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.

Deliver Me From Fear of Their Fear

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“I’ve made the decision that I would rather be on the journey with others, problematic as they may be, than be utterly alone yet content in my righteousness.” I saw myself when I read this sentence in Justin Phillip’s new book, Know Your Place. Maybe I should say that I saw in Phillip’s commitment one of the pervasive tensions I experience in the ministry of reconciliation. It has felt especially taut lately.

I spent a long weekend this summer as the speaker at a Christian camp here in the Midwest. I knew little ahead of time about those who attend this camp though I assumed, given the context, that for many of these women and men racial reconciliation and justice might be more of an abstraction than a regular experience. I wanted to encourage the campers to see Christian unity across cultural and racial lines of division as a gift God intends for all of us, no matter how diverse or homogeneous our settings.

While there were some that weekend who seemed encouraged by this theme and others who, despite their wariness about my motives, enthusiastically engaged with me between sessions, my impression was that many of those in attendance were disappointed by my choice of topic. That might be putting it mildly.

In hindsight I can see some of my missteps that weekend. I had assumed, for example, a generally positive disposition toward the church’s identity as a reconciling people even if the more specific edges of that mission might be debated or even resisted. And I missed the extent to which current cultural arguments about Critical Race Theory have made their way into local congregations. For some at this camp, any mention of justice or race provoked concerns about creeping partisan ideologies. I should have done my research!

In spite these blunders, my time with these three hundred white Christians was a blunt reminder about the deeply held and, from my vantage point, unhelpful assumptions many white Christians have about racial justice and reconciliation. Thought I might have mitigated it slightly, it’s not as though the push-back I experienced would have been eliminated if I had simply chosen my words more carefully or piled up more biblical references. I’ve learned this lesson from Dr. Brenda Salter-McNeil who, as she has written about, discovered that no amount of good exegesis or phenomenal preaching will move those who are content with the racial status quo. Rather than holding to the possibility of a counter-cultural witness to the gospel via a more racially reconciled church, these suggestions appear as a threat requiring a forceful defense.

About halfway through the long weekend, I was reporting by phone to my wife about some of the more animated feedback I’d received. “I guess you won’t be going back there,” she chuckled. Leaving aside the unlikelihood of a return invitation, the truth is that I would return. Though they might squirm at the characterization, I saw myself in my weekend detractors. It was easy to imagine how, given different circumstances, I might express the same suspicious and instincts.

On the trip home I found myself, like Phillips, wanting the possibility of companionship with these men and women more than the isolation that comes with caressing my own self righteousness. But this desire quickly gets complicated when I read something like this in Zadie Smith’s collection of essays written in the early days of the pandemic.

Patient zero of this particular virus stood on a slave ship four hundred years ago, looked down at the sweating, bleeding, moaning mass below deck and reverse-engineered an emotion – contempt – from a situation that he, the patient himself, had created. He looked at the human beings he had chained up and noted that they seemed to be the type of people who wore chains. So unlike other people. Frighteningly unlike! Later, in his cotton fields, he had them whipped and then made them go back to work and thought, They can’t possible feel as we do. You can whip them and they go back to work. And having thus placed them in a category similar to the one in which we place animals, he experienced the same fear and contempt we have for animals. Animals being both subject to man and a threat to him simultaneously.

Using the language of contagion we’ve grown accustomed to as of late, Smith describes racism as a virus which infects white people with a sense of superiority while causing others to appear unlike us, animal-like and threatening. And it’s here, when the evil we’re up against is articulated so plainly, that the tension snaps. After all, what does it mean to journey with those who not only deny this candid history and our active role in it, but who will deny the harm inflicted on our sisters and brothers by this history and its tentacle-like reach into the present?

