Here’s a little essay to offer some context before I list five specific books that are seasonal, and then more than 20 that are more generally for those feeling conflicted or at the end of their rope this Christmas. Thanks for allowing me into your inbox this busy season; we don’t take it for granted. You can scroll to the very bottom to see our link to our secure Hearts & Minds order form. All books are 20% off.
I love Christmas. I love the joy, the sentiments, the colors, the smells. We don’t give a lot of family gifts anymore but I love the idea of nicely wrapped presents; I love trees and lights. I love the movie Elf.
And of course I love our church family and a very special service on Christmas Eve. Although we avoid singing them in Advent, and love Christmas carols.
But yet, I have long felt that even as we sing “oh come let us adore Him” we don’t really. We don’t pay much attention to the details of his real birth (a teen birth, a nearly homeless couple, born with animals and the very blue collar shepherds, etc.) Bracketed by Mary’s revolutionary cry in Luke 1 [the piece to the right is by Philadelphia artist Ben Wildflower] and the non-Jewish wise men’s civil disobedience against the genocide of the ruling powers, the story is never as quaint as it seems in Christmas cards. Or in most church services.
When I was a teen during some kind of youth Sunday at my church I played the Simon and Garfunkel song off their 1966 Parsley, Sage Rosemary and Thyme album called “7 O’Clock News/Silent Night.” As Wikipedia puts it, the track is a sound collage juxtaposing a rendition of the Christmas carol “Silent Night” with a simulated 7 o’clock news bulletin consisting of actual events from the summer of 1966.” I am not sure I had yet heard the famous quip by Karl Barth that we must read our Bibles with the newspaper in the other hand, but, as I dimly recall, not everyone in my EUB church saw my gimmick as fitting for a Sunday service. I knew it was a good juxtaposition, but couldn’t exactly say why.
Only later did I come to understand (a little bit, at least) of the theology of the incarnation (try the classic On the Incarnation by Saint Athanasius to study up a bit) and the all-of-life-redeemed worldview that now seems so natural, but even as a teen I intuited that the Biblical story is messy, that Christmas is complicated, and that we humans are not as cheery as the Rockwell paintings might surmise. And that God was born into what Thomas Merton, I later learned, called “this demented inn.”
(Listen to this stunning song “Bethlehem” by Over the Rhine for a mournful song of longing that says much in a few moving minutes.)
No, I didn’t know much but I knew that the Lord had lots to say about serving others, not accumulating wealth, turning the other cheek and whatnot.
I didn’t need Jackson Browne’s “The Rebel Jesus” to remind me of the radical disruption the words of Jesus might bring to our holiday festivities, but it didn’t hurt.
The other day Fleming Rutledge and I were exchanging brief correspondence about her splendid, must-read book Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ in which she quipped that Advent is not for the faint of heart. The paradoxical embrace of light within darkness, of the now and the not yet, of crying out “Maranatha” even though we know that may mean judgement and something that seems like woe, is complex and intense. Her sermons in that book are among the very best I’ve seen and we do seriously recommend it. They will last a lifetime.
If you are interested, here is an Advent meditation I wrote for the annual CCO’s Advent devotional; they wanted a story, so I started with a story. Here is a really great one, and another that moved me deeply and yet another must-read by author Steve Garber, about crying out “How Long O Lord?”
And so, here we are in this last week of Advent, hoping against hope, longing for restoration, knowing that we have much to shout about given that Christ did come (even if the story is challenging) and that He can be “born in us today.” Yes, Advent looks back to the first coming of Christ, invites us to discern how Christ comes afresh, daily, now, and — and many miss this — how we are to eagerly await His return to bring healing judgement and final restoration to the cosmos. Past, present, and future.
For many of us, it is this waiting for final restoration that creates the texture of our hope. We are reminded by Bible verses galore and many great carols that the Kingdom breaking into human history in the incarnation (followed by the decisive death and resurrection of Christ, His ascension and the giving of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost to empower the counter-cultural faith community) underscores and makes meaningful “the hopes and fears of all the years.” The story of our faith isn’t separate from the story of our lives. We can be honest about our hopes and we can be honest about our fears.
Which is a long way of saying that we don’t need to be jolly this time of year and while Andy Williams or whoever croons that it is the “hap, happiest time of the year” it simply isn’t so. At least not always.
For some, being “home for Christmas” is toxic. For others, being at home without all the loved ones present reminds us of our losses. Some have died of damn cancer (or whatever) and others from COVID. We are rightfully angry at Trump and the other anti-maskers who exacerbated the pandemic early on and allowed the spread of the disease causing more than a million fellow citizens to die, many needlessly. Where is the judgement of Mary’s Magnificent when we need it?
