My Year With Books

How long is a year? A few days ago our oldest son counted off the few remaining days until the beginning of a new year and that remaining time seemed both impossibly short and interminably long. We sat around the dinner table that same evening wondering about whether our boys might begin the semester online rather than returning to their classrooms. Should our church take a break from in-person worship for a couple of Sundays, returning to the less-than-ideal days of virtual church? This year has seemed very long.

This summer, just before the boys made their return to school after the long disruption, I picked up two books which had been written during the pandemic. Zadie Smith’s Intimations and Notes on Grief by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie both take some aspects of our shared sorrow as their backgrounds. For Adichie the pain is especially pronounced; her beloved father died at a moment of global lock-down. Her searing and specific reflections of those days were a reminder of how these pandemic days have left their mark on each of us, even if the impact is not proportionately felt. Mostly these authors left me in awe that from the eye of the storm they were already making some kind of tentative meaning of it.

Making meaning of these past two years has been a pervasive temptation for me. I want to stand in front of our congregation and say something insightful, something which helps us to pull back the veil of chaos and reveal something we can make sense of. The temptation is to say more than is possible to say and to say it far to quickly. It wasn’t intentional, but thankfully I read a number of books that chastened this instinct: Soul Care in African American Practice, A Spiritual Formation Workbook, Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church, Planting a Church Without Losing Your Soul, and A Beautiful Disaster by Marlena Graves. In their own ways, each of these was a warning against prescriptive language. No matter how much I might want to be useful, the Christian instinct in these sorts of days is simpler; we are asked to describe to God and one another our daily experience of trouble and joy and to trust that God is present to each no matter how small or spectacular.

Two of these sorts of anchoring books were especially helpful. St. John Chrysostom wrote the sermons found in On Wealth and Poverty sometime in the late fourth century from his position in Constantinople. Each of the sermons takes the parable of the rich man and Lazarus as its text to show the dangers of wealth to his congregation. For example, “As for you, my beloved, if you sit at table, remember that from the table you must go to prayer. Fill your belly so moderately that you may not become too heavy to bend your knees and call upon your God.” The latter sermons were delivered after an earthquake hit the city, leaving the people fearful and questioning God’s intentions. While the archbishop is much quicker to explain God’s motives behind the disaster than I could ever be, his love for his people, particularly the vulnerable, in the middle of such a painful time is obvious. He asks, “When the earthquake came, I reflected with myself and said, where is theft? Where is greed? Where is tyranny? Where is arrogance? Where is domination? Where is oppression? Where is the plundering of the poor? Where is the arrogance of the rich? Where is the domination of the powerful? Where is intimidation? Where is fear?”

About a thousand years latter St. John of the Cross wrote The Dark Night of the Soul. In it he reflected on the seasons of spiritual distance many Christians feel between ourselves and God. Framing these experiences as a divinely ordained part of the process of spiritual maturation, St. John suggests that there isn’t much to do during these times other than to accept the desolation as part of a good God’s plan to make us less dependent on our own experiences and more at rest in the simple reality of God’s presence with us.

Both of these St. Johns ask us to believe in the goodness of God under great duress. Poverty, earthquakes, the dark night, and the the like become fertile ground for a faith stripped of its unnecessary supports. There has been a lot of talk about deconstructing faith this year and I’m not the person to add much to that conversation. I am, however, convinced that too many of our Christian traditions have forgotten the hard-won wisdom of previous generations. We’ve failed to tell our younger people that following Jesus will always involve wilderness and exile. The stripping power of revelation – whether of my own heart or of a people who’ve lost their way – is always painful even as it is always necessary. God will not leave us comfortable in our hypocrisy. What if we told younger Christians to expect these seasons of revelation, to welcome them even? Might we remember that discomfort and desolation are often a sign of God’s loving activity in our lives?

I was thinking about these things in July when I had the good fortune to spend a week in East Harlem. One day, a few months earlier, I’d been sitting at my desk and slowly became aware of how tired and lonely I was. After so many months of relative isolation, it dawned on this introvert how starved I was for friendships unmitigated by a screen. So, with my wife’s encouragement and the church’s support, I spent a week in one of my favorite cities. Each day my plans were limited to one long, lingering meal with a different friend. Most mornings I spent some time working on a project related to the dark night before heading out to good food with some wonderful people. The city felt strangely normal; this was during the window between vaccinations and the next viral wave. When I walked into the gargantuan Strand Bookstore it was shocking to see so many people browsing the stacks. I collected my books, including Against Everything by Mark Grief, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, Hood Feminism by Mikki Kendall, and Stephen King’s On Writing, and walked over to Union Square. Sitting there, surrounded by the regulars and the tourists in the company of my little stack of books, was about as normal as I’d felt for a while.

Spending time with The Dark Night and On Wealth and Poverty was important during a year when, in some corners at least, the pastoral vocation took a beating. For example, Christianity Today produced a podcast about the spectacular collapse of Mars Hill Church in Seattle and listening to how its pastor grasped for power felt representative of a lot of the church hurt I’ve watched people suffer in recent years. A collection of sermons by Rev. Gardner C. Taylor was a quiet reminder of the slow and patient work which characterizes good pastoral work. (It’s my practice, on the Saturday nights before preaching, to read one sermon by another preacher. In addition to Taylor, I’ve let the sermons of Fleming Rutledge and Martin Luther King put me to sleep.) In different ways a collection of Dorothy Day’s writings, Winn Collier’s biography of Eugene Peterson, and Marilynne Robinson’s new novel, Jack, did the same. Books like these help me imagine being an open-handed pastor who rejects our culture’s values of manipulations and control for something more attuned to God and to life. “The pastor,” writes Peterson in Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work, “is God’s spy searching out ways of grace.” May God give us more of these sorts of women and men to shepherd his church.

There was another group of books, this one having nothing to do with church, which also nourished my pastoral imagination. I’m spending time with different nature writers for – hopefully! – an upcoming project and I regularly find the themes and metaphors in these books for gentle and brave ministry practices. Annie Dillard in Holy the Firm is one of those writers. A World on the Wing, We Are Each Other’s Harvest, Saving Us, and The Heartbeat of Trees provided glimpses into worlds of trees, Black farmers, climate, and forests and each, in their distinct ways, show the interconnectedness of all living things. In the way of fiction, I loved The Overstory by Richard Powers, a book that completely sucked me in and inspired a day trip to the giant redwoods during a recent trip to northern California. It also pointed me to Finding the Mother Tree, the book I’m ending this very long year with. In Belonging: A Culture of Place bell hooks does similar biological work but with people, testifying to the deeply human need to be related kindly to a place and the many forms of life it sustains. This is a book I’ll return to as I continue working out my own thinking about how we’re meant to care for God’s creation even as it cares for us.

It’s a difficult thing, isn’t it, stepping into a new year facing the same terrible memories of the previous two years? Most of the people I talk with these days are holding fatigue and frustration just below the surface. Simply trying to keep up with the latest protocols feels like an impossible task with monumental consequences. Spending time with these books during this awfully long year has been the dose of perspective I needed. Whether through the lenses of saints long departed, nature bearing up under so much human neglect, or stories – imagined and true – of ordinary people navigating strange and desperate circumstances, these books have helped me to see a bit further down the road than I’d have been able to otherwise. And that’s the gift of reading, right?

Here’s the list of everything I read in 2021.

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