I too want to choose companionship with “problematic” people over smug righteousness. (Of course, many of these same people view me as the problematic one.) I wonder though, can such a thing be done without agreeing to the lies – about history, ourselves, and those we’ve imagined as unlike ourselves – which scaffold white assumptions and imaginations? Is there any scenario in which I could show up at that weekend camp, having better prepared myself, with a message of reconciliation and justice and told these Christian sisters and brothers the whole truth? Without their retreat to defensiveness? Without my retreat to deception? I’m confessing to you that I’m having a hard time imagining such a scenario. The tension stretches past the point my imagination can bear.

I recently finished a collection of Dorothy Day’s writings. In one essay she reflects on the fear she felt while visiting Koinonia Farm, an interracial community in Georgia which suffered regular attacks during that Jim Crow era. One night a car she and another member of the community were sitting in while on sentry duty was shot at. About this racist violence and the fear it inspired, Day shared her simple prayer. “Deliver me from fear of their fear,” I prayed as I listened, using the words of St. Peter which had been part of the Epistle of last Sunday’s Mass, thinking of the hysterical fear of guilty whites, fear of the past, of the future.”

Day was writing at a time when white southerners were violently acting on their fears of racial integration and equality. We don’t have to compare our day to hers in order to apply her prayer to our own experiences. Today white fear is expressed with claims of reverse racism, beliefs that critical race theory is more threatening than white supremacy, and appeals to a nostalgic national memory. In any case, I’ve come to believe that behind much of antagonism expressed by my would-be companions lies this old fear.

This week a friend reminded me of a passage about white fear in Eddie Glaude’s Begin Again, a book-length reflection on how James Baldwin remains essential to understanding our racialized society. Glaude writes,

In critical moments of transition, when it seems as if old ways of living and established norms are fading, deep-seated fears emerge over loss of standing and privilege… In these moments, the country reaches the edge of fundamental transformation and pulls back out of a fear that a genuine democracy will mean white people will have to lose something- that they will have to give up their particular material and symbolic standing in the country. That fear, Baldwin understood, is at the heart of the moral psychology of the nation and of the white people who have it by the throat. That fear, not the demand for freedom, arrests significant change and organizes American life.

Would my white sisters and brothers, the ones who are suspicious of and at times antagonistic toward attempts at racial justice, admit to this fear? Would they agree that the heat produced by many of the partisan and ideological battles reveal what is actually at stake? That the fight is less about school board policies, federal legislation, and which party is in power today and more about an existential sense of loss?

I don’t know, but I’m curious. Can we imagine spaces where we’re invited to speak to the experience of loss? To trace the line between grief and fear? If these hidden emotions could be spoken, might the space grow to include empathy for those who’ve known far more loss and fear in this country? Or curiosity for how those neighbors have held back despair so that resistance and hope might take root?

Deliver me from fear of their fear. As of today, it’s the best I can do with the tension. I’m a Christian which means that the option to lie to white people, even a little, isn’t available to me. For those who share this faith, it also means that when the invitations to difficult conversations are extended – from a camp, a church, the Thanksgiving holiday with extended family – we will accept them with a stubborn hope that from this unresolved tension comes the occasional step toward the truth.

(Photo credit: Pexels.)

Do You Know Your Trees?


I finished reading a new book about trees on a day this week when the news around the world was once again overwhelming and terrible. In Afghanistan people were trying to escape with a desperation I can barely imagine much less, if I’m honest, consider for more than a few minutes at a time. Then it got worse: a suicide bomber. And here I was reading about trees.

Over the course of the summer, as our congregation has been able to gather together again, I’ve been listening to how we’re talking about the true and terrible reports being dispatched from all corners. It seems we have all been overpowered by the consistency of upheaval and heartbreak. There have been wildfires and earthquakes, a high-rise collapse, an insurrection to begin the year. Our emotions slide to despair as our attention lurches from one breaking tragedy to the next.

Maybe this is why I picked up Peter Wohlleben’s The Heartbeat of Trees. In it, the German forester describes a long relationship with trees. He is a careful observer and an earnest evangelist for the endless benefits experienced by those spending time beneath and among trees wherever they can be found. More to the point, Wohlleben is enraptured by the forests in his small corner of Germany. He knows these trees- the traits of soil and climate which make his forest unique, the history of logging and conservation which has shaped the forests into what they are today, the ways his neighbors appreciate – or don’t – the groves and stands which can only hint at the ancient forests which were once common in that region.

