Ever so slowly, the hours of daylight are getting shorter, meaning summer is passing before our very contact lenses. But it's not too late to check out a little summer reading from publishers of faith-based books.
So here's a short list of what's crossed my at-home desk recently. I'm not doing full-blown reviews of these but I'll try to tell you enough for you to decide if you want to check them out further at the link I'll give you for each (usually Amazon, but if you can, please buy books from your local independent book seller).
-- To Offer Compassion: A History of the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion, by Doris Andrea Dirks and Patricia A. Relf. Back in the late 1960s, before the U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion, many women were getting unsafe abortions from secretive, illegal providers -- and sometimes dying of the process. So a group of Christian and Jewish members of the clergy in New York banded together to "counsel and refer women to licensed doctors for safe abortions," this book reports. By the time of the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, hundreds of clergy members across the country had provided this service. This book tells their story in a thorough and affirmative way. As the introduction notes, "From today's vantage point, the work of the CCS was not just a compassionate pastoral answer to an immediate need -- it was also prophetic." I wasn't aware of this book when it was published last year, but a friend I ran into at the recent annual conference of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists alerted me to it and asked author Relf to get me a review copy. Glad she did. If, before reading this book, you want to read a magazine-length piece about the work of the CCS, The Atlantic wrote this piece in 2016. At the center of our Culture Wars, abortion again is getting lots of attention these days because of the impending new justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, so the book is timely and its message on point. This books focuses not so much on the bitter political battles over abortion, though it certainly deals with that, but, more, on the need for pastoral care of women and whole families in crisis.
-- God, Improv and the Art of Living, by MaryAnn McKibben Dana. The author is a Presbyterian pastor who isn't afraid of course corrections and wants us not to be afraid of them, either. For the fact is that we simply can't plan all of life and have it turn out just that way. Life, after all, throws us not just curve balls but sliders, splitters, slurves and four-seam fastballs, often in what seems like completely random ways. This book, rooted in personal experience and wise pastoral experience, can help us survive and even thrive in the midst of a life that sometimes feels as if it's controlled by chaos theory. A couple of years ago Dana won the David Steele Distinguished Writer award from the Presbyterian Writers Guild, an award I was honored to receive in 2003. Trust me, you can never go wrong reading any words written by a recipient of this award. I wouldn't kid you.
-- Rehearsing Scripture: Discovering God's Word in Community, by Anna Carter Florence. Let's start here with a reality the author, a Presbyterian who teaches preaching at a seminary, identifies about scripture. It is, she writes, "indomitable, intractable, irrepressible and about as resistant to a leash as any gale force wind." She's correct about about. And one important conclusion to draw from that is that we shouldn't read scripture only and always by ourselves. We need a community around us to help us see and understand what it might be meaning for us in our time and place. She writes, "When we read Scripture in community, we have no idea what will happen or where it will take us, except that whatever it is won't look like anything we know -- it is the wild and free vision of God's reign, breaking its way in. It is the mother of all waves carrying us over the known horizon." I have three opportunities each week to read scripture in community, and I can tell you that no matter where we start, the journey is always a surprise and the destination (do we ever get there?) is unpredictable. But it's an enlightening experience that could not have been mine had I traveled this road alone. And what is especially helpful in this book is that it suggests ways to gather around scripture with people who may have different approaches to theology than we do and still learn from one another. And, my, oh, my, do we need that today.
-- Sacred Signposts: Words, Water and Other Acts of Resistance, by Benjamin J. Dueholm. The author is a Lutheran (ELCA) pastor in suburban Chicago, and he writes with passion and poignancy about what in the world such Christian practices as baptism, the Eucharist, prayer and worship might mean in today's increasingly post-Christian world. In a time of widespread biblical and theological illiteracy in the culture -- as well as in the pews -- this is the kind of book that can inform and challenge. He begins by identifying the Christian context in America properly: ". . .among people born in the United States, religion in general and Christianity in particular are in significant retreat. Catholic and historic Protestant parishes shrink and close in their traditional heartlands. Evangelical megachurches struggle to hold worshipers after their charismatic founders leave the scene. Church construction has fallen to its lowest rate in many decades. There are fewer adherents, and those who remain participate less regularly." If that is the reality, and it is, how can traditional Christian practices continue to hold meaning and speak to those outside the walls of the church? Dueholm has some answers worth hearing. The official publication date for this book is this Tuesday.
