Tag Archives: Book

Saints Alive! A Conversation with Maxie Dunnam

This summer, Dr. Maxie Dunnam released a new devotional resource he developed while at home during the initial wave of coronavirus shutdowns. Saints Alive! 30 Days of Pilgrimage with the Saints is a rich, month-long set of readings; daily reflections aren’t just inspired by those who have come before; they have the tone of being in dialogue with these spiritual giants. Dunnam brings his own insights into conversation with names both familiar and unfamiliar: writers like William Law, Thomas à Kempis, Francis de Sales, Evelyn Underhill, John Wesley, and Bernard of Clairvaux. Decades ago, Upper Room Ministries published a collection of small booklets under the title Living Selections from the Great Devotional Classics – what Dunnam continues to refer to as his “box of saints,” a set of writings that has shaped his spiritual life over the years.

What becomes abundantly clear throughout this book is the ongoing need for timeless insight when the present feels urgent. The more pressing current events become, the more pressing the need to drill down into the very core of the gathered wisdom of the saints of the Church. When a plague surges and wildfires burn and levees do not hold, we need the voices of Christians who knew plague and burning and flood. What feels like uncharted territory for many leaders is not wholly uncharted in the life of the Church. Thankfully, as the rhythm of life together was profoundly disrupted, Dunnam reached for those who know how to sink into life in Christ, however near calamity strikes.

Recently, Maxie answered a few questions about his “box of saints” and the timeliness of their wisdom today.

Wesleyan Accent: In the introduction, you describe having what you think of as your “box of saints” – a set of booklets featuring spiritual writings from Christians across centuries. What do you think it is that makes their insight so enduring, across time and continents and language?

Maxie Dunnam: First of all, the issues they dealt with. They took our daily life seriously and dealt with everyday issues that are common to us: pride, envy, jealousy, selfishness, loneliness, relationships, illness, death and on and on. They also dealt with the issues that trouble us if we are serious about living the faith: the necessity of discipline, worship, prayer, a meaningful devotional life, silence, living with Scripture, mutual faith sharing, companionship, confession.

WA: You invite readers to spend thirty days on soul pilgrimage with you as you engage with these profound Christian voices. During periods of crisis like we’ve experienced the past couple of years, you turn toward the “communion of saints,” the Body of Christ across time. How can remembering our fellowship in this wide span of the Church help give perspective in the middle of pandemic, wildfires, injustice, war, and hurricanes?

MD: The big dynamic is the communion of saints. I experience a wonderful mystery when I sit and reflect with these persons. I may or may not know the circumstances of their lives, but their thoughts and words give me a kind of oneness with them. The fact that others have valued their thoughts and words enough to preserve them through the centuries tells me that I need to pay attention to what they have to say. Our needs, suffering, questions, and problems make us one in our humanity; our faith makes us one in hope and Kingdom certainty.

WA: I was surprised to encounter a few writers I’d barely heard of, if at all. Sometimes the scope of spiritual insight from those who came before us around the world is just mind-boggling. Of those you interact with in these daily devotionals, is there one you most wish you could sit and talk with for an afternoon? (in addition to John Wesley, of course!)

MD: I would like to spend an afternoon with Saint Francis and Bonhoeffer. I am so unlike both. They both came from wealth and material privilege, which is foreign to me. Francis gave up his wealth, but Bonhoeffer never did. I’d like to talk about that. Both were passionate in their expression of the Gospel; I feel I am likewise. It would great, leading them to share with each other about how and why their passion was expressed. If I had to choose a time alone with one or the other, I would choose Francis, to talk about how I can be in but not of the world.

Saints Alive! 30 Days of Pilgrimage with the Saints works well both for personal use as well as small group or band reading discussion. It is available in both print and Kindle format by clicking here.

Featured image courtesy Alex Gindin via Unsplash.

The Startling Poetry of Madeleine L’Engle

Before the rumblings began to emerge around New Years’ (stories dripping out slowly from halfway around the world); before awareness of trouble somewhere became the startling realization that trouble was here – we could indulge ourselves in becoming blasé about tradition. Habits are sly: sometimes, we’re lulled into the off-key sense that traditions are a way of controlling a season. We begin to see them as the point instead of as a waypoint. At Christmas, we mumble, “round yon virgin, mother and Child,” so that young hearers don’t whisper loudly, “what’s a virgin?” We don’t know what to do with the truly awful passage about Herod ordering the slaughter of Bethlehem’s toddler boys, so we skip it. Then we stare open-mouthed at the news when natural disasters erupt in December, scissors halted halfway through the Snoopy wrapping paper. For many people around the world, last December – despite weariness or tight budgets or influenza – was one of the last waypoints of normalcy. Even for people who don’t avoid the awkward or painful, this year has been a chaotic overthrow of everyday simplicity. What voice can sound clearly through the chaos? We live in a moment aching for the holy iconoclasm of the poetry of Madeleine L’Engle.