I don’t know if you carry great burdens this time of year but I bet you do. Young or old, you know people who struggle with depression, who have faced great losses, who are ill, who understand in their bones those lines from “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” about the “crushing load” and that speaks of “all the weary world” (with “sad and lowly plains” no less.) I know you know about weariness, about crushing loads. We all do, but some of us more than others.
I do not mean to dampen anyone’s Christmas Spirit but the season of Advent — which, as Fleming implied, is not easy to practice well — invites us to be real about all this stuff. We long for God’s presence, we hunger for God’s healing, we cry for God’s redemption of all things. Laid low by political injustice here and abroad, gripped by the sorrows that now go by a new name, “climate grief”, or plagued by typical doubts about the reasonableness of our faith itself, or the sustainability of our church life, we soberly bring those things into the light that is to come.
It is paradoxical, weird work, this “already but not yet” project, and yet, despite the sadness we carry, the Jesus whose birth we celebrate (for 12 days at Christmastime!) grew up to say his burden was not heavy. Yes, the way is narrow, but it is not harsh. He calls us to pick up our crosses but he also invites us to a feast. He has come to bring life, even abundantly, Jesus promised in John 10:10. I love that verse! It is a counter script to the pain.
The generous abundance of renewed life in Christ does not negate the brokenness of the world. And so we learn to practice waiting. We do Advent, and get in touch with our hopes for peace and goodness, in part by being honest about our hurts.
On Easter morning I often put on Facebook my favorite version of “I Know That My Redeemer Lives”, a rare recording by the late, great Mark Heard. I sometimes note that it is a majestic song, made gritty and real by the nearly fragile rendition the world-weary Heard gives. Similarly, I love Sufjan’s Stevens’ quiet “Joy to the World” (from the gorgeously eccentric Songs for Christmas.) It’s not roaring out a triumphant victory with brass but it is so pretty it almost makes me weep.
FIRST, FIVE FOR AN HONEST HOLIDAY SEASON
A Weary World: Reflections for a Blue Christmas Kathy Escobar (WJK) $15.00 OUR SALE PRICE = $12.00
I highlighted this last year and should have named it again this year — it is the best book intentionally designed for those who find the holidays to be less than happy. Whether you wrestle with chronic pain or broken relationships or shattered dreams, a fragile faith or unexpected losses, “our grief and sorrow feel particularly acute when compared to the festivity and joy everyone else seems to be feeling.”
Kathy Escobar is pastor of The Refuge, a radical Christian community and mission in North Denver. She is a trained spiritual director and author Practicing: Changing Yourself to Change the World.
Honest Advent: Awakening to the Wonder of God-with-Us, Then, Here, and Now Scott Erickson (Zondervan) $19.99 OUR SALE PRICE = $15.99
This is for any who want to re-focus on the deepest meaning of the holiday season, resisting consumerism and the loss of wonder. As Scott says, “Maybe for you, it has become a bittersweet season of complicated family dynamics, a predictable brand masking insatiable consumerism, or simply a sacred story that feels far too removed from our current chaotic world.”
Scott is an artist, a graphic designer, an on-the-ground theologian of sorts. Honest Advent shares “the shocking biology of a home birth that goes far behind the sanitized brand of Christmas as we know it.” This is a truly great book, nicely illustrated with hip graphics and raw prose. Particularly for younger folk, it is a must. We’ve got a few left — order now!
Wounded in Spirit: Advent Art and Meditations David Bannon (Paraclete Press) $29.99 OUR SALE PRICE = $23.99
Here is something I wrote about this beautiful book a few years ago:
We raved about this earlier in the season, explaining that Bannon is himself a bit of a hurting man. He is an honest guide as he’s had his own struggles; among other things, his adult daughter died in an awful tragedy. He knows a life of faith and he knows a life of sorrow.
Consequently he has been drawn to paintings that evoke lament and that honor the grief of these hard times and the art is ravishingly shown in this fabulously designed, handsome hardback. The paintings are mostly older, classic, even (Gauguin, Delacroix, Van Gogh, and more) and often done by artists who themselves were facing deep disappointments. Besides his own informative and tender prose, Bannon adds remarkable lines from poets and writers and thinkers — from N.T. Wright to Barbara Brown Taylor, Philip Yancey, Bonhoeffer, Nouwen, Paul Tournier, Joan of Arc, and more. He shares a bit about the latest research on grief. Yet, these rich daily reflections are more than an admitted “pilgrimage of brokenness.” Wounded in Spirit is a book of lovely, tangible hope.