Which isn’t to say that the author isn’t concerned with the plight of trees around the world. There are chapters about climate change and some specific challenges facing forests around the world. He writes, though, rooted in his particular place among his unique trees. And this is what I noticed during a week which seemed to bring only more bad news.

The solution to our overwhelmed situation is not to turn away from the heartbreak over there but, rather, to turn toward our lives and all of the ways we are interdependent with other life, right here, wherever your here is. This ends up being simpler said than done. It can seem easier these days to catalogue a list of calamities across the globe than to see the smaller, quieter moments that make our own communities what they are.

I think, for example, about different responses to public instances of racial injustice in recent years. There are some who, learning about patterns of racial trauma and abuse by those in power, freeze in response. Their eyes have opened to widespread truths which they had previously overlooked and now they cannot not see them. As their eyes adjust to these harsh truths, they are beginning to understand that racism expresses itself not solely – or even primarily – in individual experiences but through long-standing patterns of oppression and marginalization. However, because these newly aware have not been supporting racial justice in their own neighborhoods, because they’ve ignored the local expressions of injustice and justice, what they feel is mostly a creeping despair.

On the other hand, we can imagine a person who, like Wohlleben and the trees he knows so well, has come to see her place carefully. She understands its history of racial malice, how forces of segregation and prejudice shaped what it is today; she knows the names and stories of the women and men of previous generations who labored for justice. This person isn’t ignorant of the repeated expressions of systemic racism which sometimes break into our national headlines. Like the rest of us, she grieves and is enraged. But unlike others, her connection and commitment to her place mean that her exposure to these headlines leads to discernment rather than despair. These sort of people can see the commonalities and differences between her community and others. They can show you where the momentum toward justice is that others miss. And, frankly, these are the people who are so deeply enmeshed in communities seeking peace and doing justice that the capacity to be overwhelmed in that vague, throw-up-your-hands, what-can-I-do sort of way is greatly diminished.

Finishing The Heartbeat of Trees didn’t so much make me want to learn more about German forests as it kindled my interest in the trees shading our Chicago neighborhood this hot and muggy August. I suspect this was the author’s goal. If more of us began to see the trees and vanishing forests around us, we might be less overcome by headlines about wildfires, drought, and climate change and more inclined to live gently in our own communities in ways that would address these global realities. Might the same be true about many of the other overwhelming realities we’re facing these days?

(Photo credit: Mali Maeder.)

Unexceptional in Exile

I first shared the following post in my newsletter which you can subscribe to here.

One of the things about being in a wilderness or exile situation is that you really want to believe you’re not. Maybe this is what made the recently liberated Hebrew people susceptible to misremembering their years in Egypt. It could also be what made those same people, generations later, prone to believe the lies peddled by the false prophets: It’s not so bad actually. You’ll be heading home soon.

Last week I finished Margaret Regan’s beautiful and sad Detained and Deported in which she narrates the stories of migrants and immigrants caught up in this country’s ferocious immigration policies. She writes about the privately owned detention centers whose profits depend on how full they can keep their beds. We’re confronted with Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the infamous law man who was convicted by the Justice Department for “racial profiling, targeting, and discrimination” and who was promptly pardoned by President Trump before he could even be sentenced. Then there are the small Arizona towns which depend on the economic engine that is the local detention center; locking up immigrants is one of the more stable forms of employment in many of these towns. She also reminds us about the destabilizing impact of our trade agreements.

Orbelín, thirty-seven, also had been pushed out of his home – Chiapas, Veracruz’s neighbor to the southeast – but not by anything so brutal as the drug wars. It was economics that took his livelihood away. He had worked in maïz, cultivating corn in the fields around the capital city of Tuxtla Gutiérrez, but the cheap Iowa corn flowing into Mexico post-NAFTA undercut the price of his Chiapan corn. Once the trade agreement was in place, Mexico went from a corn-producing to a corn-importing nation. Orbelín was one of the casualties.

