Tomorrow I will offer a list of very nice Lenten books. They are useful for one’s own spiritual reading, for your small group, or adult ed class. We hope you will enjoy seeing them recommended. These are books about Jesus and/or our own response of undertaking spiritual disciplines which invite us into a season that many in the church have long found very meaningful, that intentional joining of our lives to Christ’s as He moves towards the cross. Look for that list coming soon.
First, though, I want to tell you about one of the most interesting books I’ve read in quite a while and it is perfect to read here as we approach Lent; as you’ll see it is a memoir mostly about experiencing Ash Wednesday. It arrived into the shop a few weeks ago, but, because I know this writer is thoughtful and such a very good wordsmith (and would be writing about some fairly intense stuff that I would want to consider carefully) I wanted to hold it until I had time to savor, to appreciate, to ponder, and to grapple with it.
Today I feel a little like Jacob after that long night of struggle, a bit banged-up myself, but blessed for the effort. I read the new book City of God: Faith in the Streets (Jericho Books; $20.00) by a truly fascinating person and gifted, remarkable writer, self-confessed Episcopalian “church nerd” Sara Miles. I have read her earlier books and spent a few days at an event with her a year ago. I respect her a lot, as a writer and as a follower of Christ.
The City of God: Faith in the Streets is mostly about celebrating in high church fashion the service of putting ashes on the forehead on Ash Wednesday (the first day of Lent.) And doing it out on the streets, for one and all.
City of God: Faith in the Streets is an amazing book for several reasons. Firstly, it chronicles one day in Mile’s life, a busy Ash Wednesday, and three Ash Wednesday services in which she was involved that day.
The book opens with preparations for an early morning liturgy in the church at which she works, the liturgically rich and eccentric St. Gregory’s of Nyssa in San Francisco. It ends with a late evening service, also at St. Gregory’s. This is an Episcopal church that is experimental in liturgy and while expansive and broad in theology, claims to be well-rooted in the best of the Christian tradition. It wouldn’t be confused with a formal Anglo-Catholic church, let alone an indie-evangelical congregation; many from other traditions find them nearly heretical even though they clearly see themselves as a herald of God’s good news in Christ.
It is ancient and future, weird and, apparently, full of wonder. It is a chanting, dancing, singing, liturgically-driven parish that serves the poor and hungry and crazy and needy within its progressive, urban neighborhood through ministries often led by Ms Miles; she tells about all this with great spunk, breath-taking detail and vivid writing in the second book she wrote after her conversion, called Jesus Freak: Feeding, Healing, Raising the Dead (Jossey Bass; $21.95.) It is extraordinary for what it tells and for how gloriously it is told, her living out this radical faith in her Mission District setting.
You can read a brief excerpt here, but skip the cheesy amazon link, and come back to us, please.)
Her first religious book, Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion (Ballentine; $16.00) put her on the map of mainline denominational folks, earning accolades from The Christian Century and Sojourners and the like; Anne Lamott wrote that it “blew me away… I am going to foist this on every single hard-core left-wing religious nut I know.” Of course the emergent villagers came to know her, but, even some doctrinally-conservative evangelicals (like, for instance, PCA pastor Steve Brown on his Steve Brown Etc radio show) noticed her conversion narrative and have counted her as an ally for the gospel. It isn’t every day, after all, that a left-wing, atheist foodie is immediately touched by the living Christ, causing her to be baptized and join the church, precipitated by the unexpected receiving of communion at an open table.
As she puts it, “I came late to Christianity, knocked upside down by a mid-life conversion centered around eating a literal chunk of bread. I hadn’t decided to profess an article of doctrine, but discovered a force blowing uncontrollably through the world.” Get a short glimpse of her reading a brief summary of her intriguing and moving story, told so well in Take This Bread in a “This I Believe” piece on NPR.