There is a great forward by Philip Yancey (who says it has “become his guide.” Poet Luci Shaw calls these meditations and images “a marvelous gift.”
Because this book deserves to be known and taken seriously, allow me to excerpt a quote from the good Christian Century review written by Elizabeth Palmer:
David Bannon… has lived through the realities of failure and grief. In this book, he intersperses carefully curated photos of Christian art with his own reflections on the artists—their lives, their tragedies, and their persistent hopes. Bannon also evokes an honest grappling with grief by including brief quotations from a variety of thinkers: Carl Jung, Annie Dillard, Terence Fretheim, Isabel Allende, Elie Wiesel, Julian of Norwich, Simone Weil, N.T. Wright, and Søren Kierkegaard make appearances. Particularly evocative are the excerpts from Friedrich Rückert’s poems, which Bannon translates here into English for the first time: “Do not wrap yourself around the night, / bathe it in eternal light. / My tent is dark, the lamp is cold, / bless the light, the Joy of the World!”
The Advent of Justice: A Book of Meditations Brian Walsh, J. Richard Middleton, Mark Vander Vennen, and Sylvia Keesmaat (Wipf & Stock) $12.00 OUR SALE PRICE = $9.60
I have suggested this rigorously most previous years, suggesting that it is one of the most honest Biblical studies I know, exploring the socio-political context of the Advent texts of Isaiah and the gospels. All four authors, who each take a week, are friends I admire more than this short shout-out can say.
I assume you know Old Testament scholar Richard Middleton (whose recent Abraham’s Silence: The Binding of Isaac, the Suffering of Job, and How to Talk Back to God is groundbreaking, not least in its honesty before God) and Brian and Sylvia, (see their amazingly provocative Empire Remixed website, and their amazingly good, very provocative commentary on Romans, Romans Remixed: Resisting Empire/Demanding Justice.) Mark is an old Pittsburgh friend, fellow peace-maker and activist and now therapist. The four of them did this book to commemorate the advocacy work of Canada’s Citizens for Public Justice and I list it here for those who long for some healing from our ugly and dysfunctional political situation. It is honest and doesn’t flinch from the deeply challenging poetry of the prophet of exile and homecoming. I have used this over and over and am still probing its Brueggemann-esque prose and deeply Biblical vision of God’s redeeming work in the world. It is Biblically solid, and consequently hopeful, but without any commercial sentiment whatsoever. If you haven’t gotten this, you should. It will help.
Advent: The Once Future Coming of Jesus Christ Fleming Rutledge (Eerdmans) $31.99 OUR SALE PRICE = $25.59
I have described this often, cited how some of the best theological thinkers and Christian writers working today have esteemed it. From Richard Hays to Marilyn McEntyre, from Michael Gorman to James K.A. Smith, her wit and wisdom is commended, her brave sermons
“tastefully unfolds the ethical and future-oriented significance of Advent for the church.”
Few resources have helped me understand a more historic and profound understanding of Advent waiting and the eschatological hopes of this season and its unique, sober practices. I very highly recommend it.
We still have it here at our 20% off and hope you order it. It’s 400 pages of mature Biblical insight.
BOOKS ABOUT COPING WITH HARDSHIP, SORROW, LOSS, PAIN…
A Crazy Holy Grace: The Healing Power of Pain and Memory Frederick Buechner (Zondervan) $16.99 OUR SALE PRICE = $13.59
Our friend Caleb Seeling, a Colorado editor and publisher, studied Buechner in college under the great Dale Brown. In Seeling’s fabulous introduction to this collection of various excerpts from Buechner’s many books he ends by citing a line from the novel, Godric — “All’s lost. All’s found.” And then writing:
And that’s what this new collection of Buechner’s writings, including a lecture he gave that has never before appeared in print, aims to help us realize — that when we enter the gates of pain and use the healing power of memory, we will hear God speaking, and we can take comfort and rest our weary souls in his crazy, holy, grace.
If you’ve not read Buechner’s lively, honest memoirs or theological prose, this is a great introduction. If yoiu love his work, you will appreciate this fabulous anthology.