Best known for novels, the late writer Madeleine L’Engle – born in a year much talked-about lately, 1918 – showed a knack for discomforting the comfortable and soothing the overheated, displayed well in The Ordering of Love: The New & Collected Poems of Madeleine L’Engle. There is nothing controllable about life on this planet, her words seem to shriek; no family recipe to follow carefully that will alleviate the cosmic chaos. And after all, she was born at the tail-end of World War I, during the 1918 flu pandemic, a child during the ’29 crash, a teenager during the Depression, a young woman during World War II, a mother in the tumult of the 50’s and 60’s, a grieving widow as the Information Age picked up steam. Her experiences shout loudly to our current world.

But L’Engle’s poems also bear the time signature of sacred rhythms: many follow liturgical seasons, or lectionary readings, or high water marks of living, like births, weddings, baptisms, deaths. Others cobble amusing little sketches of the absurd habits of selfishness, or glee, or fear, or comfort. She speaks to God as brashly and fearfully as a child who dares to shout at her parent before bursting into tears. Her joy, rage, mirth, and disappointment are pinned into place with her regular, irresistible return to Creation, Collapse, Incarnation, Crucifixion, Resurrection. For an author best known for books on time travel, Madeleine L’Engle shakes us awake now as much as she must have while she was alive.

Consider a few fragments from “Lines Scribbled on an Envelope While Riding the 104 Broadway Bus:”

There is too much pain

I cannot understand

I cannot pray

Here I am

and the ugly man with beery breath beside me reminds me that

it is not my prayers that waken your concern, my Lord;

my prayers, my intercessions are not to ask for your love

for all your lost and lonely ones,

your sick and sinning souls,

but mine, my love, my acceptance of your love.

Your love for the woman sticking her umbrella and her expensive

parcels into my ribs and snarling, “Why don’t you watch where

you’re going?”

Your love for me, too, too tired to look with love,

too tired to look at Love, at you, in every person on the bus.

Expand my love, Lord, so I can help to bear the pain…

It is startling to encounter words that so quickly, easily puncture the day to day patterns that trouble us – whether riding public transport or hopping on social media: “too tired to look with love, too tired to look at Love, at you, in every person.” Her honesty strips bare what phrases like “compassion fatigue” cover up. It is tempting to think that new technology or novel new realities are to blame – but for words like these, written decades ago.

In “Instruments (2)” the woman who managed to write and raise children at the same time confessed,

Hold me against the dark: I am afraid.

Circle me with your arms. I am made

So tiny and my atoms so unstable

That at any moment I may explode. I am unable

To contain myself in unity. My outlines shiver

With the shock of living…

A sense of precarious fragility often goes hand in hand with dripping, fleshy exuberance in her thoughts. Reflecting during a time of hospitalization, L’Engle writes in “From St. Luke’s Hospital (4),”

She comes on at night,

older than middle-aged, from the islands,

to answer the patients’ bells…

At first she was suspicious, cross,

expecting complaints and impositions,

soon tender and gentle,

concerned about requests for help with pain…

This morning she rushed in, frantic,

please, please could she look for the money

she had lost somehow, tending patients,

forty dollars that was not even hers.

She had kept it, in time-honored tradition,

in her bosom, and it must have fallen out

when she was thinking of someone else’s needs.

She scrabbled in the wastebasket,

in the bedclothes, panted from room to room,

returned to mine with a friend. We said,

Close the door, take off your clothes, and see

if it isn’t still on you somewhere.”

She did, revealing an overworked body,

wrinkled, scarred; found nothing; had to leave.

In a moment when work, medical care, and working women are much in the news, Madeleine L’Engle presents us with sketches that honor womens’ labor – even one brief, sly wink at a casually maligned person from Scripture: “Martha,” the prosaically distracted sister busy with a meal.


nobody can ever laugh at me again

I was the one who baked the bread

I pressed the grapes for wine.

In a year when suffering, depression, and despair threaten to blow the lid off of theoretical pondering on theodicy and the problem of evil, L’Engle charges in where churchgoers fear to tread, in these selections from “Love Letter” –

I hate you, God.

Love, Madeleine

I write my message on water

and at bedtime I tiptoe upstairs

and let it flow under your door.

When I am angry with you

I know that you are there

even if you do not answer my knock

even when your butler opens the door an inch

and flaps his thousand wings in annoyance

at such untoward interruption

and says that the master is not at home.

I cannot turn the other cheek

It takes all the strength I have

To keep my fist from hitting back

the soldiers shot the baby

the little boys trample the old woman

the gutters are filled with groans…

I’m turning in my ticket

and my letter of introduction.

You’re supposed to do the knocking. Why do you burst my heart?

I take hammer and nails

and tack my message on two crossed pieces of wood:

Dear God

is it too much to ask you

to bother to be?

Just show your hindquarters

and let me hear you roar.



What starts off like a cannonball blasted toward the stubbornly closed gates of heaven ends up landing with hoarse awareness: the fury driving her makes her own heart a target. I take hammer and nails and tack my message on two crossed pieces of wood. So then. Rage at the suffering in the cosmos inevitably illumines our own complicity. In that case, just let me see even a glimpse of your backside, God; let me hear your power roaring.

The years heavy with her writing were years of upheaval; chaos; swift change; suffering. Her thundering world gave way to these lines from “First Coming” –

He did not wait till the world was ready,

till men and nations were at peace.

He came when the Heavens were unsteady,

and prisoners cried out for release.

He did not wait for the perfect time.

He came when the need was deep and great.