The power of Regan’s book isn’t in the information she conveys. I knew at least something about the broad strokes of how we treat immigrants and migrants in this country. The gut punch is having it all put together in a coherent narrative. These are not isolated policies haphazardly strung together by a few xenophobic politicians. The stories Regan tells are not the exceptions; taken together, they are the rule.

Despite how severely we treat those who are desperately trying to cross our border – destroying water that is left in the desert for them, separating parents from their children, building political campaigns around the fear of immigrants – many of us won’t see this exile for what it is. In our imaginations, it continues to be a God-blessed, manifestly destined, and divinely exceptional place.

This instinct is what made the exilic prophets’ task so difficult. No one wanted to hear that things were worse than they’d willed themselves into believing. After all, what, would that admission say about themselves? Ourselves?

“You have plowed wickedness, you have reaped injustice, you have eaten the fruit of lies.” (Hosea 10:13)

But this is what coming to grips with wilderness and exile requires. Not only do we open our eyes to the harshness of our situation, we have to tell the truth about how we’ve made it so.

(Photo credit: Peg Hunter.)

Manifest Destiny and Black Faith

I first shared the following post in my newsletter which you can subscribe to here.

Not long ago I noticed how often over the past few years I’ve been returning to the biblical themes of wilderness and exile. There’s a lot to say about these themes and I hope to explore some of them in this newsletter, but for now I’ll just say how much more sense our circumstances make when interpreted through the lenses of wilderness and exile.

It seems to me that the only reason this way of seeing isn’t intuitive to some of us has to do with how we’ve imagined ourselves in – or on our way to – the promised land.

In Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, Kelly Brown Douglas makes the case that this country’s sense of manifest destiny has its origins in the mythology of Anglo-Saxon exceptionalism, an exceptionalism that came to be imagined as racial whiteness tied to Christian belief. To access America’s promises, one had to acquiesce to the myth and, if possible, become white.

To be white, then, is to be the object of God’s delight, in no small part because whiteness expresses the will of God. Douglas mentions Missouri senator Thomas Hart Benton who, in a speech in 1864, claimed, “It would seem that the White race alone received the divine command, to subdue and replenish the earth! For it is the only one that hunts out new and distant lands, and even a New World, to subdue and replenish.”

To summarize, racial whiteness came to symbolize God’s divine sanction to subdue the earth. Manifest destiny was evidence that this people – white people – were God’s people and that this land was the land of his promise.

Few of us today hold to this warped theology but I’m not sure we’ve adequately reckoned with how significantly our imaginations have been shaped by it. That is, many of us, on a level we’re mostly unaware of, assume something of the promised land in how we interpret our daily frustrations and longings. So we overlook the injustices and inconsistencies that might betray our actual location, something more akin to wilderness or exile. We satisfy ourselves with a narrative which legitimizes unearned privileges and rationalizes someone else’s suffering. We act as though a bit more work and/or prayer will finally pry open the door to the promises of the American Dream.

Well, some of us are prone to this sort of misinterpretation. Douglas writes about an alternative.

Black faith was forged in the midst of the perverse and tragic paradoxes of black life. It is a faith, therefore, that does not ignore the unthinkable and irrational terror of black living. It takes it seriously. It does not belittle or romanticize the pains and sufferings of black bodies. It does not revel in illusions and false hope. Neither does it allow black bodies to give into the hardship and to be overcome with despair. Indeed, the faith born in slavery provided a weapon to resit and to fight against the religiously legitimated tyranny of America’s Anglo-Saxon exceptionalism.

I don’t think it’s hard to agree that the Christian life, in general, is less like the promised land than it is wilderness and exile. It’s something else entirely though, for those steeped in racialized, divinely articulated exceptionalism, to imagine our way to the sort of resiliency and hope Douglas describes. For this, we need the example and tutelage of those who never believed the myth, who’ve always been clear about the true nature of our collective circumstances.