Once, when I was a grad student, living in Vancouver off of a part-time starbucks barista wage, I did not have money for christmas presents. So I decided to do what I love to do, have always loved to do, and do almost every day to this day which is, to tell people about books they might like. So I spent hours in libraries and bookstores and wrote up personalized annotated bibliographies for my family. Now, whether or not they liked this gift, I do not know – they are polite canadians after all. “ohhhhh woooowwww…..huh, look at that.” etc, etc. But it was what it was.
So as part of my practice of “taking stock” of my year, I have made a list of books I read that healed me, challenged me, grounded me and got my heart beating faster. They are all books that help to embody this faith, give it flesh, make it breathe. They are books that have helped “unmake and remake” (just like the work of Jesus) my own life. These aren’t all the books I loved and learned from this year, but definitely books I’ve noticed doing something in me long after I finished reading and that I find I’m coming back to over and over. These are books I would recommend and maybe you will love.
So here is the list, some old, some new, some were revisits, some are brand new to me. And I’m so open to your reading suggestions too! If you make it to the end, you get a prize!
1. In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership, Henri Nouwen
In his classic style of contrasting triads, Nouwen writes of the temptations of christian leaders and the call of christian leaders. It’s old, it’s simple, but it’s challenging, and what passes for ministry so much of the time is a far-cry from this and I’m not sure how to change other than being honest with myself. Also, it feels like good news to me.
“The mystery of ministry is that we have been chosen to make our own limited and very conditional love the gateway for the unlimited and unconditional love of God….The world in which we live-the world of efficiency and control-has no models to offer to those who want to be shepherd in the way Jesus was a shepherd….The leadership about which Jesus speaks is of a radically different kind from the leadership offered by the world.”
2. The Ministry of Ordinary Things, Shannan Martin
We read this in women’s group – it is easy to read and engage with. She lands on some beautiful places about what it means to live in your neighbourhood and love it (rather than your idea of church) that are sticking with me.
“Here’s what we’ve been slowly learning. Success is faithfulness. Our faithfulness. It’s a conclusion that can only be drawn as we put the theory to work, and let me tell you, the work is agonizing at times. It’s hard to remain committed to the growth quietly germinating underground….When it comes to loving and working for the good of our places, there is no other way. To obsess over positive outcomes is to miss the low simmer of redemption. The temptation to measure our effectiveness by the world’s standards causes us to prematurely declare defeat or success. It tempts us to only engage with people we fell will make us look good, plotting our interactions, our entanglements, our friends.”
3. The Very Good Gospel, Lisa Sharon Harper
I read this last year but came back again. She writes that this gospel is for the whole of life, not just the spiritual, the individual. And while the word Shalom is probably talked about in everyone of these books, this book gives a good, clear and honest offering of it – shalom in every part of our lives.
“So what is the vision? What was God’s original intent for our world and the relationships within it? What did God call good? What is the goodness that God is working to restore? As we begin this journey to live in the shalom of God’s Kingdom, I remember the words of my former pastor Dr. Ron Benefiel at the LA Church of the Nazarene. He would stand before the congregation on a Sunday morning and say, “I’m just a beggar, sharing with other beggars where I’ve found food.”
(note – I most likely am going to start saying this regularly)
4. Devotions: Selected Poems, Mary Oliver
I spent two months last fall reading these poems almost exclusively – using them as prayer and as wonder while on a news website/social media fast. (And my mental health was doing pretty good those two months….hmmm). I could quote so many incredible lines. But for now…
“Love for the earth and love for you are having such a long conversation in my heart. Who knows what will finally happen or where I will be sent, yet already I have given a great many things away, expecting to be told to pack nothing, except the prayers which, with this thirst, I am slowly learning.”
5. “In The Sanctuary of Women, Jan Richardson
A book of prayers and reflections from women across time and cultures. It is beautiful, profound and life giving. An example:
“..Recognizing and offering beauty is part of healing our brokenness…God is not yet done with the work of creating and that God calls us to offer our creative gifts for healing and feeding the world. And that is good news indeed.
Blessing: That we may make/of the sacred text/ a table in the wilderness/and a feast for the world.”
6. The Color of Compromise: The Truth About The American Church’s Complicity in Racism, Jemar Tisby
A history book for non-scholars. And a true book. And we need it. Not just in America – but everywhere. Where the church has pretended it didn’t see or participated in the denigration of other bodies, it has denied the gospel. There has been bad theology that has driven bad anthropology and bad policy and the Spirit is now saying, “times up – up you get, time to move forward into the light.”
“Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Mt.6:10). Christians have been mandated to pray that the racial and ethnic unity of the church would be manifest, even if imperfectly, in the present. Christ himself brought down “the dividing wall of hostility” that separated humanity from one another and from God (Eph. 2:14). Indeed reconciliation across racial and ethnic lines is not something Christians must achieve, but a reality we must receive.”
