I suppose I should note the irony that I write this review about two lovely, rich, joyous, earnest books under some degree of bookseller stress. It’s just me, I suppose, but I want to be a good cheerleader for these two books and don’t want to botch it. They invite us to take a deep breath — really, they do — and yet my heart is unhelpfully pounding faster than my fingers on the keyboard. And that’s pretty fast.
Maybe you, too, are under some duress, or at least stress, maybe sadness and pain. These are hard days and I am sure I am not alone in wanting some good, calm reading, spiritually rewarding, centering. Sometimes I do want to go gently into a good night, and need fine writers to accompany me.
Such books by such authors dare not be too mystical to be of real-world good (even the mystic Thomas Merton was clear about that) and they dare not disregard the real pains of this broken world in which we live.
In a lovely, passionate, profound commencement speech given a week ago my long-time friend Steve Garber (author, most recently, of The Seamless Life) invoked authors as diverse as Saint Augustine and Martin Luther King, Abraham Kuyper and Mother Theresa, to illustrate that the biggest questions in life have haunted and motivated some of the most wonderful Christian thinkers that we know from the past. He reminds us that life is too complicated, the days too important, the needs too great, to accept cheap, private faith. Enjoy that great talk (starting about 22 and a half minutes in HERE.)
And so, it is in that spirit — that Holy Spirit — that I invite you to buy two of the best books of the season, one just out, one coming May 30th, each about our interior lives, but each leading towards a whole-life sort of lived discipleship. I’ve savored them both. Actually, I devoured them, fast, like gulping a gallon I really needed, and then I settled down and read them again, more slowly, more carefully, enjoying their wisdom and allowing these writers to speak to my soul.
Both are 20% off. You can scroll to the bottom of this column to find the link that takes you to the secure Hearts & Minds order form. Please don’t forget to tell us how you’d like them shipped, as explained below. Thanks for reading.
The Language of the Soul: Meeting God in the Longings of Our Hearts Jeff Crosby (Broadleaf Books) $26.99 OUR SALE PRICE = $21.59
Oh, how I enjoyed this book and oh, how I’ve been eager to tell you about it. As with some of our very favorite books, knowing a bit about the writer is helpful, offering context and a reason to buy. Some authors have such integrity and are so invested in their project which flows so naturally from their good lives that it almost doesn’t matter what the book is about. There are some people we ought to read because whatever they offer is going to be great, both well-written and well-considered. Jeff is one of those guys that I would read any book on anything he writes. I admire him greatly, and this, his first published book, is a masterpiece.
Yet, to say The Language of the Soul is a masterpiece might imply it is weighty and dense. It is not. Although he draws on deeply profound writers from Parker Palmer to Ruth Haley Barton, from Richard Foster to Henri Nouwen, it is not heady or obscure — not in the least. Marilyn McEntyre, who knows something about crafting important, beautiful, prose, says it is “open-hearted and accessible.” Frederick Buechner scholar, Jeff Monroe, naming it as a gift in his own life, says Language of the Soul “is a wonderful piece of spiritual writing.” But I am ahead of myself.
Jeff is a fascinating fellow because (amongst other things) he has worked in the book industry much of his life. He became a follower of Christ and grew in his early days as a believer (he rarely, if ever, went to church as a kid, as we learn in the book) through the products found at a local Christian bookstore. He bought a lot of contemporary Christian music, he once told me, that really mattered and formed him even as he read lots of popular books, good books, of the 1970s and 80s. He ended up working in that indie store (and marrying into the family; his wife, Cindy, herself, is a published author, most recently in natural history.) Jeff later worked for a large book wholesaler, then in a respected publishing house (where he became the chief executive at IVP) and now serves as an industry leader as CEO of a professional publishing association (the ECPA.) Jeff has visited our store, served us well when he was at IVP, and now is a model leader who has advised us and so many other indie faith-based bookstores. He is a book-loving guy many of us in the religious book industry know who is schooled in excellent leadership practices, and now, happily, you can benefit from his years of paying attention to some of the best writers of our time. Language of the Soul is simply fabulous.
Crosby doesn’t drop names casually — although he could, and, to be honest, I probably would — but he knows many of the best contemporary religious writers, women and men from across the theological spectrum, of various ethnicities, from various corners of the publishing world. That he has surrounded himself with great pages by great authors and has sought out some of them for personal mentoring and friendship illustrates why he is a voice to consider. He has learned much, and shares his wisdom gently, humbly, earnestly. I can hardly think of a better person poised to write this kind of a book. He has been carefully working on it for years and we are delighted to welcome The Language of the Soul into the world.
