life, that story comes to mind. In this book, I have included some of the most powerful stories about my life and the work I have done all around the world. I consider this book my legacy.”


Author Dr Robert Wicks

“Embracing Compassion and Hope in a Troubled World” is Wicks’ subtitle for this new book—no surprise to his regular readers. He’s been writing about resilience from this perspective for years.

The difference here is that he directly addresses how to grab hold of our resilience when it seems to be slipping away in the midst of night. And, by “night,” Wicks may indeed be talking about the dead of night in the cycle of our day—an ominous and vulnerable time for all of us. Beyond that, he also is talking about the timeless concept of “night” in the sense that Elie Wiesel uses the term in his memoir Night and St. John of the Cross used it in  his 16th Century classic Dark Night of the Soul.

In our interview, Wicks put it this way: “When I am working with people, I try to prepare them for the challenges that inevitably will come. The question is not if night will come. The question is when night comes. That’s not morbid. It’s acknowledging reality.”

Throughout his book, he repeats this frequent admonition to his main body of readers—people in helping professions. At the end of his Epilogue he writes:

It is not if we will experience darkness in a life well lived. It is when. In the case of professional helpers and healers who came in for therapy or mentoring, I found that at about the 10th session, they had built up enough trust to share much of what was bothering them about their situations and, more poignantly, about themselves. And when I would encounter their sadness and rage as their feelings of impotence, experiences of being misunderstood, and stress were tangibly before us, I would of course, feel to some extent the darkness growing within me as well.

Now that sounds terrifying, doesn’t it? Please do not shy away from this new book, because Night Call’s true gift to us, as readers, is how Wicks responds when he feels that darkness swirling around someone he is helping—and threatening to engulf him in the process. What he does next is to affirm the potential of bouncing back to a healthy balance of self confidence and renewed vocation. That passage at the end of the Epilogue continues as he looks at the professional who has come to him for help and thinks to himself:

If only you realized how good you are. How gentle and assertive you have been in so many situations and what a positive difference you have made in so many lives.

Right now, consider printing out those lines on a piece of paper you will tape to your bathroom mirror or your refrigerator door. That’s the kind of work Wicks so masterfully carries out year after year. He keeps telling us: Remember who you are! Reclaim your resilience!

And in this volume he adds most forcefully: That’s true even in the midst of our darkest nights.


Compassionate, caring love is the core of a satisfying life, Wicks has taught for many years. In Night Call, he reminds readers through dozens of stories—some as short as a paragraph, some as long as a few pages—that men and women engaged in public service must remember that they need compassionate care, too.

In one story, Wicks finds himself caught in a downpour during a break in a series of workshops he was presenting for weary caregivers and aid workers in a region of Cambodia trying to rebuild after devastating violence. Who helps Wicks as he suddenly finds himself threatened by torrential rains? It’s a poor shopkeeper who extends the hospitality Wicks truly needs. That man understands the powerful gift of offering even the smallest of compassionate acts.

The whole process of discernment and rediscovering resilience begins with humility, Wicks said in our interview. “Humility is an elusive virtue,” he said. “It’s often misunderstood as defacing yourself or feeling powerless or letting people step on you. No, humility is a very, very powerful virtue. I believe that true ordinariness is tangible holiness. The shopkeeper had that. Most of us may not think about it. We don’t value this kind of humility. But, when you have humility, you avoid the danger of extreme self confidence on one hand—and then exaggerated self doubt on the other. With humility, we become honest at looking at our gifts. By the same token, we are better equipped to deal with night when it comes.”

Wicks ends this new book with a passage that long-time fans of his work will recognize and welcome.

“By reflection on the need for self-compassion and how to effectively reach out to others with a sense of openness to what we can be taught, there is a real possibility for profound positive change. Why? Because to be truly open, we experience humility and, once again, when we take humility and add it to knowledge we get wisdom. When we take that very wisdom and add it to compassion, we get love, and such love is at the heart of being a true friend to others—actually, it is at the heart of a truly rewarding life.”


First, order a copy of this new book, Night Call, via Amazon.

If you would like to explore some of our earlier interviews with Robert Wicks, consider:

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Maggie Rowe: Can you imagine … no more ‘in’ group and ‘out group? Only ‘together’!

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

TV writer and author

One day when I was a student at Hoffman elementary school in the suburbs of Chicago, an “in group” and an “out group” arose in Miss Macaulay’s 2nd grade class.

Before this point, we had just been kids; kids on the playground, kids drawing pictures, kids eating paste; but now, as suddenly as a stomach ache can set in from paste ingestion, my second grade class was felled into two distinct groups. The “in group” had nicer clothes, richer parents, blonder hair and were better acquainted with the songs on the top 40 radio station B96. The “out group,” of which I was a member, desperately wanted to be part of this “in group,” but the line was clear.

And I was on the wrong side of it.

My parents told me that when I was older, there would be no “in group” and “out group.” The kids would outgrow it, they said.

But they were wrong. The “in group” and the “out group” lived on. The criteria simply changed. In some of the following grades—in camp one year, a dance troupe in another—I was “in,” but mostly I was “out.”

I thought that at church at least these divisions would not exist. Religion I figured was about coming together. But the “in group” and “out group” were even more fiercely delineated at Trinity Baptist Church than in Miss MacAulay’s class.

We actually sang a song with the following lyrics…
One door, and only one
And yet its sides are two,
Inside and outside,
On which side are you?

Christians were the “in group” and all other religions were the “out group.” This divisiveness and superiority is what eventually drove me away from my childhood faith. Until I realized this attitude was not a fault of Christianity, but an outgrowth of the faulty interpretation of many of its followers.

A Muslim friend of mine named Aleema was instrumental in this discovery. Aleema was a roommate of mine in college and she shared with me her belief that all religions were trying to describe the indescribable and could be measured by their efficacy in promoting kindness and acceptance of all beings. She didn’t like the word “tolerance” because she felt the word implied a stomaching or enduring something. She preferred the word “embrace,” a word that carried with it no sense of resistance or distaste.

To Aleema, I was not someone in the out group she was enduring for the sake of propriety, I was a friend and fellow seeker she could embrace wholeheartedly. The essays in this new book, Friendship & Faith, do more than tolerate other faiths and their practitioners.

They celebrate and embrace friends bound together on a spiritual path.

There is no “in” and no “out.”

Only together.


Maggie Rowe

Care to read more?

Maggie Rowe is a writer for film and TV, including work on the hit series Arrested Development. She also produces the live Comedy Central stage show SitnSpin, Los Angeles’ longest running spoken-word series. And, she is the author of a critically acclaimed memoir Sin Bravely about her struggle to overcome the religious rigidity of her own upbringing. In April 2017, ReadTheSpirit online magazine featured an interview with Maggie about her book and her ongoing work.

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