Month: March 2021

Spiritual Disciplines Handbook | Q&A with Adele Ahlberg Calhoun

In the Bible, we read about a young man named Daniel. A foreign military invaded his home city of Jerusalem. They burned all the buildings, killed many of the people without regard for age (2 Chronicles 36:17), and sexually assaulted many of the women (Lamentations 5:11). The attacking army put the survivors in chains and forced them to walk to Babylon. Daniel was among this group of captives.

If I had been in Daniel’s situation, I doubt I would have seen my years in Babylonian captivity as an opportunity for spiritual growth and deepening of trust in God, especially after I had just witnessed many friends and family get assaulted and killed back home. Perhaps many of the captives didn’t. But Daniel and a few others didn’t merely endure captivity in Babylon (including plots to kill them and changes of identity meant to insult them) but grew in their trust in God.

A major reason Daniel was able to deepen his relationship with God in the face of such adversity to spiritual disciplines. He may not have called it that, but he practiced spiritual disciplines, notably prayer, trust, and fasting. He persisted in his commitment to prayer even when praying to God became illegal. Violators would be executed. That’s why they tried to feed Daniel to lions.

When many of us think of spiritual disciplines, we think of Bible study, prayer, fasting, worship, and a few others. Those are all great ones to commit to, but there are many more that we can consider incorporating into our lives.

In Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, Adele Ahlberg Calhoun defines a spiritual discipline in the subtitle of her book: practices that transform us. Of course, many practices can transform us, but Calhoun covers 75 Christian spiritual disciplines including gratitude, rule of life, detachment, simplicity, waiting, mentoring, truth-telling, prayer walking, and journaling. With each spiritual discipline, Calhoun has crafted an accompanying desire. Here are some examples:

Discipline: Simplicity
Desire: to uncomplicate and untangle my life so I can focus on what really matters

Discipline: Forgivness
Desire: to live into Jesus’ forgiving heart and stop the cycle of vengeance

Discipline: Memorization
Desire: to carry the life-shaping words of God in me at all times and in all places

Discipline: Teachability
Desire: to remain a lifelong learner who is continually open to the fresh wind of the Holy Spirit

Discipline: Sobriety
Desire: to live with moderation and full attachment to God–without dependence on substances that are harmful to my life

Chart is on pages 13-16 of Spiritual Disciplines Handbook.

You can view a table listing the 75 spiritual disciplines paired with their corresponding desire in the free preview portion of the book on Amazon.

Unlike many other books, I don’t recommend reading Spiritual Disciplines Handbook starting at the front cover and reading until the conclusion. Instead, the reader should treat it as a resource, reading sections they feel drawn to in a given season of life. It’s not a book you read and are done with, but a resource that keeps feeding you as you return to it each time. The table of disciplines/desires in the first few pages of the book can help the reader determine where to start.

Here is how Calhoun organizes each section on a spiritual discipline (I will use the discipline Confession and Self-Examination as the example here): first, Calhoun provides a table that includes the desire associated with the discipline, scriptures that encourage or show examples of the discipline (Psalm 139:23-24 is the first she lists for Confession and Self-Examination), a bullet-point list of what the practice includes (“admitting to God the natural propensity to rationalize, deny, blame and self-obsess”), and a list of examples the fruit that comes from God when one participates in the discipline (“gaining insight into your temptations and God’s work in your life”).

Calhoun then provides an opening reflection on each spiritual discipline. The reflection on Confession and Self-Examination is five paragraphs long which is pretty typical of the sections. She then lists several reflection questions and spiritual exercises that helps one implement the discipline. Here are fragments from Confession and Self-Examination:

From Opening Reflection:
Confession may be good for the soul, but it can very hard to do. We are invested in looking like good moral people. After all, appearing good is one way of dealing with the notion that something is wrong with us…
…The truth is that we all sin…
…True repentance means we open the bad in our lives to God. We invite him to come right in and look at our sin with us. We don’t hide behind being good, moral people or indulge in neurotic self-recriminations. We don’t pretend to be other than we are… In the presence of the Holy One we give up on appearing good and fixing our sin. We lay down our ability to change by the power of self. We turn to Jesus and seek forgiveness.

From Reflection Questions (one of five):
Does your confession tend to be along the lines of “Forgive my sins, dear Lord” rather than specifically naming your sins one by one before the face of God?
What does the lack of specific confession to do self-awareness?

From Spiritual Exercises (one of ten):
Enter into a covenant group or an accountability relationship where you cannot hide. Tell the truth about who you are and ask your partners to pray for you…

Quotes are from Spiritual Disciples Handbook pages 102-103.

If an incarcerated reader who is serious about spiritual growth were only allowed a few books on his or her shelf, I would strongly recommend that the Spiritual Disciplines handbook be one of them. Calhoun’s gifted style of writing compels the reader to reflect and act. Best of all, the book challenges the reader to deepen his or her relationship with God.