You Can Talk to God Like That: The Surprising Power of Lament To Save Your Faith Abby Norman (Broadleaf Books) $16.99 OUR SALE PRICE = $13.59
In recent years many good books have come out about lament as a faithful Biblical practice. Some are almost exclusively Biblical; this one is not like that. It is full of stories, ideas, practices, permissions, honoring our pain and inviting us to be real before God and others. Abby Norman’s got some wit and some energy going on so it isn’t a heavy book, really, even if it evokes some serious humane spirituality.
It is billed as “a hopeful and transformative introduction to the practice of lament.” It looks at many Psalms and invites us to bring our honest emotions and messy lives to God, for real.
In a moment when many around the world are experiencing grief, it’s also clear that many of us have forgotten how to lament. Abby Norman’s timely and wise book will help anyone who struggles with the language and expression of lament, whether collective or individual. — Kaya Oakes, author of The Nones Are Alright and The Defiant Middle
This book is an absolute gem of straight-talking encouragement and practical wisdom for anyone who’s frustrated by the lack of authenticity in church. Everyone needs an Abby Norman in their life: she has a rare gift of writing about unresolved suffering that will leave you feeling seen, hugged, and galvanized at the same time. — Tanya Marlow, author of Those Who Wait: Finding God in Disappointment, Doubt and Delay
Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep Tish Harrison Warren (IVP) $22.00 OUR SALE PRICE = $17.60
We have raved about this before and any who order it from us (at our previously announced BookNotes 20% off) inevitably get a little message from me not only thanking them for ordering such a fine book but assuring them that it is, indeed, one of my all time favorite reads. It is gripping, honest, raw at times, deeply rooted in ancient faith insights (including some use of the Book of Common Prayer) and yet is utterly contemporary. Tish is a gifted writer and a fine thinker. It is an honor to call her a friend and this book allows us all in on some of the intimate struggles of her and her husband.
Like her must-read and thoroughly lovely Liturgy of the Ordinary, this one is nicely arranged and wonderfully written, serious without being heavy or academic. She’s a good pastor, a sharp thinker, but doesn’t write from the ivory tower. He life as a mom and wife and church worker is revealed as one that is hectic and sometime anguishing; she has experienced more sorrow than many of us.
Prayer in the Night is about how to pray in the midst of that context, one that is not uncommon, since all of us have sorrows, hurts, and fears. As I’ve said elsewhere, the “night” in the title is both metaphorical (praying in the dark night of the soul, with the gloom of doubt, amidst the midnight of hardship — you know) but it is firstly literal. It is about praying at night, using the structure of the BCP prayers of Compline.
Whether you are Episcopal or Anglian or Roman Catholic (and familiar with Compline) or not, this evening prayer makes sense and it is a practice that is both revealing and transformative.
To be creatures is to face many nights: the darkness of the unknown, the uncertain, the unseen. God, in his grace, does not promise to expel the dark; he promises to be with us in the night. In prose that is both powerful and vulnerable, Tish Harrison Warren invites us to receive Compline as a gift to help us face the dark. Prayer is how we press our hands into the invisible and find the hand of Christ reaching back. –James K. A. Smith, Calvin University, author of How to Inhabit Time
By the light of an ancient nighttime prayer, this book tenderly and thoroughly explores the beautiful and precarious reality of our shared human life. And it illuminates for us the ultimate Christian question: what it means to love and be loved by a God who made us as vulnerable as we are, and also made himself as vulnerable as we are. — Andy Crouch, author of The Life We’re Looking For
Companions in the Darkness: Seven Saints Who Struggled with Depression and Doubt Diana Gruber (IVP) $18.00 OUR SALE PRICE = $14.40
This is a go-to book for us nowadays that we recommend for nearly anyone struggling with depression and/or doubt because it is rooted not only in the author’s own anguish but in clear-headed exploration and storytelling of others from church history who have walked that hard road. I appreciated learning about the historical realities of depression among the saints — who knew? She tells about Martin Luther, Charles Spurgeon William Cowper, Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King, Jr. and others.
There is a great forward by counselor Chuck DeGroat, fabulous endorsements by the likes of Dr. Richard Winter and novelist and spiritual director Sharon Garlough Brown. Nicely done.
Time and Despondency: Regaining the Present in Faith and Life Nicole M. Roccas (Ancient Faith Publishing) $17.95 OUR SALE PRICE = $14.36
Dr. Nicole Rocca’s, a young Orthodox scholar (who lectures at Trinity College in Toronto) does, here, what most mature Orthodox writers do well — invites us into a deep, careful consideration of ancient sins in light of ancient truths and the good news of Christ. Without shaming us, she reminds us that Idleness, apathy, restlessness, procrastination are all symptoms of what the earlier Christian writers called despondency (or acedia.) It is a disorder of sorts, a “spiritual sickness rooted in a lack of care.”