7. In the Shelter: Finding a Home in the World, Padraig O’Tuama
Reading the poet and theologian Padraig O’Tuama’s book (and prayer book too) felt the same as discovering Barbara Brown Taylor’s Altar in the World and Frederich Buchner’s Sacred Journey, or Chaim Potok or Marilynne Robinson. Heart-leap. It’s not only good – its right up there. He is a poet and theologian and brought these sensibilities as a facilitator for The Corrymeela Community in Ireland – a place for people on both sides of the deadly conflict to come together. His Jesus is powerful, present and his words beautiful. I literally can’t love it more. If you’ve been to my house, you’ve seen his phrase “Belonging, creates and undoes us, both.” written large on a sign on my fridge. It has been a touchstone for ministry and life for me.
“Whether by fact or fiction, it remains that for decades I have thought of the words, “You are here” and “Yes I am” as good places to begin something that might be called prayer….My being here is not dependent on my recognition of the fact. I am here anyway. but it might help if I could learn to look around.”
“The economy of this kind of border making creates concrete categories. If you are to be one of us, then you will act in this way. If we find that you act in another way, then it isn’t just that you aren’t one of us any more, its that you never were one of us in the first place. This is border-marking that puts mines at the borderlands. Its clear categorization is nurtured more by ideology – our idea of who we should be- than by the infinitely more complicate truth of who we actually are and what we have done.”
“Hello to the complicated art of belonging. And hello to our sharp words that lacerate and tear. And underneath all of that is the power of the idea of belonging. It creates and undoes us, both. If spirituality does not speak to this power, then it speaks to little.”
And from his Daily Prayer with the Corrymeela Community
“To pray is to imagine. And in imagining, we may imagine that we are imagined by something Bigger.”
8. Unsettling the Word: Biblical Experiments in Decolonization, ed. by Steve Heinrichs, Illustrations by Jonathan Dyck
This is a compilation of indigenous and settler writers who meditate on biblical texts, wondering if they can be heard in the spirit of truth, but apart from the lie of empire entwined with the words of gospel. The illustrations are incredible. The words will open new airways. And maybe close some other ones. It’s hard to quote this one, the context that comes from the familiar reading paired with an “un-settled” one is needed for full effect. But here is a pic. The illustrations are something else.
9. Playing God, Andy Crouch
I read this last summer and kept coming back to it. Its about power – the gift and the horror of it in our hands. What does God do with power? And there’s a phrase that Crouch uses – The Interruptible God – that I find joyful and good – even in conversations of power.
“The gospels that report Jesus’ rhythm of spiritual disciplines also reveal a remarkable ability to improvise and change plans on the spur of the moment (hence interruptible)… The purpose of every one of Jesus’ improvisations was the restoration of image bearing in places where it had been lost. He exercised his power to interrupt in other’s interests, never his own.”
10. She, Karoline M. Lewis
A book about what its like to preach, lead, pastor in a women’s body and what we need to think, discern and pray through to do it so well- much making of “mmhmmm” sounds while reading happened.
“Preaching is not simply about content but about embodied content. Preaching is a necessary act for understanding the theological promise of the incarnation. The Word becomes flesh again in the proclamation, incarnated anew in the body of the preacher and in the body of the congregation. To take the incarnation seriously means that we have to take our bodies seriously….It’s never just about what you say but how you say it.”
11. Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott
A reread that was life giving. I definitely needed to read about “Sh#%@y First Drafts” again.
“E.L. Doctorow once said that ” writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. you just have to see three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice about writing, or life, I have ever heard.”
12. The Truth About Stories, Thomas King
This was a Massey Lecture book, King is an indigenous author and thinker and writes about stories, the people who tell them, the people who own and get to shape stories and what happens when different stories about the same thing come into view.
“The truth about stories is that that’s all we are. The Nigerian storyteller Ben Okra says that “In a fractured age, when cynicism is god, here is a possible heresy: we live by stories, we also live in them. One way or another we are living the stories planted in us early or along the way, or we are also living the stories we planted-knowingly or unknowingly – in ourselves. We live stories that either give our lives meaning or negate it with meaninglessness. If we change the stories we live by, quite possibly we change our lives.”
We embody the stories we tell. Our society will look like the stories we tell. The hope I’m living in is that this church in this world can tell a better story – about power, about each other’s bodies, about joy and about shalom in this created good world than the one its been living out of for a long time. Because we do live in a better story – we’ve just forgotten how to tell it truthfully, hearing from ALL the tellers.