-- Soul Force: Seven Pivots toward Courage, Community and Change, by Reesheda Graham-Washington and Shawn Casselberry. In this guide book, the authors seek to recapture the driving forces behind both Mohandas K. Gandhi and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. "Soul force," they write, "is where the Spirit of God and our human resilience meet. The Spirit doesn't override our will, nor does it bypass our humanity. The Spirit works in concert and collaboration with our ingenuity, gifts and grit. Soul force is a power that emerges when we align with the Spirit of truth, love and liberation." Each author is executive director of a non-profit organization in Chicago. They draw from those experiences to help readers move from fear to freedom and from hurt to hope. At the end of the book there are study questions that can guide readers who want to adopt some of the strategies the authors describe.
-- How to Pray: Reflections and Essays, by C.S. Lewis. Lewis, the late, great Christian apologist, wrote a lot about prayer in his many books and essays. HarperOne, the publisher, now has collected a lot of what he said in this volume, which is the first in a planned three-book series on prayer, Christianity and reading. Even when Lewis seems to be a voice from a far different and in some ways unrecoverable time (he died in 1963 on the same day that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated), he writes in intriguing and engaging ways. His many fans will want to add this to their collection.
-- God of Tomorrow: How to Overcome the Fears of Today and Renew Your Hope for the Future, by Caleb Kaltenbach. The author, a pastor, doesn't fit neatly into standard Christian categories. Or maybe he fits into conflicting categories. Which is to say his mother and father both were gay, and he wrote about that in a previous book, Messy Grace. At the same time, he comes out of a conservative-evangelical tradition (Talbot School of Theology at Biola University and the Dallas Theological Seminary) and holds to the teaching that the Bible condemns homosexuality. Given all that, this is a book about releasing fear and holding on to the hope that faith in Jesus brings. It's a difficult balance to maintain. If you read it, tell me whether you think he succeeds. I'm frankly not sure.
-- Made Like Martha: Good News for the Woman Who Gets Things Done, by Katie M. Reid. The New Testament story of Jesus' friends Martha and Mary can leave people with the impression that well-organized, efficient people are missing out on the really important things in life, like meditation and companionship. That's not what that story really means, but it's an easy conclusion to draw. The author of this book wants readers to know that it's OK to be an efficient, with-it Martha. You can be that, she writes, and still have a loving relationship with Christ. The question she wound up asking herself after an experience with one of her five children was: "What if God wasn't asking me to be Mary but instead loved me for being Martha?" This book is her answer to that challenging question. Publication date for this book is this Tuesday.
-- After the Trip: Unpacking Your Crosscultural Experience, by Cory Trenda. As I write this, a dozen or so teen-agers from my congregation are on a mission trip to Cambodia. Some of these kids also have been to Thailand and to several U.S. destinations on such trips. The questions for them when they return will be about how this experience will change their lives, their faith, their views about the world. That's what this small book is designed to help them answer. The author has worked with several international humanitarian organizations and currently is senior director for World Vision. Trenda writes that "integrating, or interweaving, a one-time experience into your ongoing life means being thoughtful, a lifelong learner, someone who continues to seek ways to engage across cultures." This is a book I hope our youth leader will get for every one of the young people with him in Cambodia.
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THIS IS ALL GOD'S DOING?
Did you notice that in EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt's resignation letter, he declared that Donald Trump was president because of "God's providence?" We're waiting for God's official denial. God's own Sarah Huckabee Sanders must be on vacation.