As it says on the back cover:
A condition as old as the ancients, despondency thrives in today’s culture of leisure, anxiety, and digital distraction. Time and Despondency is a penetrating synthesis of ancient theology, spiritual memoir, and self-help practicality. It envisions despondency as the extension of a broken relationship with the experience of time.
Did you get that? If you’ve read the essential How to Embody Time: Understanding the Past, Facing the Future, Living Faithfully Now by James K. A. Smith (who shares a bit therein about his own struggles with depression) this last sentence will make sense, I think. It is still jarring, though.
Roccas invites us to regain the sacredness of time and to “re-encounter the Resurrection of Christ in the dark and restless moment of our lives.”
It isn’t about Advent but since Advent is the start of the liturgical calendar and the church year, this is a good time to start to ponder this serious book.
A Beautiful Disaster: Finding Hope in the Midst of Brokenness Marlena Graves (Brazos Press) $19.00 OUR SALE PRICE = $15.20
Whenever anyone asks us about books on contemplative spirituality, the desert fathers and mothers, or how evangelicals might discover a more profound and ancient way of walking in faith, I almost always suggest this first book by popular writer, activist, leader, and author Marlena Graves. Rachel Held Evans, before her passing, called this “an extraordinary debut by one of today’s most promising new authors.” Other blurbs were from Dennis Okholm (Monk Habits for Everyday People) and Jan Johnson and Emile Griffin, all known for deeper, contemplative practices. Karen Swallow Prior called it “a rich blend of theology, devotional, memoir — which at times breaks into sheer poetry.”
Rachel Marie Stone (author of the stunning Birthing Hope: Giving Fear to the Light) is right in commending Marlena’s “gentle wisdom, pastoral tenderness, and graceful convictions” but says much when she observes that this book “offers a balm to the hurting and hope that our dry and weary times will with God’s help, bloom into something beautiful.”
Balm for dry and weary times. Yep. The heart of the book, actually, is a walk with Christ through the wilderness. Perfect for the time after Christmas.
Shaky Ground: What to Do After the Bottom Drops Out Traci Rhoades (Church Publishing) $18.95 OUR SALE PRICE = $15.16
Traci is a gem of a person, upbeat and witty, but down-to-earth and honest. She has travelled in diverse religious communities that she happily and honestly wrote about in Not All Who Wander (Spiritually) Are Lost and here, again, she shares with a ecumenicity and generosity that is striking. There is a lot to commend about her writing but mostly, she’s an honest storyteller.
And that counts for a whole lot for most of us. For one thing, it shows that we aren’t the only one who has feel the bottom drop out.
As it says on the back cover, “When all seems lost, we are not alone.”
“When all seems lost, we are not alone.”
The back cover copy continues: “Shaky Ground is an engaging roadmap through life’s struggles for anyone looking to dive deeper into faith.” This book is actually about just that — learning spiritual practices that help us seek meaning, even when things go haywire. Her spiritual disciplines are evolving for her as she finds ways to navigate faith in a fallen world.
There is a fabulously fun foreword by the great writer Catherine McNiel (All Shall Be Well: Awakening to God’s Presence in His Messy, Abundant World) who affirms her friend’s writings and the careful, solid, what she invites us to move along, even on shaky ground.
Turn My Mourning into Dancing: Finding Hope During Hard Times Henri Nouwen (Thomas Nelson) $16.99 OUR SALE PRICE = $13.59
This small hardback is a solid, lovely book that you won’t forget.Father Nouwen offers solace without platitudes — never simplistic, always gentle; he wrote The Wounded Healer early in his ministry, so knows a bit about our fragile condition. This is a deeply comforting book and includes a lot. It was first gleaned from previously unpublished writings and presentations given by Nouwen over the years. I suppose you know that Henri wrote a book about the death of his father, another on the death of his mother. He was sensitive, caring, thoughtful, and always aware of the deep wounds of the world. Yet, he clung to Matthew 5:4, the promise of comfort for those who mourn.
These chapters are compiled from previous unpublished presentations, good for “even the darkest night.”
Out of Chaos: How God Makes New Things from the Broken Pieces of Life Jessica LaGrone (Zondervan Reflective / Seedbed) $18.99 OUR SALE PRICE = $15.19
This is an extraordinary book; can anything good come out of the chaos of life? I tend to be suspicious of books that gloss over our pain with religious platitudes, that fail to honor the struggles of real people. Because this author is the Dean of the Chapel at Asbury Theological Seminary I know she is experienced in comforting those in pain; she knows how to honor the chaos and relates well to those who experience bedlam and the struggle.