I mentioned that Jeff likes music — and does he ever! His Facebook pages are a blast to follow as he sometimes cites great classics from decades ago — Earth Wind and Fire! Jim Croce! Jackson Browne! Cat Stevens! Aretha! — and moves from fun, one-hit wonders to deeper and more aesthetically important work, from Bruce Cockburn to Yo Yo Ma.
So get this: he has a playlist for each chapter of this new book, and it is a blast, including tunes that relate to the theme of each chapter, from Nanci Griffith (a gorgeous, important song, “Trouble in These Fields”) to Dvorak to the stellar acoustic guitarist Brooks Williams to moody Van Morrison to a rare hymn from a Lutheran hymnal. It’s not everybody who recommends Nat King Cole and Tracy Chapman, Harry Chapin’s powerful “Mr. Tanner” and “If You’re Ready” by the Staple Singers, right next to a Celtic ballad by the Chieftains and a Kyrie by Hildegard von Bingen. These chapter-by-chapter lists are worth the price of the book, believe me!
Although he doesn’t overdo it, Crosby does work with a musical theme a bit, at least in the start of the book. He describes a specific genre, saudade (a Portuguese word), referenced in writing about and even in the songs of samba, jazz, fado, and bossa nova music — and he names some artists, a musical education I appreciated. What is its indolent allure, he asks in the gripping introduction; how is it connected to his own spiritual journey?
To explain that is to invite you into the theme of the whole book. It is a great hook and it resonated so, so nicely.
Saudade [pronounced sow-dodge-ee] you see, is a sort of salsa music that evokes a bit of melancholic reminiscence, almost a kind of nostalgia. But unlike nostalgia, it isn’t merely recalling the past, remembering better days. It playfully evokes a future, too. It is, as one music scholar puts it, wistful. Have you had that experiencing of wistful longing, that dreaming, maybe for something that hardly exists, but might?
When Jeff asked a Brazilian friend about his understanding of saudade, he reports, “tears filled his eyes. The connection was immediate and deep and anything but distant.” To further explain it, his South American friend invited Jeff to consider the longing described in Luke 24, the famous “road to Emmaus” story. Jeff’s pages explaining the usefulness of this word, this curious and almost sublime feeling, are wonderful and they frame the book beautifully. I had me humming Van Morrison’s “Inarticulate Speech of the Heart.” The Language of the Soul really is an invitation to listen to the longings of the heart, inarticulate as they may be.
There are several nearly universal longings that Jeff identifies and while there could be others, and some may be more noticeable in your own life as you quiet yourself to think on these things, he is spot on in naming the ones he does. His stories are clarifying, the authors he mentions are perfect, and the writing is engaging and clear, earnest and profound. I was all in. I think you will be, too.
In the first portion of the book (after that great bit about saudade) he documents a few key longings that he calls “our interior longings.” These include excellent chapters on “The Longing for Home” (which was beautiful and poignant, honest and rare), “The Longing for an Undivided Life” (brilliant, perhaps a favorite chapter), “The Longing for Freedom from Fear and Anxiety”, The Longing for Forgiveness”, “The Longing for Spiritual Transformation”, and “The Longing for Peace.” In each he tells stories from his own interesting (and not always pleasant) life, cites authors (those religious and some less so, those with solidly evangelical bona fides and others — what a delight!) And there are those playlists.
I love how this weaves together good stuff about our interior lives without it seeming to be overly contemplative. Sure, he quotes The Holy Longing by the marvelous priest and writer Ronald Rolheiser, but Jeff’s no monk. His invitation to an “undivided life” and his concerns about meaningful work and finding “freedom from anxiety” (about which he knows a bit, we find) are nearly commonplace and quite ordinarily human; quotidian, we might say. Who doesn’t struggle with regret, with forgiveness, with a longing for peace — in the world, in our families, in our own broken hearts?