But when thinking about spiritual disciplines, it’s important to keep in mind these words from Douglas Rumford (who Calhoun quotes in her book): “In themselves, spiritual disciplines can do nothing; they can only get us to a place where something can be done.”

Click here to view Spiritual Disciplines Handbook on Amazon.

Q&A with Adele Ahlberg Calhoun, author and spiritual director:

Question: In the Bible, Daniel continued his spiritual practices such as fasting and prayer while in captivity and it seems he even grew spiritually during that time. How do you think Daniel’s commitment to spiritual disciplines during captivity helped shape the path of his life?
Calhoun: Spiritual practices make room for God to show up in our life.  Prayer is a practice that intentionally opens us to the presence of Jesus.  Singing, making music, praising God — all open us up to more of God.  Reading the bible, forgiving our enemies, working for justice, serving others — are all spiritual practices.  They aren’t something we get perfect — they are simply ways we learn to live like Jesus.  And through seeking Jesus we change.

Question: There are so many ways to think about time spent during incarceration and many of them are negative. Do you believe that, while acknowledging the pain of incarceration, that imprisonment can be a time for spiritual growth? 
Calhoun: Suffering and pain. Incarceration and isolation.  Nobody wants them.  Yet I have found that times of difficulty offer me agency.  I can either constrict around my pain and make it the most interesting there is about me.  (And when I do that I live in the past — with a narrative that is often about being a victim.)  OR I can open myself to God and others.  I can choose to live in the past or I can choose to seek God where I am.  God can come into your darkness.   Jesus, God in person, comes to earth to show us how to live, forgive, and love.  Just look at his life and the cross and you will see that though you and I are imperfect we are also worthy of love and belonging.    

Question: Of the 75 spiritual disciplines you write about in the Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, are there a few that you may especially recommend to someone in prison?
Calhoun: Spiritual practices are not generic like an aspirin. If you have a headache, or a fever, or an ache, you can say, “here take an aspirin.” Spiritual practices fit the person you are now.  Some people will find the spiritual practice of gratitude a practice that helps them focus on God’s goodness to them. Others may find worship and song give them access to God’s love more easily. Still others may find bible reading or service ways they open up to God.   
So choose a practice that opens you up.
Make a list of everything you are grateful for.
sing and make music and worship God
Serve others
Read Scripture
Pray for others
Be a spiritual friend to someone
Practice being present to God
Practice kindness and control of your tongue
Have a breath prayer that you say to remind you that Jesus is present with you.  

God and The Pandemic | Q&A with N.T. Wright

I recently watched a post-civil war era movie about a soldier whose wife died of illness while he was at war. Toward the end of the movie, he’s reflecting with a friend, years later, about his wife’s death. He seemed certain that her death was “God’s curse” for him, passed along to her as punishment for what he had done in life and in war. 

The main character’s friend, on the other hand, suggested that God had nothing to do with the woman’s death. He said: “She just got sick.”

It’s natural, when tragic events occur, for people to assign some role to God. The characters in the movie expressed two views of God’s role in someone’s death: 1. God caused it, and 2. God had nothing to do with it.

Had there been more characters in the scene, more people could have weighed in with other suggestions: the woman’s death was part of God’s bigger plan or greater purpose, God was saving her from something in the earthly future (they could use Isaiah 57:1 to back this idea up), or God was simply “calling her home.” The suggestions of God’s role (or lack of role) in her death could go on and on.

In God and the Pandemic: A Christian Reflection on the Coronavirus and Its Aftermath, N.T. Wright provides biblical structure to help readers process the question of God’s role as it relates to the global pandemic. Although vaccines have provided plenty of reason for optimism, thousands still are still dying every day from COVID-19. The virus has hit prisons especially hard. Toward the end of 2020, PBS reported that 1 in 5 incarcerated people in the United States had the virus. At the time of this writing, the virus has killed 2.7 million people worldwide. “Where is God in all of this?” is a fair and natural question.

Wright begins the book by describing many of the common interpretations of God’s involvement in tragic events. Everything from “this is the end” to “this is an opportunity.” The first chapter is a reminder that we can’t box God into one idea of how he responds to or initiates events in the world.

Then, Wright addresses teachings from the Old Testament that show God’s response to crisis. It would be easy to look at any one Old Testament passage alone and draw all of our assumptions about God’s involvement in tragic events from there. But Wright offers a well-rounded view of Old Testament judgment and grace.

