Inspiration has been hard to come by in a year marked by a devastating pandemic, economic hardship and shocking political turmoil. If your faith has been challenged, these books will encourage hope, offer guidance and provide glimpses of light amid the shadows.
Dusk, Night, Dawn
With her characteristic deadpan humor, Anne Lamott shepherds us through the darkness in Dusk, Night, Dawn: On Revival and Courage. In short, affectionately candid chapters, Lamott meditates on the beauty of nature, the power of forgiveness, the wonder of love and kindness and the benefit of recognizing specks of hope all around us. When she’s in an airport, exasperated by flight delays, for example, she notices a young girl’s absorption in some hair ribbons. Suddenly it dawns on her how we can recover our faith in life “in the midst of so much bad news and dread, when our children’s futures are so uncertain: We start in the here and now. . . . We start where our butts and feet and minds are. We start in these times of incomprehensible scientific predictions, madness and disbelief, aging and constantly nightmarish airport delays, and we look up and around for brighter ribbons.”
While Lamott explores how we restrict ourselves with limited ideas about grace, sin and forgiveness, Diana Butler Bass focuses on the ways we put Jesus in a cage, confining the universality of his life and message behind bars of dogmatism. In her moving Freeing Jesus: Rediscovering Jesus as Friend, Teacher, Savior, Lord, Way, and Presence, Bass attempts to answer the age-old question, “Who is Jesus really?” Theologians have long responded to this question by focusing on either the human Jesus of history or the divine Christ of faith, but Bass writes that neither history nor theology, “neither intellectual arguments nor ecclesiastical authority elucidates the Jesus I have known.” She shares wonderful stories of finding Jesus during every stage of her life, noting that experiencing Jesus as a friend during one’s teenage years will be very different from experiencing Jesus as a friend in middle age. In this refreshing book, Bass tells readers of a Jesus “who shows up consistently and when we least expect him. Freeing Jesus means finding him along the way.”
Learning to Pray
Each of these books highlights practices that can heal fractured relationships or bring us closer to God, such as prayer. However, our understanding of prayer is often as constricted as our understanding of Jesus. In his monumental and elegantly insightful book Learning to Pray: A Guide for Everyone, James Martin, SJ, teaches a simple but enduring lesson: “Prayer is a personal relationship with God.” He gently guides the reader through reasons to pray and offers a richly detailed history of various types of prayer, from petitionary prayer and centering prayer to nature prayer and lectio divina, or praying with sacred texts. Martin reminds us of the many reasons we pray, including to praise God and to unburden ourselves. Because we often think of prayer as asking for favors from God, or as limited to a certain time and place, we don’t realize that we can pray without knowing it by “pausing to think about something that inspires you,” being “aware that you are grateful” or even simply wishing you could pray. Martin’s book is so abundantly full that it may be the only guide to prayer you’ll ever need.
The Black Church
In the book that accompanies his PBS series of the same title, The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song, Henry Louis Gates Jr. sublimely evokes the power of worship to create both religious and political solidarity. Drawing on meticulous archival research, as well as on insightful interviews with a diverse group of religious leaders, Gates plumbs the history of the Black church in America, from its roots in slavery, through its development in the 19th and early 20th centuries, to its struggles during the 1960s and into the 21st century. Gates elegantly illustrates that “the signal aspects of African American culture were planted, watered, given light, and nurtured in the Black Church.” He also teases apart the two stories present within African American religious traditions: “one of a people defining themselves in the presence of a higher power and the other of their journey for freedom and equality in a land where power itself . . . was (and still is) denied them.” Gates’ enthralling book offers a powerful reminder that our actions affect the communities in which we live.