Part II of the book offers insight about what Jeff calls “Our Exterior Longings.” These three strong chapters are exceptional — honest and poignant. Again, he has spent years relating to writers, and he knows just how (and when) to cite just the right author who brings just the right extra layer of insight. From Frederick Buechner to Robert Benson, from Howard Thurman to Steve Garber, from Adel Ahlberg Calhoun to Lewis Smedes, from T.S. Eliot to Maya Angelou, he garners just the right quote or anecdote. In this section you will be thrilled and learn much as he looks at our “Longing for Community”, “Longing for Friendship” and “Longing for Meaningful Work.” There is so much to say about each of these chapters — each is chock full of stories and wisdom, Biblical insight and, yes, a few song references.
The final chapter is the sole piece in Part III, “The Longing for Heaven”, framed by the section title of “Our Eternal Longings.” It is a very good chapter on a much-considered topic, and not to be missed.
Like me, you might want to read this through a second time.
Jeff has served as an editor for many authors that Hearts & Minds knows and loves, and has left his behind-the-scenes fingerprints on many a title that you, too, may know. As a long-time bookman he expertly understands how to craft a readable and enjoyable read. He is not Richard Foster; he is not Christopher de Vinck; he is not Parker Palmer — but he draws on them, speaks of them, even as he guides us to new ideas that are fully his own. The book has garnered great comments before publication — James Bryan Smith, for instance, who wrote The Good and Beautiful God and others, says, in an afterword, “I will treasure this book for the rest of my life.”
This is the kind of book we really love to promote as it is so very well done, well-rooted, informed, connected, and a joy to read. He shows his work, so to speak, and yet, artist that he is, breaks new ground. Although it is about all various aspects of our lives, finally, I think, it is about our great need to be loved (by God and others) to find ourselves in a story that is coherent, to bask in the meaningful vision of the Kingdom coming, even as our wistful saudade reminds that it is simply not yet.
There is a great forward by Enneagram teacher and author Suzanne Stabile (The Journey Toward Wholeness and The Path Between Us) who writes,
The reason I have come to love this book so much is because Jeff Crosby has given me language for feelings that I carry with me everywhere I go but have struggled to name. And I promise it will do the same for you.
As the luminous writer Marilyn McEntyre (of Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, among many others) puts it, “This book is worth reading slowly, as an invitation to feel and reflect on our own deepest longings and where they may lead us.” Are you in touch with your own yearnings? Are you eager to move more deeply into the future, finding “our heart’s true home”? This book is for you.
Beside the fabulous playlists accompanying each chapter there are good discussion questions, making this useful for personal pondering and reflection, but, better, to be read in a group, an adult ed class or book club. I know you’ll enjoy it.
Sacred Strides: The Journey to Belovedness in Work and Rest Justin McRoberts (W Publishing Group /Thomas Nelson) $18.99 OUR SALE PRICE = $15.19
not yet released RELEASE DATE – MAY 30, 2023 PRE-ORDER NOW
This, too, is, as I have said, a book I’ve read twice, now — a devouring, eager, quick gulp, and, now, a slower, more attentive read. It is so worth it, and, again, like Jeff’s above, I read this book firstly, just because I love the author. Secondly, I need the insight, the encouragement, the provocation to do what the author suggests. Yep. This one is important. And a blast.
If Mr. Crosby is an experienced executive in the book industry and knows mature authors like educator Parker Palmer and writer Christopher de Vinck (one of dearest friends of Mr. Fred Rogers) Justin, former rock star that he almost was, tells goof-ball stories of being on tour with the likes of ska band Five Iron Frenzy, and doing passionate Compassion International pitches at youth events and speaking at outdoor festivals and failing to organize advance housing for a ski trip with punker kids. He is sometimes a bit shaggy, maybe tatted a little, and has one of the best hearts of anyone in the biz. (And, I will add, he is more articulate and wise and faithful than most buttoned-down, big-name preacher celebrities.) I’d follow this dude anywhere; naturally I will read anything he writes, edgy/bohemian as it may seem. And even if he uses sentence constructions like “I. Was. So. Tired.” At the very least, I know it will be good for a laugh and probably a good cry. But more, you will be inspired to live in the newness of life. You should check him out, for sure.
If high jinx and funny stories and voguish writing seem less serious than it should be for a book about belovedness, let me assure you that cultural creator and spirited artist and hip entrepreneur that McRoberts is, he is also very truly insightful about the wayward ways of the human heart and — citing Brennan Manning and a lot of Bible stories — he knows that God loves us anyway. At the heart of this wild and uproarious book is the exceptionally profound notion of being beloved, of being held dear. The book is written very directly to the reader, and Justin makes it clear that he wants us to get it, to understand it, to live it. He has hopes for us, his readers.
