Disappearing Religions of the Middle East

Gerard Russell is the author of the newly published Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms, which explains & details the disappearance of seven religions in the Middle East.  Russell was a diplomat in Iraq from 2005-2006.

Russell’s book provides a view into more of the history behind the tribes of people – such as the Yazidi’s.  The Yazidi’s, and other unique tribes have been persecuted for thousands of years in the Middle East & most recently have been persecuted & driven from their homes by ISIS, victims of the Syrian civil war.  Many of those  who have been lucky enough to survive are living in UN-issued tents in Iraqi Kurdistan while the unrest in the region unfolds.

But who are these people & what is their faith?  How has this group managed to survive this long?

Here is an in-depth interview completed by NPR that is well worth a listen.

You can read an excerpt of the book here.

Some of these religions predate Christianity by thousands of years – to Babylon & Assyria.  Now their extinction is threatened as never before in this volatile modern world.  What can we do as a congregation to help preserve these threatened ancient faiths?

First Church Book Club Suggestions!

Let’s face it.  Winter in Massachusetts is LONG and not that easy most years.  Rather than silo in our houses until church on Sunday, we can meet together during the weeks for ongoing book clubs.  There is talk of having several book clubs going on at First Church in tandem.  This way, many different interests will be captured.  We may be reading Women in Waiting by Julia Ogilvy, a story of gender bias at the heart of Church life.

My personal favorite is A Prayer for Owen Meany, which I would love to read again – it has been too long!  Owen Meany begins with this great line (sure sign of a great book, when it begins with a great line, right?):

I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was an instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.

Books that we choose for First Church book clubs should represent a wide variety of depth & interest levels.  Let us remember that it is good to enjoy reading for the pleasure of reading.  We can balance the intellectual with pure pleasure across a range of choices, something for everyone.  Youth & Adults are invited to supply suggestions.  What books would you like to read, or reread with our church family?  What features on a website do you think would be helpful?

Please leave your ideas comments & suggestions below.

Delving into the Darkness with Barbara Brown Taylor

Earlier this week, Judy Ebeling passed me an article on Barbara Brown Taylor‘s new memoir, Learning to Walk in the Dark.

In this book, Taylor asks us to rethink the notion that “dark” should be associated with “evil”, and conversely that “light” should be associated with “good”.  The tendency toward this juxtaposition is perhaps especially evident in the season of Easter.  “Easter lilies, the sound of trumpets and bright streaming light” can mask the fact that the Resurrection itself occurred in a dark cave.

Rather than view darkness as a problem to be overcome, Taylor urges us to welcome the spiritual insight and growth attending those dark periods in our lives.  The book Taylor relates a series of her own “dark” life experiences.  She also asks her readers to reexamine various Biblical passages that enrich our understanding of the dark.

“We are supposed to get over it, fix it, purchase something, do whatever it takes to become less sad,” she says.  “Turning into darkness, instead of away from it, is the cure for a lot of what ails me.”

“If you are in the dark,” says Taylor, “it does not man that you have failed and that you have taken some terrible misstep.  For many years, I thought my questions and my doubt, my sense of God’s absence were all signs of my lack of faith, but now I know this is the way the life of the spirit goes.”

I regret that I have not read this book (yet), so our formal rooster rating must wait.  If there is anyone out there who would like to contribute a formal review of this book, that would be greatly appreciated.  I would note, that if you click the image of the book cover in this article, you will note that the book is currently available in an audio edition, as well.  There is also some nice dialogue on the book on Barbara Brown Taylor’s Facebook Page, for your review & reflection.

Peace to you on this blessedly dark morning.  May you find God dwelling in the shadows.


A Review of Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint


I downloaded Nadia Bolz-Weber’s book during our Spiritual Autobiography sessions a few weeks ago.  I was looking for examples of other people’s spiritual autobiographies, because (true to form) I was procrastinating writing one myself.


Nadia Bolz-Weber with Tats Covered (mostly).