Here, though, while she is not offering cheesy “silver lining” bromides, she does challenge “the hope-destroying belief that God has abandoned us in our broken relationships, our pain, and our grief.” “When the Spirit of God hovers,” she explains, “chaos can give birth to hope.”
There’s an excellent foreword by A. J. Swoboda, himself a very good writer, one who has written good books with titles like A Glorious Dark: Finding Hope in the Tension Between Belief and Experience and After Doubt: How to Question Your Faith Without Losing It. If he recommends it, you know it’s worth reading, especially if you are facing your own chaos.
Voices of Lament: Reflections on Brokenness and Hope in a World Longing for Justice edited by Natasha Sistrunk Robinson (Revell) $19.99 OUR SALE PRICE = $15.99
I am thrilled with this recent book which I’ve only dipped into a bit. It has lots of great Biblical content, powerful voices by women of color, stories, meditations and exegesis of the famous Hebrew lament text, Psalm 37. Line by line they reflect on it, drawing in contemporary women writers we know and respect —Jenny Yang, Pat Raybon, Vivian Mabuni, Marlena Graves, Sheila Wise Rowe, Robinson, herself, of course and many more — and there are selections from women from around the globe (some who are no longer living) who offer essays and poems and meditations. This book is just a tremendously rich compilation with various genres side by side, giving a multidimensional appreciation for the Bible texts in question.
It is not overly dour, but it is a book of lament, beautifully done. We need this. Highly recommended.
Bright Hope: Discovering Resilient, Sustainable Ways of Living Through Even the Darkest Times Ted Blackman (Cascade) $31.00 OUR SALE PRICE = $24.80
I was hooked on this powerful, thoughtful, serious book from the wonderful introduction by the author’s old friend from seminary days, Jim Wallis. Jim, as you may know, started up the Post American and, when their radical community of idealistic counter-cultural evangelicals moved to DC, changed their name of the flagship journal to Sojourners. Ted was part of that, an activist, more than a voice for peace, justice, reconciliation, and such, but was a doer, a servant of the poor, a street-level leader. And he became a psychologist and therapist. It seems like he evolved into a politically-savvy, righteous pastoral counselor who integrated faith and psychology, and not only for the privileged.
As becomes clear in Jim’s tender forward, Ted got cancer and, with a terminal diagnosis, set out to live a life of Christ-centered resilience. He was given less than a year to live, but lived more than a decade; deepened by that experience he developed and lived out a way of life “animated by hope in the transcendent reality of God’s future coming to us in the present. He is, I’m sure, an honest and yet inspiring companion for all of us.
Tristia Bauman (an attorney at the National Homelessness Law Center) calls it, “A light in dark times.”
“A light in dark times.”
The book is for those who feel defeated or seek a new way forward “that reframes the present.” It is also for caregivers and activists and advocates who may “need new tools for replenishing both internal and external resources.” It is even good for congregational reading, for those communities of faith who are seeking to bring change to (or empowering hope for and with) marginalized folks.
We are all dying every day, but not all of us know that to the depths as did Ted Brackman. His book is a passionate, intelligent, faithful cry from the heart that speaks to all people seeking to follow Jesus in challenging times. Drink in Ted’s words of wisdom and be inspired anew to walk in joyous discipleship. — Wes Howard-Brook, author of Come Out, My People, God’s Call Out of Empire in the Bible and Beyond
How to Begin When Your World Is Ending: A Spiritual Field Guide to Joy Despite Everything Molly Phinney Baskette (Broadleaf Books) $26.99 OUR SALE PRICE = $21.59
I like Molly Baskette for being a witty young UCC pastor who has other books about church revitalization, especially from her own mainline denominational context. This book, though, is her moving and quite witty, even probing, set of chapters helping folks through hard times. As one Jewish Rabbi wrote, “Your brain, heart, and soul will be better off for having spent some time in Molly Baskette’s extraordinary company.” I have been with her and can attest.
It is funny and nicely written, and it “whirls her reader through stories of hardship with a light step and a deft hand, all to the rhythm of grace.” As Emily Scott (who wrote the spectacular For All Who Hunger: Searching for Communion in a Shattered World), put it, “This book is for anyone learning to dance through difficult days.”