I. Love. That. About. Him.
In the prologue he speaks of his deceased father, telling of going on a run with him when his father was not strong or healthy. After this moving tale, Justin notes,
Maybe you’re like me and devotion or rest or prayer doesn’t come naturally. Like my dad’s bad knee, that’s my “weak side.” I hope that, as you read, you sense the Spirit of God come alongside you and say, I’ve got you. Just stay with me. That’s all I want.
Justin has shared in an earlier book — in a book full of stories of gonzo pranks and epic fails and remarkable adventures and solid guidance on opening up our creative selves — a bit about the suicide of his father, when Justin was a very young adult. He’s touched on some of this anguish and angst in some of his songwriting and recording. In Sacred Stride he tells us a bit more and it seems as if he is, over time, coming to terms with more of this part of his family’s story and now has heart-felt things to share about it. There are lessons learned in this great sorrow and, yet, as always, he is mostly upbeat and glad to be a guide. He’s real (that is, not contrived or showy) and can talk about tragedy without being morose. He knows how to weave a story from tears to laughter over the course of a chapter and you will appreciate both his candor and his hope.
I loved that last book, It Is What You Make of It: Creating Something Great from What You’ve Been Given, which I’d recommend to almost anyone — especially younger adult readers, I suppose — but it is about creativity, making something of one’s life, despite all. It has universal themes, for sure, but it sold mostly to those wanting to explore their creative sides. Maybe it was mostly aimed at makers and entrepreneurs and activists and artists.
Sacred Strides: The Journey to Belovedness in Work and Rest, though, has a broader appeal, at least for those who enjoy a lot of zany stories and honest anecdotes of the, uh, colorful sort. It is, finally, a book about rest, about a Sabbath lifestyle, about meaningful and life-giving work, and about knowing we are loved no matter what. It is, he notes early on, decidedly not about balance.”That’s not how life works or how God designed you to live,” he say. You can read that section to see how he unpacks it, but his simple analogy — about running with two feet — is very good.
No, he is not particularly balanced and that’s okay. He explains why that isn’t even a helpful way to think about these demanding aspects of our lives. He explores these themes with depth and maturity, even if in casual and conversational style. The book is full of stories where, as they say, he learned the hard way.
Justin is an amazingly smart guy, and the footnotes show the deep reading and research he has done as he approaches this complicated field. I know he likes The Rest of God by Mark Buchanan (an excellent book on keeping Sabbath which, by the way, starts off with an excellent chapter on work.) More deeply, perhaps, McRoberts draws often on The Active Life by Parker Palmer, which explores the old question (also voiced by Thomas Merton) on how to be an active contemplative (or a contemplative activist.) Justin wants us to live well, to work hard, to get stuff done, to make a difference as we bear witness to the reign of God, coming. (There is a reason he keeps getting invited back to the Jubilee Conference in Pittsburgh each year.) But he knows also, deeply, that we need to remain healthy, generative, refreshed, or, as he puts it in one chapter title, “Exhaustion Isn’t Professional.” From Seth Godin to Julia Cameron to Walter Brueggemann’s exceptional Sabbath As Resistance, McRoberts invites us not just to “take a breather” but to a better way of life.
I love Justin’s verve as a writer. I like that a lot of college-age-ish young adults especially appreciate him — he has a lot of stories about doing youth ministry when he was younger and the style shows it. His stories of his own youth, the tragedy of his father’s death, even his hard work to be a good dad to his own kids, are vivid and honest and very touching. This would be a great book to get for any young adults you care about, even though it is not only for that age-group.
It is hard to explain why so many readers like Justin’s books. There is a cool style and a creative mind, just a bit experimental at times. And yet, it isn’t shallow or silly. In fact it is serious stuff that for some us who are older (ahem, that would be me) it has taken a lifetime to figure out.
I might point out that Justin co-authored two books with his good friend, artist/illustrator Scott Erickson. Those two largely visual books capture a lot of his poetic style but yet are very different than the writing in Sacred Stride. But you can catch his vibe in the marvelous and creative Prayer: Forty Days of Practice and May It Be So: Forty Days with the Lord’s Prayer (both Waterbrook; $16.99 – OUR SALE PRICE = $13.59.)