Miles’ story unfolds in those first two books — her conversion, her learning about church history and theology and joining the church, her radical service to the poor, her zany antics of bringing ancient faith to her hurting neighbors, her admirable willingness to work with fundamentalists and others, her wife’s secular Judaism and their caring relationship, her ups and downs within the ecumenical Body of Christ, and the specific Body of Christ known in tangible bread (and the bodies of the strangers, if you take Matthew 25 literally, which she does.) She has a good eye for the good line, is a bit snarky and funny at times, but often poignant and kind and occasional nearly luminous.
Her story is a surprisely wild one. Wilder, I think, than, say, Anne Lamotte, to whom I sometimes compare her. Her tatted up friend, writer and emergent Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber looks a bit more edgy (well, a lot more edgy) than Sara, but Sara’s story is even more unexpected, curious and deeper, and her prose is more eloquent than the cool stuff in NBWs Pastix. If you read Diana Butler Bass or Barbara Brown Taylor, or, better, if you read Dorothy Day, you will be attracted to this postmodern example of the work of the Risen Christ, bewildering as it may be for some readers. Strap on, folks, this isn’t an easy ride, and it does get bumpy. She certainly upsets conventional views of the devout life, but as Becky Garrison puts it, she is just “so dang Jesus-y.”
The heart of the book centers around a particular narrative and holds to a certain theme. I will not do it justice so If you are inclined you really should buy the book, take in her story, and ponder it in your own heart. It would make for a lively book club read, that’s for sure.
Firstly, the obvious center to the story’s plot is her planning and prepping and actually offering an Ash Wednesday distribution of ashes in public. She flashes back and forth to other services and of some people who, like her, were un-churched until they encountered thick, meaningful (mystical?) liturgical rituals that drew them to faith. And she tells of the conversations she had with other local religious types (for instance, a transgressive punk rocker who is also a seminary trained deacon at his church) about this event. Can a distribution of ashes on this Holy Day to one and all in the public square be liturgically and theologically sound? Can it bear some fruit as witness? Why do it, and what will people get out of it? This memoir includes some fabulous tellings of interesting episodes from her larger life and the life of her neighbors and friends and some very insightful reflections on the spirituality of it all. It is a tenderly told story, but laden with complex theological questions.
I think many readers will relate to different aspects of her work – the frustrations of trying help an indigent friend, trying to remain gracious in grid-locked traffic jams when there is the Lord’s work to do, realizing the hypocrisies of preaching about love for others while not paying much attention to a grumpy neighbor, etcetera, etcetera. Her willingness to lay bear her own fears and foibles invites us to similar vulnerabilities, I think and that may be a good outcome of reading her work, too.
As one who has done public protest and liturgical reenactments in high traffic urban areas, I related to Miles’ own conflicts about this very public act of Christian street theater. (She hopes nobody she knows from her neighborhood sees her, decked out in cassock and carrying a thurible, but then wonders if she is so reticent, why does she want to do this in public in the first place? Been there!)
Miles and her comrades wonder if it is adequate to just take an “in-door” liturgy and do it outdoors, or might the (sacred) space of the secular plaza help define what might be done? And how will the whole affair come loose (evolve or devolve?) as folks want in on it – children, immigrants, commuters coming up from the BART subway elevators, believers and others, too? From where they set up a make-shift altar with a card table and after they have censed the area properly, she and another liturgist walk down the street, being invited in to local joints to offer ashes, compelled, blown by the Spirit into nail salons and Asian markets and burrito shops and, eventually, McDonalds where they gently used their thumbs to make the sign of the cross with the little jars of ashes they’ve brought. It is a chapter I’ve read twice already and was thrilled each time to read about her grace and grit during this intensely joyful hour.