The Lord Is My Courage: Stepping Through the Shadows of Fear Toward the Voice of Love K.J. Ramsey (Zondervan) $22.99 OUR SALE PRICE = $18.39
We have reviewed this powerful read before (it came out over the summer) and we think it important to mention it again. K.J. previously wrote the extraordinary book about chronic pain called This Too Shall Last: Finding Grace When Suffering Lingers and here, in this newer one, The Lord is My Courage, she walks through Psalm 23 as it ministered to her in a season of pain, trauma, church stress, toxic faith and more. She asks how we can cultivate courage when fear overshadows our lives. “How do we hear the Voice of Love when hate and harm shout loud?” This is somewhat memoir, somewhat Bible study, balm for anybody hurting or disillusioned.
The stunningly good, artfully Christian psychiatrist Dr. Curt Thompson wrote a great foreword to The Lord Is My Courage which alerts you to its significance and quality.
PRE-ORDER: By the way, we already have a little waiting list for her mid-January release, The Book of Common Courage: Prayers and Poems to Find Strength in Small Moments. It releases 1/17/23 and goes for $19.99 — our sale price = $15.99. PRE-ORDER it today by using the link at the end of this column. We won’t charge you until we send it, of course in January.
I Understand: Pain, Love, and Healing After Suicide Vonnie Woodcock (Eerdmans) $14.99 OUR SALE PRICE = $11.99
There are several books like this that we carry; from the very short one by the excellent Catholic mystic Ronald Rolheiser (Bruised and Wounded: Struggling to Understand Suicide) to the recent memoir about the extended family by Heidi Paul (Abiding Light: In the Shadow of Your Absence) there is much good and helpful writing.
I Understand is written by the wife of a well-known business leader, Rob Woodrick, who took his life in 2002; she writes movingly how in the aftermath she wanted to understand. There was, of course, the stigma of mental illness that loomed large over Rob’s death which, she notes, made healing more difficult.
Vonnie found that the common assumptions surrounding suicide to be false. She says “Rob was not ‘crazy.’ He did not choose to take his own life. He was in agony and only wanted the pain to end.” Over a decade later she and her children created a nonprofit (i understand) to help others enduring this same grief and loneliness.
The back cover says, “This is the story of ow love transformed Vonnie’s brokenness into hope — not only for herself and her family but for anyone struggling to emerge from the darkness of suicide.”
A review I read somewhere online said this:
I Understand is about the living, about picking up the pieces and moving forward, about understand the root cause of suicide, about forgiving, about grieving, and about changing the conversation in how we talk about suicide.
There is, somewhat remarkably, a very good forward by actress Mariel Hemingway (whose famous grandfather, Ernest, famously shot himself) and who became friends with the author. Mariel writes,
“This book is an invitation to be brave enough to share our demons with others so that we can let them go.”
Sparrow: A Book of Life and Death and Life Jan Richardson (Wanton Gospeller Press) $24.00 OUR SALE PRICE = $19.20
A simply exquisitely made book, hefty, handsome, with deckled pages, one can tell it was designed by a maker, an artist. We carry Jan Richardson’s several books of devotionals and spirituality and very much recommend her prayerful poetic meditations and blessings in The Cure for Sorrow: A Book of Blessings for Times of Grief (also published by her Wanton Gospeller Press, in hardcover or paperback.)
Richardson, you may know, is a beloved writer, artist and ordained minister in the United Methodist Church. She is the director of The Wellness Studio in Florida. She frequently collaborated with her husband and creative partner, the singer/songwriter Garrison Doles, until his sudden death in 2013.
Sparrow tells the story of their love, his death, and her soulful recovery. As she says,
We are attended. We are accompanied. We are asked to open our eyes, our hearts to the grace of it, that we might bear witness not only to the fall of the sparrow but also to what follows it.
A Hole in the World: Finding Hope in Ritual Grief and Healing Amanda Held Opelt (Worthy) $27.00 OUR SALE PRICE = $21.60
Christmas is so very interesting in part because many families have unique and idiosyncratic ways of enjoying the holidays together. There are special family gatherings, distinctive rituals, habits that are so engrained that they become almost sacred, maybe what Jamie Smith (in You Are What You Love) called “liturgies.”
This idea for this extraordinary book is written by the bereaved sister of the late Rachel Held Evans (who died suddenly a few years back) as she tried to know how to grief. The idea of the book is simple and I do not know of any book like it. Each chapter of A Hole in the World is her learning about a certain grief ritual. She ponders wearing black, she explains the history of tolling bells, has a chapter on sending sympathy cards, she talks about sharing casseroles and a chapter on “funeral games.” We learn about Sitting Shiva. There’s a chapter called “Telling the Bees” (a rumination on fear) and a beautiful chapter on how memory is shaped by photography. You get the point — it is somewhat of a history of grief rituals and it is somewhat a memoir of her own season walking through these distinctive practices. It’s a great read, interesting and healing, good for those in grief, or for those who will (I guarantee it) someday be in grief.