He dined with sinners in all their grime,

turned water into wine. He did not wait

till hearts were pure. In joy he came…

We cannot wait till the world is sane

to raise our songs with joyful voice,

for to share our grief, to touch our pain,

He came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!

Whatever the pain, whatever the fear, whatever the work waiting to be done; whatever the mockery, whatever the fury, whatever the suffering – we cannot wait until the world is sane. Christ did not wait until the world was calm and well-mannered before he arrived; we cannot wait until the world is sane, we can’t pause for a more opportune moment to lift our voices, to rejoice.

L’Engle goads at every turn; upheaval is nothing new, no tradition can control it. Chaos, overwhelming loss, injustice, uncertainty – these are nothing new, no habits could contain them or master them. Millions of people around the globe would’ve been startled to realize last December that it would be one of the last calm or predictable months for a long time. Perhaps there was even a sense of boredom. In the absence – the stretching absence – of so much; in the absence of traditions, habits, routines, predictability, reasonable certainty, and guarantees, Madeleine L’Engle insists on the only stable reality: Creation, Collapse, Incarnation, Crucifixion, Resurrection. Even while she is screaming at God’s silence, ultimately she lands, too tired to be cautious, in this reality:

He did not wait till the world was ready.

We cannot wait till the world is sane.

Featured image photo credit: Sigrid Astrada

Kevin Watson ~ Review – John Wesley: Optimist of Grace

Henry H. Knight III’s John Wesley: Optimist of Grace is a book I would like to get into the hands of as many Wesleyan Methodist pastors and lay leaders as possible. Knight has written a remarkably accessible and concise introduction to John Wesley’s life and theology without sacrificing precision and nuance.

John Wesley: Optimist of Grace

As the subtitle suggests, the core theme of this book is John Wesley’s optimism of grace. For Knight, “It is this ‘optimism of grace,’ in connection with the goal of perfection in love, that gives Wesley’s theology its inner dynamic.” Wesley’s theology is “not only a theology of love and grace, but also at its heart a theology of hope, a promise of new creation in the midst of this present age” (xv).

Knight summarizes Wesley’s time in Georgia and his infamous relationship with Sophia Hopkey with particular nuance. Whereas Wesley’s time in Georgia has often been too neatly described as a failure, Knight points to things that Wesley learned:

His belief in the importance of societies for Christian growth was reinforced and deepened. He also became aware of the power of hymnody as critical to Christian formation and worship. And as he began to recognize that there was no single model of liturgy and discipline in primitive Christianity, his devotion to the early church could move from a legalistic precisionism to a more fruitful focus on apostolic faith, life and mission (14).

Knight also notes that Wesley returned from Georgia aware of continued need for growth in his own faith. “Wesley had not found the assurance he was seeking, nor had he attained the holiness he desired. His announced goal of going to Georgia, to save his own soul, was unmet” (15).

Similar nuance is also found in Knight’s summary of Wesley’s relationship to the Moravians, his famous experience at Aldersgate Street, and subsequent conflict with the Moravians. Knight’s summary of Wesley’s understanding of Christian perfection, controversy related to the teaching in the 1760s, and disagreement with his brother Charles over the doctrine is also a highlight of the book.

Knight also dedicates chapters to Wesley’s understanding of the means of grace and another to “relieving the distress of the neighbor.” His summary of the controversies in the last third of Wesley’s life is another place where Knight’s ability to concisely summarize complicated events stands out.

Several one-liners in the book highlight core concerns of Wesley’s. Here are three examples:

“The renewal of the Church occurs not through condemnation of others but through one’s own repentance” (124).

“For Wesley, it was the lack of holiness in the church that was the chief impediment to the reception of the gospel by non-Christians” (131).

“Grace at its heart is the power of the Holy Spirit; thus, we can approach God with an expectant, although not a presumptive, faith” (143).

John Wesley: Optimist of Grace is a part of the Cascade Companions Series, which is an imprint of Wipf and Stock. This series publishes “books that combine academic rigor with broad appeal and readability. They aim to introduce nonspecialist readers to that vital storehouse of authors, documents, themes, histories, arguments, and movements that compromise this heritage with brief yet compelling volumes.”

This book exceeds in accomplishing the goals of this series. And at a time when the quality of the book itself is increasingly suspect in parts of Christian publishing, this book is a welcomed exception. The design of the cover, the layout of the text, and the quality of the paper all contribute to the quality of the content itself, rather detracting from it.

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in John Wesley and the theological foundations of the Wesleyan tradition. You can pick up a copy of the book here.

Jeremy Steele ~ When You Don’t Know What to Pray: A New Resource

I’m going to confess something.  Sometimes I don’t know what to pray.  Sometimes it’s because I am facing a new, difficult situation, sometimes I’m looking in the face of someone hurting so deeply that my words don’t seem big enough, and sometimes I’m just distracted. 

This isn’t a new thing for me.  I’ve always had this problem.  I remember being in a prayer meeting as a teenager at youth camp sitting on a screened in porch in a metal folding chair. I was in awe of everyone else in the group.  Without any time to think of what they wanted to say, they would go on and on pouring their hearts out to God.  It was beautiful, but when it came my turn to say something, I stumbled over a couple sentences that sounded as confused as I felt.   