In the chapter in Sacred Strides on “pacing myself” (where he starts off by telling of a heart-attack-like episode during this own college years that led him to the hospital because — wait for it… he was drinking waaaay to much coffee!) he finally gets around to the question of limits, even as we embrace fully the God-given callings that we have, doing good and important work.
Can I give myself wholeheartedly to work that lights me up and makes me happy? Yes! And so can you. Because God’s love runs deeper than ours, and we join God in it when we work.
Can I set down my agenda and even my hopes and dreams and just rest? Yes! And so can you. Because God’s love runs deeper than ours, and we join God in it when we Sabbath.
This is the important heart of this important little book — if we really believe that God’s love runs “deeper than ours” and His grace really is sufficient, then how might that revolutionize how we live our days, from work to rest and everything in between?
Another thing that is so good about Sacred Strides, besides the mix of outrageous and tender stories, and besides the mix of good stuff on both work and rest, is that Justin call us to what we all know (it is one of those universal desires Jeff Crosby writes about) but few seriously pursue: we long to have friends, colleagues, fellows in fellowship, or (as he puts it in one unforgettable story), “Running with Others.” In it, he tells of “Ninety pounds of rice and making lasting friendships.” How did he get a ninety pound bag of rich and how did it deepen a friendship? You’ll have to read it to find out, but you don’t want to miss it.
McRoberts has good teaching, moving from anecdote to insight and back again. He wonders why jet lag often hits some of us (those who travel, obviously) so hard and guesses that it could be that we are so exhausted prior to the trip. Why do we manage our lives this way? He has a section advising “disconnect and repair” and he calls for a new sort of leader, being a front-runner who offers “true compassion and learns to lead with love.”
There is this lingo and metaphor of running a race throughout (sacred “strides” — get it?) He says (and, of course, tells a story about) that we sometimes have to be gutsy enough to “reroute” the race. Wow. He draws on Brueggemann here, noting the subversive resistance that sabbath practice suggests.
Of course, it often comes down to this:
Seeing yourself as part of God’s beautiful Story requires you to relinquish your control.
God bless him, he finally, near the end, has a chapter asking, “Why Am I Running at All?” where the takeaway truth is “It is only the love of God that lasts.” It’s a hard, honest chapter about the dazed and intoxicated feeling that had him “able to muster just enough attention to stay slightly engaged” while, frankly, he felt dead inside. “I felt absent from my own life for weeks and then months. I wasn’t ‘there.’”
…my mind would start spinning with anger and sadness at all the ways I wished things had gone. I was haunted by the guilt of knowing I’d let people down and even more by the feeling that God had done the same to me. It scared me to relate to my dad that way, to experience despair. I knew that, at some point, I’d face a lot of what he had faced and in some of the same ways.
But it would be different for him, and this wise, energetic, easy-to-read (but at times remarkably profound) collection of stories serves as a downpayment for it to be different for all of us, if only we read and learn.
A sort of underground church which was a safe place for a lot of wounded people — in a way, church as it is meant to be — that McRoberts helped found and pastor imploded. It was hard, really hard. Justin writes, in a section lifted in a sidebar quote,
On the other side of dying with (and dying to) a work I thought would define my life, I’ve come to more fully give myself over to ‘the hidden wholeness’ that Thomas Merton and Parker Palmer wrote about — that which is behind and beneath and above and before both work and rest.
What is beneath both work and rest? It is, as he puts it, in the book’s very last line, “That Which Is Permanent” — the very love of God.
There are extraordinarily honest questions following each chapter which guide us into what we might ponder in these fresh chapters. Some of the reflection questions will be helpful, I know even if a few may be a bit too raw for you or your friends. It’s an honest book — even if written in a witty and casual style — so the questions are going to push you to be real. Want to really consider the question of rest? Want to take some “sacred strides” as you run your race? Can you move behind less than fulfilling models beyond “The Hustle” on one hand and “Self Care” on the other? What makes you tick? Do you believe the abundant and healing story of the Bible?
Give this book a read and consider afresh just how abundant that Biblical love story is, and how it might shape your work, and your rest. And then call up some friends and read it with them. I’m sure it will generate fabulous, maybe life-changing conversations.
Oh, I almost forgot. There’s a sweet epilogue, another fabulous story of his fathering his youngest daughter. One night she wants to read Arnold Lobel’s great story “The Garden” in the classic Frog and Toad Together. Do you know it? You just might want to order one of those, too. Hooray.
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