A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows Through Loss revised and expanded Jerry Sitter (Zondervan) $25.99 OUR SALE PRICE = $21.79
I could do an entire BookNotes post about the many, many good books about grief but I can save you some time by suggesting this, our most-often recommended title for those in awful grief. Sittser is a great writer, a fine Christian leader, and suffered the loss of his wife and daughters in a horrific car accident. This book tells his story with honesty and grace. Philip Yancey (who has written some good titles on this) says it is “realistic and redemptive.”
This is a book you will never forget and, I suspect, will recommend to authors who have experience traumatic loss or serious grief.
Dare We Speak of Hope? Searching for a Language of Life in Faith and Politics Allan Aubrey Boesak (Eerdmans) $18.00 OUR SALE PRICE = $14.40
I have written and spoken about my admiration for this black, South African neo-Calvinist who was best friends with Desmond Tutu and helped lead the religious movement fighting for freedom during the evil apartheid regime in South Africa. It is rare to find scholar/pastor/activists who know Calvin and Kuyper and were friendly with Biko and Mandela. Who has himself despair (and been to jail.) As Nicholas Wolterstorff says in his very moving forward, this study of Biblical hope is “eloquent, challenging, and a deeply spiritual book.”
And so, while Curtiss Paul DeYoung calls it “a masterpiece” and “powerfully persuasive” it also is, it seems to me, a possible meditation for those who can’t quite wrap their minds around the joyfulness of a status quo Christmas. How do we practice hope in all its social and political implications? How do the oppressed of the world come into our thinking as we embrace this question of hope?
Yes, this is a book on politics. But it is also a deeply theological and deeply realistic study of God’s faithfulness and our call to what another has termed the audacity of hope. We hear about hope at Christmas, of course, but few holiday homilies get this real with the notion.
Songs of Resistance: Challenging Caesar and Empire R. Alan Streett (Cascade) $27.00 OUR SALE PRICE = $21.60
This new book looks fascinating to me and I very much respect this Baptist scholar, a researcher at Criswell College in Dallas. His previous books include Subversive Meals and Caesar and the Sacrament, both doing socio-political study of the meaning and implications of these sacraments.
Does cheesy praise music sometimes get you down? Do you wonder why some church groups can raise their voices (and maybe their hands) to worship Christ but then vote in ways that do not honor his basic teachings? Is there a way to rethink how we think about praise of Christ Jesus? Shouldn’t paying homage to this kind of King change our very lives?
This powerful, studious work looks at the hymns of the New Testament — that is, the praise and worship songs of the early church. He discovers that their lyrics contest and defy the “great tradition” of Rome and its claim to power.
The early Christ followers sang songs that opposed the empires worldview and offered an alternative vision for society. These songs were a first-century equivalent of modern-day protest songs. But instead of marching and singing in the streets, believers gathered in private spaces where they lifted their voices to Jesus and retold the story of his execution as an enemy of the state and how God raised him from the dead to rule over the universe.
“As they sang,” he notes, “believers were emboldened to remain faithful to Christ and withstand the temptation to comply with the sociopolitical agenda of the empire.”
Dr. Streett looks at Mary’s Song (Luke 1), the lyrical prologue of John 1, the hymn of Christ in Philippians 2, naturally Colossians 1:15-20, and the bit about the mystery of Godliness in 1 Timothy 3:16. He explores some hymn fragments and has a chapter about the songs of Revelation. Wow. With the conclusion, there are 11 chapters in all. This is radical, Biblical stuff, maybe a strong enough salvo to help you with your Christmas funk. I hope so.
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No, COVID is not fully over. Since few are reporting their illnesses anymore, it is tricky to know the reality but the best measurement is to check the water tables to see the amount of virus in the eco-system. It’s still bad, and worsening (again.) With flu and new stuff spreading, many hospitals are overwhelmed. It’s important to be particularly aware of how risks we take might effect the public good. It is complicated for us, so we are still closed for in-store browsing due to our commitment to public health (and the safety of our family, staff, and customers.) The vaccination rate here in York County is sadly lower than average. Our store is a bit cramped without top-notch ventilation so we are trying to be wise. Thanks for understanding.
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