It was the same when I was by myself.  Often I would feel a deep hunger to pray, but when I tried, the words came out all wrong.  So, I asked a couple different mentors in my life what I should do.  The first told me I should keep a list of prayer requests.  My list quickly grew to a couple pages in my notebook, but I always felt weird just rattling off requests like God was some genie in a bottle. 

The other mentor said I should begin by naming things I liked about God, then thanking God for what God did in my life.  After that they said I should ask God anything I needed help with or wanted done, and then I could close the prayer by sitting in silence.  Though I got better the more I tried, I never felt fulfilled in that area of my spiritual life. 

It wasn’t until I was well into my twenties that I discovered that all of this was really one type of prayer: spontaneous prayer. And for many people, spontaneous prayer is not the best option in every (or even most) situations.   

That’s why for millennia, people have been writing prayers and compiling those prayers into prayer books. They offered those works as tools so that people who wanted to spend time communing and conversing with God had a sort of scaffolding on which to stand as they built their house of prayer. 

Beyond that there were many spiritual leaders who pioneered more contemplative approaches to prayer that helped people clear the clogged stream of their mind and rest in the presence of God. 

As soon as I discovered these beautiful prayer books and ancient, mystical prayer practices I couldn’t get enough.  I kept digging and reading and learning until what once was the most difficult aspect of my spiritual life was the most rewarding. 

Several months ago I began working on my own version of that scaffolding in the form of a new prayer book.  I began gathering old Christian Poetry, powerful Bible verses, and ancient prayer methods and putting them together into something new.  I created several prayer services for each day of the week that were written with a different time of day in mind (dawn, morning, afternoon, end of day and midnight).  I wanted people to be able to pick up the book at any moment of the week and have words to express their hearts to God. 

Then I sat down with a group of young adults and asked them to help me come up with a list of of the moments in life where they came up empty when trying to express their hearts to God.  Over many late nights I crafted words to do just that. 

After thousands of words, it became clear that there was one thing missing.  Sometimes we need less words.  Sometimes less words=more prayer.   The final movement of the book is a brief introduction to the mystical prayer practices that have lasted for many centuries and helped many spiritual pilgrims connect with their creator. 

The book is called The Book of Everyday Prayer, and it’s for everyone who, like me, needs more than what comes off the top of their head.  It’s for the teen, young adult and adult who are ready to claim old hymns, beautiful Bible verses and a new word or two as their own prayers.  It’s for all of us who need something to help us focus on God in those stolen moments in the parking lot or when we wake up earlier than we planned. 

It’s The Book of Everyday Prayer, and I hope it helps.  You can order it now here. 

This is reprinted with permission from www.jeremywords.com 


Fiction in the Pulpit: Preachers’ Favorite Books

Note from the Editor: Following our series of posts exploring theology and literature51b22z84kl-_sx331_bo1204203200_from Steinbeck and the prophet Jeremiah to Jane Eyre, Jane Austen and John Wesley to the poetry of Mary Oliver – we asked several pastors and preachers from various Wesleyan/Methodist denominations what works of fiction have had the biggest impact on them personally.

Here are some responses:

Probably something from childhood: A Wrinkle in Time, especially Meg Murray, feeling awkward but finding herself and fighting for love. – Dr. Beth Felker Jones 

516c6guqlal-_sx329_bo1204203200_Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God – Rev. Yvette Blair Lavallais

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens. I am now reading it to my boy. – Rev. Edgar Bazan

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelha, although there were a few books that I read as a kid that influenced me as well! Narnia series count? – Rev. Rob Lim

I think about Gilead by Marilynne Robinson a lot. – Rev. Jennifer Moxley 51hvstieoal-_sx289_bo1204203200_

The Little Engine That Could – Rev. Kelcy G.L. Steele

Hinds Feet on High Places. That would be my number one. – Rev. Carolyn Moore

*What works of fiction would you include? Leave answers in the comments below.

Wesleyan Accent ~ Excerpt: The Sound of Revival

Wesleyan Accent is pleased to share an excerpt from the recently published volume, “The Sound of Revival,” compiled by Rev. Kelcy G.L. Steele. Consider these words from Bishop W. Darin Moore:

As much now as ever, there is an urgent need for the clarion call of biblically sound, prophetic preaching. Everything around us is rapidly changing while leaving many confused and discouraged. This reality issues a challenge to return to the basics of preaching the Gospel of Christ in a way that is both countercultural and yet deeply relevant. Simply dusting off old sermons and sermon styles of the great preachers of bygone days won’t work. We need preachers who are able to exegete the Scriptures and the culture, seeking to proclaim the Gospel of liberation and redemption in the language of this generation. That’s prophetic preaching at its best!

The term “prophetic preaching” has different meanings for different audiences, so it’s important to clarify what those of us within The Freedom Church have in mind when we use it. Prophetic preaching is not fortune-telling, prediction of future events or even necessarily issues dealing with eschatology (end things). Rather than fore-telling, prophetic preaching is “forth-telling.” It is speaking forth God’s word to and for our community. This type of preaching is not motivational speaking or self-improvement lectures, it is preaching that calls people to live into God’s vision for justice, peace, and liberation. It names and confronts structures in whatever form they may be made manifest that marginalize, oppress, or devalue God’s creation.

