My Year With Books

I wish I could remember what I was reading when the stay-at-home orders reached Chicago in March. It may have been Ghosts in the Schoolyard, Eve Ewing’s devastating look at the closures of public schools in our city – mostly in Black neighborhoods – a few years back. I might have been deep into the new Dorothy Day biography. I don’t remember, but what I won’t forget anytime soon was how faithfully the stacks of books on my desk and beside our bed played their conversational role during these months of distance and isolation.

Aside from immediate family, almost all of my conversations since last winter have been mitigated by screens and WiFi signals. Which isn’t to say they were bad: I got to talk with some of the people I most respect in the days following my book’s publication and Maggie and I have had a few Zoom date nights with friends. But it’s different, isn’t it? Different than sharing a meal together or leaning over a table in a noisy coffee shop to hear what your friend is saying. Earlier this fall I sat in a friend’s backyard until we were both shivering but, man, it was good to share space and conversation together.

Books have always been conversation partners to me, a fact that can be more than a little frustrating to the person vying for my attention when my nose is buried between some pages. But more so than previously, this year I reached for books that could satisfy the hunger for conversation. Eddie Glaude’s Begin Again exemplifies the way certain books can provoke good discussion. Glaude’s previous book, Democracy in Black, provided some of the important scaffolding for my understanding of racial discipleship. In this new one, Glaude walks alongside James Baldwin and leans on the imminent author and critic for help understanding these strange days. “We should tell the truth about ourselves,” Glaude writes about Baldwin’s persistent demand of his country, “and that would release us into a new possibility.”

Ida B. Wells, as some of you will know, has assumed an authoritative presence in my imagination. I sometimes think I hear her asking, Really? You’re discouraged because of that? This year I finally got around to her unfinished autobiography which is endearing for the quotidian details she chose to include, and for what she left out. (I wanted a lot more about her friendship with Frederick Douglass.) Reading her account of her life left me with the impression that, while aware of the significance of her anti-lynching work, Wells was the sort of person who simply couldn’t help doing the righteous thing she found in her path, no matter how small or how impossible.

I read Howard Thurman’s classic Jesus and the Disinherited and My Grandmother’s Hands by Resmaa Menakem around the same time. Thurman’s famous question toward the beginning of his little book is one that demands a response: “What was the word that the religion of Jesus says to the man with his back against the wall?” It’s the question Thurman wrestles with while inviting his readers to do the same. Menakem is concerned with the trauma inflicted upon those whose backs have been forced against the wall, as well as the kind experienced by those of us who’ve done the forcing. The author is interested in trauma- its origins, impact, as well as what healing can look like for all of us. In a year with so many moments of racial violence and protest, these books helped me grapple with questions I wouldn’t otherwise have thought to ask.

This summer our family drove about five hours north to camp for a week in the Manistee National Forest in Michigan. On the way we stopped into a bookstore and I picked up Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac. This was required reading in college, probably for one of my environmental studies classes. It was the first nature writing I read and I was curious how it held up. Reading Leopold’s careful observations about his Wisconsin farm twenty years later, this time from the proximity of our own years in the Midwest, was a treat. Like other great nature writes, Leopold equips the reader to see what they might otherwise miss.

(A few years ago we visited the Chicago Botanic Gardens and found they were having a used book sale. I picked an illustrated edition of A Sand County Almanac; sections from the original are interspersed with photos from Leopold’s land. As with the original, this version proceeds through each month of the year and a non-Midwesterner might start to get an idea of why the naturalist found so much beauty on his sand farm and the bits of prairie that remained along roadsides and in ditches.)

I gravitate to the kind of writing that reckons tenderly and honestly with the natural world; Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass (a gift from some knowing friends) fit the bill as did English Pastoral by James Rebanks and David Allen Sibley’s delightful What It’s Like to Be a Bird (another thoughtful gift). Much of my reading tends toward the messy intersection of race and theology, but I’ve come to believe that these books about creation are in some ways related. Listen, for example to Kimmerer, a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, as she wonders about our collective future. “For the sake of the peoples and the land, the urgent work of the Second Man may be to set aside the ways of the colonist and become Indigenous to place. But can Americans, as a nation of immigrants, learn to live here as if we were staying? With both feet on the shore?”

The question about a future in which the dehumanizing power of race is diminished by the generative power of creation is one that won’t leave me alone, and books like these help me imagine what might – might – be possible.

We kept pace through this strange year with short drives over to the Indiana National Lakeshore for hikes through forests and over sand dunes along with many afternoon walks through our beloved Jackson Park. In a way I couldn’t have anticipated at the beginning of the year, we have spent more time outdoors this year, beginning in early spring when the pandemic reached our city. We’ve watched the seasons change, felt the temperature of Lake Michigan rise and then drop again, and noticed when the little snakes and frogs appeared along the trails. We saw our first Sandhill Cranes this year. I think that, when we remember 2020 years from now, these regular walks and how they kept time for us will be one of the things we recall gratefully.