Why do people hunger for a symbol of their own mortality? (Granted the largely immigrant neighborhood may have been mostly Catholic and had familiarity with the ritual.) What does it mean to do this “ashes to ashes” ritual, and can this counter-intuitive human fascination with death actually become good news? Can a Christian ritual find substantive meaning when taken out of the grounding context of the bigger liturgy and church year? (One of her priest friends thinks not, that the “dust to dust” affirmation must yield to repentance, which must be done in the context of a proclamation of the gospel of Christ, which is to say, the whole kit-and-caboodle of the church year.) That is, they wonder if it is it even wise or sound to offer this ritual to the un-churched in this abbreviated out-of-the-sanctuary tableaux? As you might guess, Sara has few misgivings about it, and her impulse is to take risks to live out faith in ways that appeal to the people. (“The people” — ha, wait til you read her line about that lefty phrase, as she passes a Socialist Workers Party bookstore.) This has now become somewhat of a trend, and she does have some slight concerns about differing motivations and expectations. Do “Ashes to Go” experiences just play into fast-food style consumerism, gutting the substance (and community) of thicker, slower liturgies?
My, my, this is important stuff, and her human and humane observations about it all are perhaps more theologically profound than any number of abstract and dry books offering proper teaching on the sacraments. Her passion for the outsider, the excluded, the marginalized and the poor – and her real neighbors in this largely Chicano neighborhood – is palpable and her sense of being an oddball ambassador for an inclusive, mestizo church is amazing to behold. Scary, for some of us, to be sure, but amazing, still.
Think what you will of the soundness of this whole scene, the liberal Episcopalian ethos, her unashamed identity as a lesbian, her mystical bent of finding God in ritual, her penchant for liturgical chant and ancient song, her openness to meaningful interfaith spiritual experiences, her affinity for liberation theology. It is a remarkable story, a beautifully-written book, and even if it makes you sputter, it is worth reading.
I looked around at the members of the congregation, their faces smudged with ashes. The marks reminded me of the cross of sticky ointment a priest had sealed my forehead with at baptism, and the mark God put on the forehead of the fratricidal Cain to place him outside human judgement. We were all so messed up.
“The worst thing we can imagine is that we’re made out of dirt and going to die,” Paul said to me once. “But when we say it aloud, we discover the worst thing isn’t the last thing. The last thing is forgiveness.”
If you know little about Ash Wednesday and the custom of marking the sign of the cross on another’s forehead with ashes (are they a reminder of our mortality or a call to repentance, or both?) or if you don’t have much experience with creative urban outreach, this book will be an eye-opening and helpful introduction to some of our sisters and brothers who do this kind of stuff. You learn about liturgy and you learn about justice, and you learn about the relationship between the two.
If you fancy yourself an urban activist or peace and justice fan, I suspect you’ll dig this, but be aware: her compassion for the poor and her insistence upon treating all with human dignity may end up sounding nearly conservative: like Dorothy Day or Desmond Tutu she bases her revolutionary politics on personal encounters with real people who are poor and upon basic apostolic truths of a Triune God who saves us through the person of Jesus the Christ who is made manifest in His church. I don’t know that she cites it, but I’m reminded of Dorothy’s famous line, “The church may be a whore, but she is still my mother.”
I don’t know if Sara sees the church as her mother, as she is a woman not reared in the church and whose own heart beats for the fast and furious, smelly and secular, perplexing and political vibes of the real city in which she lives. On this she is like Wendell Berry on steroids of urban concrete and glass, maybe a postmodern Jane Jacobs.
Which brings us to the second important thing to say about City of God: Faith in the Streets. Yes, it is a narrative about one day in the life of a woman who offers Lenten ashes on the streets and loves the worship in her local church. Got it.
But it is more profoundly a meditation on how Miles seems to have faith in the streets themselves. In a world created, blessed, sustained, and being redeemed by the Christ, there is no sacred/secular divide, no real split between the life of the church and the life of the world; she is utterly right to realize that the spiritual is not to be contrasted with the material, that faith is incarnated. She is way beyond “missional” and more akin to the Russian Orthodox view of a sacramental life (think of the wonderful, dense work of Alexander Schmemann such as For the Life of the World.) Although it is not her tradition, she wouldn’t disagree with the Kuyperian slogan of God in Christ re-claiming “every square inch” of a good but fallen creation.