Far too often our pulpits have been plagued with ritualized mediocrity and substance-less emotionalism that serve to entertain but fail to address the systemic and critical issues our people are struggling with.

Dr. Marvin McMickle issues to every preacher the challenge to rise up and boldly accept the mantle of prophetic preaching, declaring with the Prophet Isaiah, “Here am I; send me!” (Isa 6:8) “It is still our task to call people back from the worship of Baal and other idols, but we will need to attach twenty-first century identities to those false gods. It is still our task to demand that society care for ‘the lease of these’ among us, but we will have to attach twenty-first century names and faces and conditions to those persons.” He summarizes his proposal by claiming, “we need an understanding of prophetic preaching that matches the times in which we live: a postmodern, nuclear-terrorist, politically polarized, grossly self-indulgent age, in which all the world’s citizens reside in a global community.”


Bishop W. Darin Moore is a Bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion church.

Elizabeth Glass Turner ~ Good Reads

Sometimes in the frazzled frenzy of Life Every Day, you feel a tug to retreat even momentarily into an imaginary monk’s cell of silence for a sanity-saving minute of prayer or reflection or prayer and reflection – sometimes it’s hard to distinguish between the two.

If your soul and mind need quieted and fed at the bird feeder before flying off into the storm again, here are a few good reads from around the online meadow. Maybe one of them will sustain you in flight. Sparrows aren’t forgotten, no matter what tasks on your to-do list regularly slip your mind.

Eugene Peterson’s old “The Unbusy Pastor” has resurfaced. It is worth a(nother) read (click here) more than almost anything else that comes clunking into your inbox.

If I vainly crowd my day with conspicuous activity, or let others fill my day with imperious demands, I don’t have time to do my proper work, the work to which I have been called, the work of pastor. How can I lead people into the quiet place beside the still waters if I am in perpetual motion? How can I convincingly persuade a person to live by faith and not by works if I have to constantly juggle my schedule to make everything fit into place?

If I’m not busy making my mark in the world and not busy doing what everyone expects me to do, what do I do? What is my proper work? What does it mean to be a pastor? If I had no personal needs to be fulfilled, what would I do? If no one asked me to do anything, what would I do? Three things…

Dr. Timothy Tennent is revealing some interesting findings from 60,000 miles of travel. The Asbury Theological Seminary President has ministry experience on four continents and this past summer, he traveled to five. His thoughts on “Escaping the Fog” will have you reflecting over days and weeks.

When you walk into a vibrant church you can immediately sense the difference.  At every point you meet gospel clarity.  The church exudes confidence in the unique work of Jesus Christ.  They understand the power and authority of God’s Word.  They feel the lostness of the world and the urgency to bring the good news to everyone.   At every point you observe gospel clarity.

In contrast, when you walk into the churches in decline you are immediately brought into “the Fog.”  What is the fog?  It is the inability to be clear about anything.  There is no clarity about who Jesus Christ is and what He has done.  There is no clarity about the Scriptures as the authoritative Word of God.  There is no clarity about the urgency to reach the lost.   When you listen to a sermon, you go away shaking your head, saying, “What exactly did he or she actually say?”

As we edge closer to Ash Wednesday, these words from The Wesleyan Church General Superintendent Dr. Jo Anne Lyon are worth mulling over. In 2014, she spent time in Washington, D.C. fasting with people she had never met – an oddly anointed and overlooked communal discipline. Let us know how you incorporate some of these principles in your own church Lenten practices.

Do you need your wonder and imagination restored? A German forester has written a fascinating book – on trees. It turns out that while human nature is to miss the forest for the trees, this man’s knowledge illuminates the communal life of trees – their intricate networks and means of communication. In charmingly anthropomorphic language, he describes forest life – read the New York Times article about his journey caretaking forests. Close your eyes and think of J.R.R. Tolkein and, farther back, Eden. After all,

You will go out in joy
    and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and hills
    will burst into song before you,
and all the trees of the field
    will clap their hands…

-Isaiah 55:12

Sometimes it’s easy to feel smothered by the inevitable chronological egocentrism that defines our communal life together. In other words, we get near-sighted about topics that affect us and sometimes lose perspective due to our focus on our own lives. World Methodist Evangelism has put together a fun Pinterest page titled, “Roots Matter.” An eclectic collection of old photos, portraits, biographies, and Wesleyan Methodist “ephemera” stretches around the globe and across time. You might need to browse a moment over a photo of the first missionary in Korea to use a motorcycle (a Methodist) to regain perspective in time for that committee meeting about carpet colors.

Apparently at one point Wesleyan Methodists were known for their buns. And not just the circuit riders who spent all that time riding horseback. Cornish saffron buns (also known as “revel buns” or “tea treats”) are baked goods celebrated in Cornwall back to the point at which it was defined by tin mines. And it was Methodist groups and societies who baked the treats for the community for special events. Apparently, they were quite good with clotted cream on Good Friday. For a recipe with North American measurements, click here.

Elizabeth Glass Turner ~ When Preachers Read

“Read everything.”