A drizzly hike through the Manistee National Forest this summer.

Back to the books. This summer I took a seminary class about reading the Bible interculturally. It’s a question of interpreting from a particular cultural foundation and noticing what we’d have likely missed. Becoming Like Creoles, Might From the Margins, Brown Church, and Native and Christian each opened those sorts of interpretive possibilities.

Since the publication of Rediscipling the White Church in May, I’ve had the chance to speak with many white pastors and ministry leaders around the country. Most of these women and men are interested in the role they and their churches can play in the ministry of racial reconciliation. The killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd among with too many others seem to have pushed them to the brink; no longer is the racial homogeneity of their settings a reason to keep quiet. Often these sorts of leaders are told to diversify their reading. They are asked to notice how many of the authors on their shelves are white (men). And this is good advice; there’s a world of literature that has existed beyond their awareness. But more than simply reading authors of color, the real possibility lies in how books like the four in the preceding paragraph can open up the scriptures imaginatively. For example, it will be hard for me to preach any of the narratives about the exodus or the conquest without taking into account the perspective of the Canaanites after reading a couple of the essays in Native and Christian. This, I think, is where the real hopeful possibility lies when we diversify our bookshelves.

Aside from a few outdoor worship services that our church was able to organize safely this summer, the only times I’ve been with groups of people of any size has been at protests against racial injustice. For a period of a few months this summer, these protests were taking place nightly in our city. One evening I walked a few blocks from our apartment to observe a tense standoff between protesters and Chicago Police; it was gratifying to watch the young organizers defuse the tension and lead the crowd away from the threat of tear gas and God-knows-what else.

The protests I participated in were all, as best I can remember, led by local clergy here on the South Side. On New Years Eve I again joined a march; this time we were downtown, on the Magnificent Mile, passing shoppers looking for post-Christmas deals. We remembered the almost-800 people who lost their lives to homicide in our city this year, a fact made less visible by the pandemic and the handful of spectacularly brutal instances of racial terror that broke into our collective consciousness. Mothers held portraits of the children who’ve been snatched from them. We heard their testimonies and their rage at so many unsolved murders. According to our local NPR station, homicides involving Black victims are solved 25% of the time compared to 47% when the victim is white.

In Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent, Isabel Wilkerson argues that we need to understand disparities like these, and the protests that regularly erupt in response to them, by recognizing this country’s caste system. “Race, in the United States, is the visible agent of the unseen force of caste. Caste is the bones, race the skin.” Wilkerson is a beautiful writer – if you’ve not read it, drop everything and pick up The Warmth of Other Suns immediately – and she makes a compelling case for adopting the language and assumptions of caste to better interpret our American circumstances. People have been marching and protesting for racial justice in my city and yours for a very long time. Perhaps, as Wilkerson suggests, there is something deeper and uglier that we’ve yet to account for.

Here’s to the strange and grievous year that was and to the many different books which helped us make our way through it. And here’s to a new year. It will certainly be just as unpredictable as the one we left behind save, I hope, for the the presence of the books we will reach for, the books we will think about, and the books we will – Lord hasten the day! – talk about in one another’s company.


Here’s the full list of the books I read in 2020.

Wait, what?

These were the looks on our faces 20 years ago, about an hour after we’d made our marriage vows in Montreat Chapel. We were both 21 years old and this snapshot is a decent representation of at least a part of what we were feeling that day: Wait, we’re actually married? OK… and now what?

Actually, all these years later, this is probably still a good visual of my experience of marriage much of the time. Wait, what?!

What I mean is that there’s nothing static about marriage. I’m not the same person as the guy in that photo who’s wearing those J.C. Penney pleated slacks and trying to act like he knows what’s going on. Thankfully I’m not. Neither is Maggie.

In hindsight, it’s a strange thing to think of all of the build-up and planning for our wedding, though I don’t regret any of it. It highlighted the significance and permanence of our vows. It’s as though the occasion itself was an answer to the reasonable questions, Really? Till death do you part? Are you sure?

The thing we didn’t know, not really, and which was maybe foreshadowed in our deer-in-the-headlights expressions, was how regularly we’d need to answer those same questions again. In some ways marriage is simply one year after another of making the same vows – as a different person than the one you were the year before, to a person who’s a little – or a lot – different than the one you made promises to in previous years.

People sometimes laugh when they see our wedding pictures. How old were you, 16? But here’s the gift of having been married for half our lives: I’ve had the chance to grow to love the many stages of the same woman. That’s the impossible and wonderful thing that we could only barely imagine on that warm North Carolina night 20 years ago.