13. Starlight, Richard Wagamese
The only novel in the bunch! I read lots of novels but I do tend to choose lighter ones so that I can sleep. But this last story, like all his stories, is layered and loves the land we all live on with such tenderness and they always, always make me hopeful. Here’s a conversation in the book that I think about all the time – two friends talking about their friend who goes off into the wild alone.
“He ever say what he does all alone all that time?” “No. But I heard a word when I was growin’ up an’ they forced us to go to church. Communion, it was. Never found a place for that word to sit rightly in my head. Not ’til I met Frank least ways. It seems to me that communion means gettin’ right with somethin’, gettin’ close to it. Feelin’ like every part of ya fits with it all. That’s what he does out there. Communion.” She stared at him across the fire…”I’ve never felt right with nothin’ all my days,” Emmy said. Roth nodded and poked at the fire. “Might be that’s how come you’re here.” ” You think?”
14. Announcing the Reign of God: Evangelization and the Subversive Memory of Jesus, Mortimer Arias
This was a reread from grad school days and a course on church. The book, vitally and importantly is from a different location than mine (he was imprisoned in Bolivia in the 80’s and a lot of this book came to him during that time). It is about the kingdom and asks, why is kingdom language gone from theology and from the mission of the church. And he’s not talking kingdom as empire – but kingdom as Jesus lived and embodied it.
“We have made the Lord’s Supper into an esoteric celebration for an in-group instead of a public proclamation and an open invitation. One of these days we may discover that the Eucharist celebration every fourth Sunday is not just a spiritual banquet for believers but a powerful event in our congregation. Possibly we will risk interpreting the invitations, “Take, eat” and “take, drink” as the most meaningful evangelistic call…Surely the open table is much more than “eucharistic hospitality.” It means open homes, open churches, and open communities.”
15. The Art of Gathering, Priya Parker
This is the only non-theological book in the bunch! Its a book on how and why we gather in groups – all kinds of groups – and why the “how” of our gatherings is important. I was deeply challenged on “hosting” and why being a chill host, stepping back and not consistently shaping the gathering, is actually deeply anxiety producing in our guests and usually gets in the way of what the gathering is trying to do – which in all different ways should be to build community. I was challenged to host and shape gatherings better at church, in my home and I’m noticing what good gatherings do and what gatherings that don’t work do. (hint- physical space is key, consistent engagement from the host is key, knowing the deep question a specific gathering has is key, etc).
16. Planted: A Story of Creation, Calling and Community, Leah Kostamo
“I’m not sure where we got the idea that creation is the possession of people, but it sure isn’t the message of the bible.”
“Hope if its true, runs deep with taproots nourished by a subterranean grace that flows strong and swift despite outer circumstances. It is what keeps us going.”
Kostamo and her husband started A Rocha Canada, a christian conservancy group in BC that does education, internships, farming, sustainable stewardship. The book is lovely and easy to access and kind and strong. After a very tiring year, it was like a drink of cold, good water for me.
17. Prayer: Forty Days of Practice, by Justin Mc Roberts and Scott Erikson
A book of simple but profound prayers, reflections and pictures. It is a joy – here are some examples,
“May I cease to be annoyed that others are not as I wish they were, Since I am not as I wish I was.”
“May I have vision and Courage to join God in the places He’s already working rather than feel responsible for bringing Him with me.”
“May I have the courage to give my darker moments a place in my process, knowing that they are only a part and not definitive.”
“May the depth and energy of my criticism be at least equaled by the depth of my commitment to help.”
…and so on. Here’s a picture.
18. Telling the Truth, Frederick Buechner
One of my foundational books, I re-read this and was struck by how how much it is about preaching, speaking, embodying the truth of what is going on here. I didn’t really hear that the first time through (17 years ago!). But now, you know, I did.
“Let the preacher tell the truth. Let him make audible the silence of the news of the world with the sound turned off so that in that silence we can hear the tragic truth of the Gospel, which is that the world where God is absent is a dark, echoing emptiness; and the comic truth of the Gospel, which is that it is into the depths of his absence that God makes himself present in such unlikely was and to such unlikely people that old Sarah and Abraham and maybe when the time comes, Pilate and Job and Lear and Henry Ward Beecher and you and I laugh until the tears run down our cheeks. And finally let him reach this overwhelming tragedy by comedy, of darkness by light, of the ordinary by the extraordinary, as the tale that is too good not to be true because to dismiss it as untrue is to dismiss along with it that catch of the breath, that beat and lifting of the heart near to or even accompanied by tears, which I believe is the deepest intuition of truth that we have.”
All of these books speak to an embodied faith – a fleshed out, on the ground faith, responding to a fleshed out, on the ground gospel. And all these books in part, in this season, took their turns to heal me, challenge me, ground me in The Story that keeps circling me back into its goodness.
I hope some of them speak to you too.
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