Rev. Steve DeNeff, a pastor and well-known preacher and speaker in The Wesleyan Church, said this one day in my undergraduate homiletics class. He is an excellent communicator and taught a fascinating preaching class. At the end of the second semester, he presented students with a print of a pastor in a pulpit, surrounded by shadowy figures – prophets and leaders from familiar biblical texts. “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses…” it reads. It is an encouragement: you never step into the pulpit alone. Preachers are part of a fellowship of truth-speakers that stretches back across centuries.

“Read everything.” News stories, fiction and nonfiction books, magazines. It was practical advice – we had to assemble folders of cut-outs or printed pieces from the web or photocopied pages of books, a built archive of potential sermon illustrations that might work well as an introduction to a text or an illumination of a difficult principle.

“Read everything.” The advice was also given almost like a pronouncement, a warning, an exhortation: if you preach, you must know the culture in which you live and breathe. A lot of our cultural dynamics go unspoken – but if you read regularly, you will notice trends, changes, you will be aware of the atmosphere others breathe unconsciously.

Reading everything didn’t mean ignoring the scriptural text in a sermon: on the contrary, DeNeff made clear that a sermon that doesn’t reference the Bible after the initial reading isn’t a sermon. It’s a motivational speech. Rather, reading everything means voraciously pursuing every tool at your disposal to help communicate the Word of God.

So what happens when preachers read?

You gain perspective. If all you read is Tweets and football scores, your perspective will be limited. When you read the news (even skimming stories outside your usual areas of interest), you become aware of the big picture. If there’s any danger in church life, it’s becoming so wrapped up in your own denomination or geographical area that you forget to pop your head up and see what’s happening around you. Because most preachers also make hospital visits or review committee budgets or calm disputes or counsel troubled couples, it’s even easier to get so wrapped up in other areas that the habit of reading is seen as a luxury. If a preacher does read, it’s a book – often from their own denominational or traditional perspective – about leadership, ministry, or preaching.

Which is about the moment that we begin to get nearsighted. But when you read – whether hardback or Kindle or even audio book – you deliberately expose yourself to other times, to other places, to other voices. Reading Dickens will throw into sharp relief how much things have changed in just a short 150 years – and how much they’ve stayed the same. In a time when all news is “BREAKING!” headline, it’s valuable to get some perspective. How far have we come? Where was God faithful in the Middle Ages? What circumstances from 50 years ago might give us some wisdom as we face today?

You gain storytelling awareness. If you read or listen to classic fiction, you will inevitably become – at the least – a slightly better communicator. Writers read good writers. Reading a good writer makes you a better writer. Not all books are worth your time. Some of them are worth investing in, though. By reading “Moby Dick” or “Roots” or “The Violent Bear It Away” or even “Harry Potter,” you allow yourself to be a listener – a good discipline for speakers in itself – and to be swept up in the tide of the story itself.

Dr. Sandra Richter tells her Old Testament studies students to “tell the Story, and tell it well.” The more shy or inarticulate you are, the more I encourage you to read really good stories. They will help give you the words to express yourself.

You gain a disciplined mind by engaging new texts. Pastors have a lot of spinning plates, to use a familiar image. You’re busy. You’re subjected to the need for ruthless time management. But consider this benefit of reading fiction, nonfiction, news articles or poetry: you are subjecting yourself to the discipline of engaging new texts.

And that’s what you ask people to do every week.

Biblical literacy is at an astonishing low in North America: people who grew up in the pews are often unfamiliar with Bible stories and biblical themes. When you add people who did not grow up in the pews, even if you hand them a Gospel + Psalms, you are asking them to engage in reading that might, for them, be a challenge. Even listening to the Bible on your morning commute can be a challenge if you’ve never read it before.

Many pastors delegate Bible study to small group ministries. While whether actual Bible study actually happens in the fruit salad and coffee context of living room discussion is up for debate, it is the preacher’s job to proclaim the Word of God on Sunday mornings. And when you’re asking people to engage with the Word of God throughout the week, whether individually or in groups or through whatever book they’ve picked up at their local Christian book peddler’s, you should be willing to discipline yourself to read texts that are, for you, out of your comfort zone.

Reading one chapter of Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time” will probably remind you of how it can feel to encounter the Harry_Potter_and_the_Half-Blood_PrinceBible as a newcomer to the faith.

You gain sermons that grow beyond the surface. Truth pops up across history in many ways. There’s extraordinary wisdom about
human nature in Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.” You can dog-ear pages of “Watership Down” or even smile at “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” If I preach to a certain demographic of college students, I can communicate difficult Christological truths in a cultural shorthand with just one or two short quotes from “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.”

Many people need to move from the familiar to the alien, from concrete to abstract. Jesus knew this in his own preaching. To prophetically proclaim is to take people on a journey. When pastors read, pastors deliberately invest in looking for effective ways to communicate the truth of scripture. Engaging in classics not only allows you to use stories and images that will engage your listeners as you bridge them to the biblical text, but also allows you to engage listeners whose intellects will appreciate the connections you draw – say, between Naaman’s vulnerability to his soldiers as he bathed in the river, and the struggle for dominant tribal position illustrated in a jungle animal fight early in Kipling’s “The Jungle Book.”