I can imagine a tradition in which each anniversary the same people gathered, along with new ones picked up along the way, to witness the same two people make the same vows. The vows would remain the same; the wife and her husband, now differently constituted and configured, would be the changed parts of the annual ceremony. In this alternative universe we’d all recognize that no person should remain the same, that change is evidence of life even when the changes are frightening and surprising. We’d affirm the grace that holds together this couple who, on any given anniversary, is becoming acquainted with the person they’ve each become.

If I could whisper anything to those two as we prepared to cut the cake it’d be something like this: Relax. You don’t have to know what you’re doing. Enjoy each other today for who you are. And hold each other loosely so that you’ll be ready for who you’ll each become.

Happy anniversary Maggie. I can’t wait to see who we’ll be in the next 20 years.

“…the thought of the church participating and even sanctioning it pushes me right over the edge.”

The realization of creation’s inclusion in God’s reconciliation project should disturb us, for we have done great violence to the earth and its inhabitants. By assaulting creation we have assaulted ourselves and thwarted God’s will for the world. Based on a fault theology of dominion, the church has helped to perpetuate the idea that the earth and its nonhuman inhabitants are primarily “natural resources” to satisfy humanity’s needs and fancies without caution or compassion. misinterpreting dominion as domination, broken humanity has cleared forests, blown off mountaintops, dumped waste in oceans, hunted animals for sport, created factory farms, and experimented cruelly on monkeys and rats. Such violent crimes against creation describe not just the distant past but the tragic present… I find humanity’s assault upon the earth and its fellow creatures nearly unbearable; the thought of the church participating and even sanctioning it pushes me right over the edge.

– Al Tizon in Whole and Reconciled. I won’t say much about this book now as I’m writing a review to be posted elsewhere, but Al’s wisdom is what the church urgently needs today. I was so impressed by how broad and holistic he could be – this passage comes in a section about reconciling with creation – while always remaining specific and applicable. I hope a whole bunch of American Christians and their pastors read this book carefully.

Scaredy-Cats

Last night our old cat jumped onto the couch next to the four-year-old as he sat with Maggie, listening as she read his bedtime story. This cat, the epitome of scaredy-cat, has never done this before. In the dozen or so years that we’ve had her, she has spent about 90% of her time in hiding: under beds, buried under blankets, disappeared into the darkest corner of a closet. For a while we owned one of those oversized recliners and she figured out how to crawl inside one of its wide – and, we came to learn – mostly hollow arms. It was only when one of us dropped into that chair and leaned back that we’d discover her there, the frantic wiggling and clawing the unmistakable signal that we’d again disturbed her peace.

fullsizeoutput_29fbIt took a few years before Gabby the cat would venture onto the couch with us on an evening when we sat quietly, reading or watching TV. When we adopted our first son she seemed to revert and for his first few years E must have wondered about this imaginary animal his parents mentioned occasionally.  Most of our guests over the years couldn’t be faulted for thinking the same; occasionally someone will do a double-take while sitting at our dining room table, “I didn’t know you had a cat,” they’ll exclaim with that certain tone that indicates whether or not they’re a cat person.

Anyway, as E learned to be quiet around our sensitive cat she slowly warmed to him, eventually even seeking him out to be scratched behind her ears. The four-year-old has always been a bit more rambunctious. Frankly, I thought it’d be a few more years before she’d let him get close. But tonight, to the surprise of both Maggie and W, she hopped right up.

I only mention our cat and her skittish ways because I sometimes think I’ve learned as much about being a pastor from her as I have from most of the books I’ve read and classes I’ve taken on the subject.

When we adopted the cat who’d become Gabby – the shelter had named her Fleur which is a good French word for flower but, in our opinions, not so good for a cat – the woman who had cared for her warned us that she was pretty shy. An understatement! At six months old she’d been found near death, shivering under a pile of frozen leaves. It took a few months to revive her to the point where she was strong enough to be adopted. On top of being so easily frightened, she’s always remained skinny. No matter what we feed her she still carries evidence of those first cruel days in her body.

It’s been close to fifteen years that we’ve lived with this cat. She is the same animal now as she was when we first drove her home. But she’s also different, braver. She’ll never be one of those cuddly, social cats but almost every morning now, before everyone else gets up, she’ll jump into my lap while I read. Instead of burying herself in our furniture, she perches on one of the couch’s armrests, hoping to be pet while we watch reruns of The West Wing or The Simpsons.

People can change and heal is what I’m getting at I guess. But we can’t be forced. And if you want to be there when it starts to happen, you’ve got to stick around long enough so that when they’re finally ready to be seen you’ll be around to see.