The crucial part of Wright’s discussion arrives in the chapter about Jesus. He emphasizes how it’s essential, in a personal or worldwide crisis, to understand the situation through the lens of Jesus’ sovereignty–and to understand Jesus’ sovereignty in light of his own death and resurrection:

A lot of the talk about “What is God doing in the coronavirus pandemic” assumes that God is “sovereign,” and it assumes what that “sovereignty” will mean. Jesus, though, was unveiling a different meaning of divine sovereignty. This is what it looks like, he was saying as he healed a leper, or as he announced forgiveness on his authority to a penitent woman. This is what it looks like, he was saying as he celebrated parties with all the wrong people. This is what it looks like, he was saying as he went up to Jerusalem that last time and solemnly announced God’s final judgement on the city, the system, and the institution – the Temple – that had refused God’s way of peace. This is what it looks like, he said as he broke bread on the last night with his friends. This is what it looks like, he said as he hung on the cross, with the words “King of the Jews” above his head…This is what it looks like, he was saying three days later to his astonished friends in the upper room…
…Trying to jump from an earthquake, a tsunami, a pandemic or anything else to a conclusion about “what God is saying here” without going through the Gospel story is to make the basic theological mistake of trying to deduce something about God while going behind Jesus’ back…
…The point is this. If you want to know what it means to talk about God being “in charge of ” the world, or being “in control,” then Jesus himself instructs you to rethink the notion of “kingdom,” “control” and “sovereignty” themselves, around his death on the cross.

God and the Pandemic. Quotes from pages 20-21, 23, and 25.

In the last couple of chapters of his short (76 pages) book, Wright lays out what practical responses are to a crisis for a Christian. He does this in light of Jesus’ teachings and the rest of the New Testament. These chapters will be particularly meaningful to the incarcerated reader who is not only processing the pandemic but the ongoing crisis and trauma of imprisonment as well.

God and Pandemic would be best for a reader who has prior knowledge of the Bible since it’s not meant to be an introduction to scripture.

Click here to view God and The Pandemic on Amazon.

Q&A with N.T. Wright, author and Senior Research Fellow at Wycliffe Hall at the University of Oxford:

Question: The pandemic has hit some prisons especially hard. What words about God do you have for prisoners who have suffered physically and emotionally (unable to have physical visits from loved ones) due to the pandemic? 
Wright: Isolation and sickness are terrifying. God has promised ‘I am with him in trouble; I will deliver him and bring him to honour’ (Ps 91). And Ps 23 is of course always important: even if I walk through the dark valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me. All these come amazingly true in Jesus, who is God-with-us and comes to the darkest place so that God will indeed be with us there.

Question: What story of someone in the Bible who was in prison is most meaningful to you and why? 
Wright: The story of Joseph in prison in Genesis is very important: despite the fact that he’s been unjustly treated, Joseph comes through and by the end of the story he appears as the true Wise Human who brings rescue and hope — and, right at the end, reconciliation.

Question: Why should people in prison read scripture on a daily basis?
Wright: Scripture is like food and drink. Without it you lack the energy to face the day with wisdom and courage and hope.

Question: If you met someone in prison who had never read scripture before, where would you suggest they begin? 
Wright: I would suggest starting with the four gospels, and Psalms. So many of the Psalms are written from places of real distress.  And in the gospels one of the most important characters, John the Baptist, is the primary witness to Jesus and he ends up in prison . . . on death row as it turns out . . . But of course Paul was in prison when writing four of his letters. Of these, perhaps Philippians is the most joyful.


One of my professors once compared reading to eating. He reflected on his own diet and said that if he keeps eating only fast food, he knows what will happen to him. He talked about the way it’s challenging for him to eat healthy, but he knows it’s beneficial when he does. My professor then said the same thing about reading: sometimes he only wants to ingest easy reading material that won’t prompt him to think or grow. But he recognized that reading material that challenges him to reflect (on new concepts, on whether he agrees or disagrees, on his own life, etc.) is healthy for his intellectual and spiritual growth.

All of us, incarcerated or not, need to read regularly. Reading can inspire creativity, challenge our own assumptions, expand our worldview, grow our vocabulary, and grow spiritually.

The Purpose of Prison Book Review

The purpose of this website is to provide book recommendations for people to consider sending to their loved ones or friends who are in prison. Reading is a crucial experience for people in prison or jail. Whether they’re reading letters, news, magazines, or books, what people in prison read impacts their prison experience. I hope the books on this website will help the prison or jail sentence of your loved one become more productive time. I also hope that if you read the books too they will spark healthy discussion between you and your loved one.

Types of Books

Most of the books I review on this website will be Christian non-fiction. I won’t recommend books that weaponize scripture, use fear-based appeal, promote racial prejudice, teach exclusion based on sexual orientation, or promote the concept of a prosperity gospel. I will tend to recommend books that present multiple perspectives on a given topic, are grace-oriented, are personable in style, and are written from a posture and tone of humility. The books will vary in terms of reading level and assumed knowledge of the reader by the author. I will also try to review mostly books available in paperback since many jails and prisons will not allow hardcover.

In addition to book reviews, I will occasionally post interviews with people who, because of their areas of expertise, will have helpful insight and advice for people in prison and their families. Feel free to print those or any post to mail to a friend or loved one in prison.

About Me

I am a full-time minister to young adults at a church in the Kansas City area. My wife, Rachel, and I have three children. I enjoy writing and reading. I understand the pain of having a loved one who is in prison, which is what drove me to write my first book. I was arrested twice as a teen because of drug abuse problems and appreciate a human’s capacity to change behavior through the transformative power of the Spirit.