You gain health. Preachers, you are as hungry after mental work as you are after physical work. Only you haven’t expended near as many calories. Which means you’re ravenous after you write or preach your sermon, even if you haven’t been chopping firewood or playing basketball. In other words – you may be sedentary and very hungry, a potentially problematic combination. That’s on top of having a job that elevates blood pressure and steals hours of sleep.

But reading can boost your memory and reduce your stress; neuroscientists have discovered that reading a novel increases your brain connectivity; when you’re ready to clobber a difficult church member, reading can help increase empathy. (Just maybe read a paper version and not a screen that emits light right before bed.)

So when you have to fill out a report on your wellness practices, you can include “reading” on the list.

Last week I encouraged everyone to take a nap.

But if you’re in a preaching rut or having trouble sleeping, I recommend a good book.


Kevin Murriel ~ A Conversation about “Breaking the Color Barrier”

Recently Wesleyan Accent had the pleasure of chatting with Dr. Kevin Murriel about his new – and timely – book, “Breaking the Color Barrier: A Vision for Church Growth through Racial Reconciliation.”

*What motivated and inspired this book, now? 

During my doctoral studies at Duke University, I wanted to research something that intersected the church and society–something that as a finished product would make a difference. I chose to research and write on racial reconciliation in American Christian life.  My mentor, Bishop Woodie W. White, during my time at Candler School of Theology spoke about the Mississippi Church Visit Campaign of 1964 during Freedom Summer. This initiative, led by Bishop White’s roommate at Boston University School of Theology, Rev. Edwin King, sought to desegregate white churches in Jackson, Mississippi. I am a native of Mississippi. So, I decided to use the methods Ed King and other leaders deployed as a model for racial reconciliation in the 21st century.

Also, this topic seemed fitting given the media coverage that the killings of unarmed black men and women in America has received since the Trayvon Martin case in 2012. America is in volatile condition regarding race relations and now, in 2015, the nation seems more willing (or more forced) to wrestle with race and its social, economic, and religious implications in our democratic society.

*I think the phrase “racial reconciliation” can be parsed out many ways depending on who is hearing it. What does it look like to you? (There’s a big difference to me, for instance, between merely coexisting vs sharing life together.)

Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, former President of Morehouse College and mentor to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., said that 11:00am on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week for Americans. Yet, we work together, eat at the same restaurants, and attend recitals and plays together. This, I believe, describes what you mean by coexisting. In other words, as long as we can be around each other without impacting our individual quality of life then we are content. That, however, is not how I view racial reconciliation. That’s desegregation.

Racial reconciliation as I describe in the book is about intentional community with an end goal in mind. That goal can be different depending on what one is seeking to accomplish. I argue that for Christians, our end goal should be more multicultural congregations due to the changing demographics of our country. In the next 25 years, America will look drastically different and our communities will be more diverse. Therefore, the Church must begin to mirror the diversity of our communities or suffer in the reality of decline. To move towards this goal, we must name what really keeps us divided–race.

We cannot argue that theological differences overwhelmingly divide us because Blacks disagree with Blacks on certain theological issues just like Whites, Latinos, and Asians do. The truth is that we enjoy and feel more comfortable worshiping with people who look like us. To break this trend for greater Kingdom growth requires engaging in difficult conversations about the racially divisive history that is the thesis of the American narrative and then we must work towards forgiving what has been. There then must be an intentional effort, primarily on behalf of Blacks and Whites, to move beyond the past and reconcile so that the institutional church in America can have a future.

*I love that you’ve approached this in synthesis with the desire for church growth. What has your research revealed about the relationship between racial reconciliation and church growth? On a more personal, intuitive level, what is your sense of church health and vitality when people come together to worship and “do life” together?

Based on my research, the churches that are growing and thriving are those who are intentional in their message, mission, and function about welcoming all people (and actually doing it). I visited a thriving church near Atlanta, Georgia a few weeks ago and what I witnessed shocked me and gave me hope at the same time. It was a truly multi-cultural/racial congregation. And they were thriving. Their pastoral team was multi-cultural/racial, their greeters, ushers, choir and band.  The congregational makeup was about 55% White, 40% Black, and 5% Hispanic. Everyone was friendly and you could feel the unity in the atmosphere. It was the closest I’ve seen to how I believe heaven will be.

I contend that when people come together without anger and with love and “life together” as the end goal, churches will be healthier and people will find that they have more in common. But again, this must be intentional. Society has changed from the 1960’s. There are more interracial dating and married couples than ever and our children are being educated in schools that are more diverse. Most people’s social media outlets are multi-cultural/racial. We are surrounded by diversity and have accepted it in our normal daily activity. Now is the time to do make it a reality in our churches.

*Sometimes I mourn that North American life seems to be so privatized rather than communal and shared, even in this age of social networking: we “network” from our private residences or vehicles. What does genuine, Spirit-filled community look like to you?

In short, genuine, Spirit-filled community, I believe, is the ability to love and accept everyone for the content of their character rather than the color of their skin.

*Have you served in primarily single race-predominate congregations? What are practical steps an average Wesleyan-Methodist tradition church could take to break the color barrier?

I have served in three predominately white congregations and three predominately Black congregations and each has the same issue–we want to worship with whom we feel comfortable and each has a way of stigmatizing the other. The interesting thing about each of the churches I’ve served is that they were each in communities that in the past five years became more diverse. From my experience in these contexts and my research, some practical steps for local churches and conferences to break the color barrier are:

1. The congregation must decide missionally who it wants to be. In other words, they must decide whether they want to be a church that welcomes people of all races or remain a homogenized church community.

