Book Review: Blessed Union

It is the season of love. The stores are filled with candy hearts, blossoms are starting to appear on trees (at least here in Texas!), and marriage is on the minds of many. Into this landscape bursts the Rev. Sarah Griffith Lund’s new book, Blessed Union: Breaking the Silence About Mental Illness and Marriage, published by Chalice Press.

Griffith Lund previously published a book entitled Blessed are the Crazy: Breaking the Silence about Mental Illness, Family, and Church. This newly-released book serves as a companion to that, particularly about the way the marriage relationship is impacted by mental illness. Since we’re approaching the one-year anniversary of COVID-induced shutdowns, and we know that the pandemic has greatly impacted mental health, this book is particularly relevant.

Marriage is complicated. Every single marriage goes through times that are unique just to those two people: conversations no one else knows about, decisions that can’t be discussed with others. Some of these are necessarily kept private due to the intimacy of marriage. However, all too often these conversations are kept private due to feelings of shame and fear around mental illness.

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Winter Reading Suggestions from Young Clergywomen

Do you love curling up under blankets with a pile of books in the winter? Have you found more time to read – or needed to make time for your survival – in this pandemic? Young clergywomen (YCW) shared in our online groups some of what we hope to read this winter. Many of the books inspire our work as pastors (some accidentally), and many help us stop and breathe in the midst of such strange times. If you are looking for more recommendations for the year, check out some of these reads.

 

Books to read if you are looking for healing…

Loves…Regardless: Forty Devotions Inspired by Womanist Creative Thought and Theology by Donna Owusu-Ansah

This devotional is written for black women, celebrating #blackgirlmagic. The YCW who recommended the book is white. She wrote, “As a white woman reading this life-giving womanist text, my own soul soars as I remember my own belovedness and cultivate practices that lead toward wholeness.”

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In Search of a Non-White Baby Jesus and Post-Partum Mary: Board Book Edition

The author’s kiddo approves this message.

My internet search for “Christmas Board Book” was yielding snow, candy canes, Santa, and saccharine messages about “giving” as the true meaning of Christmas. Worse, searches for “Nativity Board Book” and “Baby Jesus Board Book” turned up white Jesus and a skinny post-partum Mary. The closest to a non-white Jesus I could find was the Holy Family as animated vegetables, and even there, Mother Mary was a very skinny veggie with eyeliner and bright red lipstick after just giving birth to a baby pea.

I was searching for a board book that tells the original Christmas story with Mary, Joseph, angels, shepherds, and baby Jesus. I am okay with a little historical inaccuracy (like a nativity mash-up that includes the magi with the shepherds – or even a shepherd made of asparagus), but I am not okay with teaching my blonde-haired, blue-eyed baby boy that Jesus looks exactly like him. I don’t want him to connect holiness with gendered beauty norms. My white son needs to know that God chose to come to earth as a brown-skinned Palestinian Jew, and that God celebrates bodies of all genders and sizes, including body shifts after pregnancy. In short, I don’t want illustrated children’s books to promote white supremacy or patriarchy.

There are children’s nativity stories that fit these parameters (like Who Built the Stable? by Ashley Bryan and the out-of-print The Story of Christmas by Jane Ray), but they aren’t available as board books. My toddler is old enough to insist on turning the pages himself but not old enough to turn the pages without ripping them. This means that we need baby-friendly board books with a non-white Jesus and realistic post-partum Mary. “Does this book exist?” I asked on social media. Fortunately, my crowd-sourcing revealed that four such books do exist. Here they are.

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Finding Voice: A Review of The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd

“Yeah, I guess I’ve never gotten into Sue Monk Kidd’s books because nobody gets murdered in them,” my friend explained when I was talking with her about The Book of Longings. “Well,” I responded, “spoiler alert: someone does get murdered in this one. Jesus.”

Reading Sue Monk Kidd’s new novel alongside non-canonical scripture

The Book of Longings is Kidd’s long-awaited new novel. I heard about it on NPR and listened to other clergy talk about it excitedly. I was not interested, but between the extra reading I was doing to survive the pandemic and my desire to always be on the lookout for church-related summer reading book club books, I picked it up. Though I’m not a big murder mystery reader, my friend’s desire for something fast paced and exciting was exactly why I was not interested in the book. Frankly, Jesus fiction is boring. As a pastor and creative writer, I have tried to weave together my work subject matter and my love for fiction and it never works. Jesus in my work and others I’ve read is always too nice. A serene, ethereal bore with a great smile. I even thought Christopher Moore’s Jesus in Lamb is a little bland, and Moore did not care about offending Christians!