A theme of Miles’ City of God: Faith in the Streets is how God is really at work in the world, and how this simple realization allows her to see her place – this particular neighborhood of this exact city – as, literally, the geography of the Kingdom coming, “on earth as it is in heaven.” She might like the down-to-Earth concerns of new urbanist Eric Jacobsen who wrote a book we like, with a great preface by Eugene Peterson, called Sidewalks of the Kingdom (Brazos Press; $22.00.) And, as an aside, don’t miss Jacobsen’s spectacular and very important The Space Between: A Christian Engagement with the Built Environment (Baker Academic; $25.00.) The implications of a down-to-Earth, all-of-life-redeemed faith, and the Bible’s insistence that it is this very world that God so loves, are vast and also minute; sidewalks of the Kingdom, indeed.
Miles isn’t a systematic theologian and this is a memoir, not a textbook, so she doesn’t get everything said that needs saying about all of this. For instance, she doesn’t mention much about Augustine’s “city of man” (in his famous book City of God to which she surely alludes) as an aspect of or a counterpoint to the “city of God.” Her book surely isn’t a thorough theological study of what we mean by “God’s work in the world.”
But her impulse is right, her generous instincts helpful, as she names some signals of what some of us call “common grace.” Her assumptions about all of this — since the Bible story moves from a garden to a city, real geography matters as a locus of the Kingdom of God — are stated outright, occasionally, and are pervasive between the lines of this moving set of reminiscences. I think many of our readers will appreciate this, and it would make a wonderful study, even if one isn’t particularly interested in Ash Wednesday or liberal Episcopalians who maybe make a fetish out of good ritual. City of God is about Ash Wednesday in the streets, about God’s Kingdom coming in those streets, and what she means by that, and how she experiences it that is the heart of the book.
Here is how Phyllis Tickle’s important endorsement reads:
Rarely, if ever, have I heard or read or experienced a more poignant or persuasive presentation of the city as metaphor and prototype for the Kingdom of God. Mile’s panorama is lived theology, and its result is a kind of holy magnificence.
I am smart enough not to quibble with Phyllis very often, but as good and beautiful as this blurb is, I think it is not quite right; I suspect Miles doesn’t view her city as a metaphor for anything. Maybe it’s a prototype, although even that implies it isn’t the real thing. I believe Sara believes it is the real deal. Thy Kingdom Coming, right here, right now.
Here is how the deep Catholic thinker James Alison writes about City of God:
Sara Miles gives us much more than a beautiful love song to her neighborhood… she offers us a glimpse of how living Christian faith can re-enchant the world.
Ponder these lines of endorsement:
Sara is so inspiring… Where most of us aim for the clouds, she’s focused on the dirt and sweat and blood and struggle of this world and the presence here in it with us – which is, of course, the best news of all. (Rob Bell)
Gorgeously written, City of God takes Jesus from the walls of the church to the streets of the city, showing us that where two or three or more Anglicans or prostitutes or head-injured junkies or housewives are gathered, He is with us. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. (Nadia Bolz-Weber)
Although this book is a fascinating study of Ash Wednesday, and good to read now, early in Lent, it is, mostly, a memoir. Like her savior, the rabbi Jesus, Ms Miles tells stories. She comes at it all quite slant, bringing insight through a rip-roaring narrative, teaching and explaining and offering illumination, but mostly just showing us a glimpse into her daily life, set as it is within the ministry of this fascinating neighborhood and this fascinating parish.
Read City of God: Faith in the Streets by Sara Miles to learn a bit, to be informed about important stuff, to raise questions about the very nature of Christian faith lived out in the real world, about how these sorts of Christian folk construe their faith and use their rituals to reach out and serve their neighbors; yes.
Read it also if you want a glimpse into the life of a gritty multi-ethnic contemporary urban neighborhood and parish.
But read it more for the thrill of the story, as a great memoir, to enjoy colorful characters we meet, scenes so vivid we can find ourselves there, places she allows us to nearly see, tastes she describes so well we can almost savor them on our own tongues. It is an enjoyable read, I assure you.
I wished the book were longer. I didn’t want it to be over.
Reading it now might help frame your Lenten journey, and it might help you ponder your own story, and your own place — imagining it as, at least, a holy signpost of the coming City of God.
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