2. Pastors of race-predominate congregations should host intentional ministry sessions to consider ways of being in ministry together in their local community. This is in line with our Wesleyan theology of connectionalism.

3. Conferences should mandate that clergy have diversity training and push programs that equip clergy and laity to have conversations about race.

4. Appointments in our Methodist system should truly be made without regard to race. And when pastor is appointed to a congregation where they are the minority, the congregation should go through a time of preparation to help with the transition to minimize potential cultural and racial insensitivity.

These are starting points. But the desire to be with people in intentional community is the foundation to breaking the color barrier.

*What do you wish White North American Christians better comprehended about being a Black North American Christian? Do you think there are any misconceptions about White Christians within the Black Christian community? 

I can only speak from my experience as a Black North American Christian and though there are many things I wish White North American Christians comprehended about being a Black North American Christian, the primary thing regarding racial reconciliation is that it will take White North American Christians leading in a significant way for reconciliation to occur. I think there are misconceptions from both groups. But with racial reconciliation, misconceptions must be corrected through honest dialogue. We often don’t worship together because we do not fully understand each other and how can we make a judgment on someone or a group that we do not know personally? All White people are not racist and all Black people are not lazy, unintelligible thugs. Unfortunately, society, in many ways, paints these distorted group pictures. In fact, Rev. Edwin King, the focus character of my book, is a White pastor leading and helping to organize black students to desegregate white churches. It is a beautiful story of how together we can bring about change and be the church that God envisions–a diverse Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.

*Fill in this sentence: “we will have broken the color barrier in North American congregations when: “All of God’s people celebrate diversity and join hands together in unity.”

Featured image courtesy Aaron Blanco Tejedor on Unsplash

Claire Matheny ~ Review: A Circle of Quiet

I am a part of a church book club that meets each month. A member nominates a book for the next gathering. This ensures that most of us read something we would never have picked on our own. And let’s be honest, with many of us torn between children and work, we barely get time to read. Our meeting gives us an excuse to skimp on laundry or stay up late for the worthy goal of discussion. We are pretty amenable; we read new and old books, fiction and nonfiction, a mix of spiritual and secular.

Book Group Discussion: “A Circle of Quiet” by Madeleine L’Engle

I couldn’t remember if Madeleine L’Engle had died.  I did not wish to know before I finished her 1972 journaling memoir, “A Circle of Quiet.” I knew it would change her words for me somehow to know that she is no longer a cohabitant on the planet.

I recall a special moment when I was in second or third grade. Madeleine L’Engle came to speak to us at school in our comfortable library. I remember sitting on my patch of deep blue carpet as Ms. L’Engle – though I think she might insist I call her Madeleine – read animatedly.

She speaks just as animatedly on these pages. Most times my fellow book readers and I forgave the dusty 40 years between us. However, given how much “Madison Avenue” and loveless sex distressed her, we could only imagine the horror with which she would encounter our current “overshare society,” devaluing much of the physical and spiritual mystery she champions.

I believe there was a part of each of us that longed to be seated at Crosswicks, the Connecticut home she owned with her husband, Hugh, and the setting of much of the journal. We wanted to plop down at that Bohemian house in the small town. We agreed that it would be nice to go where the apple pie may be burned, but where there is always laughter and understanding. Hers was that proverbial place where everyone knows your name and cannot help but know all your business. In order to keep her sanity, she takes refuge in solitude. She leads us out of doors where the chaotic swirl of a busy house is balanced by the calm of a hidden pond.

It was the interspersed passages about faith that made us take the most notice. It was amusing to think of her doubting the institution of the church, even as she led her local parish’s feeble choir. It was comforting to hear her criticism of Christians and still count herself among them. It was beautiful to hear her wax on about children’s literature, sensing the deep respect she has for the early years. She does not want evil to be so masked from children that when they are forced to face the downsides of life that they are ill-equipped to cope. She unwraps her own faith to show its vulnerability. This is the same faith that counts doubting and the ability to lay bare one’s weakness among its greatest strengths.

I enjoyed the journey she carved out for my reading group. And yet, I have no immediate desire to pick up her subsequent nonfiction. Perhaps I need to spend more reflective moments around my own pond before I will have the patience and curiosity to sit with L’Engle again. Early on in “A Circle of Quiet,” she describes the busiest years of life as the “tired thirties,” when the demands of child-rearing and vocation-launching consume each hour. It is clear as she writes that she is no longer in the mad dash of that decade.

I realize that every moment spent sitting with L’Engle’s imagination is one in which I am not sitting with my toddler reveling in hers. I am convinced that I do L’Engle the most honor by countering my reading with pure moments knee-deep in the mess of my daughter’s childhood. Perhaps I would do her even more honor by also dusting off my journal. Or, even better…by sharing here.

Upon finishing “A Circle of Quiet,” I did look to see that Madeleine has gone on to greater glory. I mourn her death even as it gives me hope. Over 40 years since she wrote this volume and still, she speaks. I am thankful for my second time on a square patch, pausing, soaking in her animation.