Nadia Bolz-Weber (@sarcasticluther) is the founder & leader of a progressive church in Colorado called The House for All Sinners & Saints.  As Bolz-Weber proclaims, Jesus’ kingdom is “ruled by the crucified one and populated by the unclean and always found in the unexpected.” She’s buff, she’s bold, she’s progressive, she’s heavily tattooed and she has a really foul mouth.  (Possibly even more foul than mine.)  She’s also an alcoholic and addict, sober by the grace of God for over 20 years.  Married & the mother of two children, Reverend Nadia tells her personal story in frank detail.  Her story, like the story of each of us, is of death & resurrection, over & over again.

Reverend Nadia’s story is a compelling one, about the grace of God & the salvation that comes with choosing to pursue the road of faith.  I admired the way that she describes her journey, making it clear that despite her accomplishments, she is at base the same flawed and problematic creature she has always been.

How was she led astray in her early years?  By doing what we all do in varying degrees: adopting a persona, a false identity.  At some point, she decided that she would die young, and behave really irresponsibly on her way there.  This persona was like a new outfit she was trying on for ha-ha’s, and she liked the look of it.  “I had tried it on, spun around in the mirror, and decided I would choose this look, this image, this identity.  But eventually, and without my realizing it, the ability to choose had gone.  I had become what at first I had only pretended to be.”

Woops.  Trying on this identity ended up being more like that horror movie where the person puts on the Halloween mask & it won’t come off.  She was lost along the way, her “show” identity taking over her existence, or at least threatening to.

This idea of identity reminded me of this mock trial training.   (I was working as a lawyer then.)  There was this guy making a closing argument.  He referred to the opposing party’s “thin veneer”.  It was supposed to be a way of questioning his credibility.  The judge stopped him mid sentence and said, “‘Thin veneer’?  Don’t say that.  You’ll alienate the jury.  Everyone has a thin veneer.”  The simple truth of that statement has stayed with me.

Photo by Courtney Perry

Photo by Courtney Perry

In Reverend Nadia’s case, the ‘thin veneer’ was really destructive, and she was lucky to survive.  But really, we are all in the same boat, just to varying degrees, with different details in the story.  The good news is, that when we try on personas like outfits, we aren’t doing a thing to change the fact that the grace of God is ours for the taking.

“Identity”, says Bolz-Weber, “It’s always God’s first move.  Before we do anything wrong and before we do anything right, God has named and claimed us as God’s own.”  It’s when we start questioning the name God has given us that we get into trouble.

In a chapter titled, “Dirty Fingernails”, we are asked to contemplate Mary Magdalene’s experience at Jesus’ tomb that first Easter morning.  There is the part of the story in which Mary cannot recognize Jesus by sight, and only upon hearing the sound of his voice does she make the connection that this is her Jesus.  In fact, she thinks he might be a gardener at first.

A common explanation for why it was hard for Mary, and others, to recognize the resurrected Jesus is that the resurrection is a mystery, a spiritual miracle that we cannot possibly fully comprehend or grasp.   The resurrected Jesus is usually pictured with squeaky clean robes & light emanating all around him, sometimes floating off the ground a bit.

“(P)erhaps”, Bolz-Weber suggests, “Mary Magdalene thought the resurrected Christ was a gardener because Jesus still had dirt from his own tomb under his nails.”  Think about those times in your own life when you were “made new” by God.  Those periods when you hit a wall and needed to make a change.  Those times when you heard God, and agreed to follow the path set before you.

“Resurrection never feels like being made clean and nice and pious like those Easter pictures…  New doesn’t always look perfect.  Like the Easter Story itself, new is often messy.”

This book is a quick read, and definitely worth your time.  Lots of food for thought.  There are many themes and ideas in this book that I will continue to contemplate, read and reread.  Delving into this book was a good spiritual barometer.  There is always room to be more accepting, more welcoming.  If we’re being honest with ourselves, despite our ‘thin veneers’ and dirty fingernails, we know that Jesus doesn’t let us get comfortable for long.

I give this book:

Four Roosters: Very Good

Four Roosters: Very Good