Kidd does better than most in writing Jesus, perhaps because of her desire to focus on Jesus’ humanity. Kidd’s Jesus is sensual, thoughtful, frustrated, empathetic. Though she doesn’t depict sex scenes, Jesus makes love to his wife. We see scenes where he gets angry, where he questions, where he works long hard days. However, Kidd still writes him as a little too much of a good guy like in other Jesus fiction: he looms charismatically for his wife in parts of the story where it would seem more real for there to be a rift, like when he leaves her to follow John the Immerser. Toward the end of the book, his wife’s devotion to him seems to make less sense to me, as though Kidd was unconsciously relying on us to just think of Jesus as always wonderful instead of showing us what of him was so lodged in his wife’s heart even when they were separated.

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A Review of Speaking Truth: Women Raising Their Voices in Prayer

In early March, a copy of Speaking Truth arrived at my house, and I was excited to read it. I was busy pastoring during Lent and making plans for Easter, excited for this celebratory season in the life of the church, so this collection of prayers and reflections seemed perfect.

Speaking Truth: Women Raising their Voices in Prayer was published by Abingdon Press in February 2020.

And then, a few days later, everything changed. COVID-19 quickly rewrote all our daily patterns and our expectations.

As I write this, we’ve been living in this pandemic for over three months; though stores and restaurants have reopened, cases in my community are spiking, so worship remains virtual and my family remains at home.

Three months is a long time… and yet, I can’t really remember what life was like before; this season has been an entire lifetime and a breath, both at once.

If you’re like me, you started quarantine back in March with a big stack of books and, in the midst of dread and fear and anxiety, harbored a small sliver of joy that you would finally have time to get to them.

ALL THE TIME! I thought. THERE WILL BE SO MUCH FREE TIME!!!

Then, if you’re like me, it was much harder to take advantage of that time than I anticipated. After several weeks of quarantine, the stack of books still sat on my side table, staring at me. I opened a couple early on and had a hard time focusing, reading a few sentences until I found my mind wandering to how to upload the next worship video or making a mental checklist of the parishioners I needed to call.

That was my experience with every book I tried to read… until I got to Speaking Truth.

What a breath of fresh air.

This book, published by Abingdon Press, is a follow-up to We Pray With Her, a collection of prayers written by women who sent daily prayers to Secretary Hillary Clinton during her presidential campaign in 2016. Speaking Truth took that premise and expanded it, including more voices — particularly of women of color and queer clergy.

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Midrash on the Beach

One of the things I love most about preaching is the opportunity to imagine between the lines of a story. I can’t resist a chance to illuminate the scene and characters from my own imagination. The Bible is often sparse in its literary detail, to put it lightly – I mean, come on, parchment is expensive! We can’t be wasting space with frivolous details, like the names of women and whatnot! But more often than not, my own imagination falls far short of the real beauty and complexity of the lives that must have been lived between the lines of those ancient pages.

That’s where a good book, movie, podcast, painting, or other creative effort comes to the rescue. 

As you head out into your summer, why not bring along a great book or download a new show to help expand your preaching imagination? Here are are few Biblical-story-retold favorites from some of our members and friends:

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Call to Action: A Review of Women Rise Up: Sacred Stories of Resistance for Today’s Revolution by Katey Zeh

I first met Rev. Katey Zeh before either of us were ordained, at a training around sexual health and reproductive freedom on college campuses. We continued to run into each other through our organizing work. I reached out to her when trying to figure out if there was a way my annual conference of The United Methodist Church could support the organization she was on the board of at the time (and now serves as the interim executive of), Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, in the wake of a misinformation campaign in the denomination against RCRC.

Because of the connections we had made previously, the conversation turned to my personal life when she offered me support in the wake of my second miscarriage. She was one of the first people who was able to articulate to me the deep grief not just of the loss of a loved one but the grief of an incomplete family, or a family that looks nothing like the one for which you had hoped. From this woman whose activism and pastoral care has touched my life comes a book called Women Rise Up: Sacred Stories of Resistance for Today’s Revolution, in which her activism continues to inspire me and her writing offers me care I didn’t realize I needed.

Women Rise Up is an exploration of ten different stories of Biblical women in conversation with current realities of women’s experiences and struggles, from human trafficking to purity culture, from immigration to entrepreneurialism. Zeh explains: “I yearn for stories of resilience, of women overcoming systems of oppression who found ways to survive and even thrive despite the constant threats to their bodies, their humanity, and their livelihood.” She did not hear many of those stories preached when she was growing up in church, but she has seen them in her organizing work and in her own life.

Unlike some celebrations of Biblical women, Zeh is clear that even when she celebrates their bravery, these women are complicated. Sarah is celebrated as a mother of faith in many churches traditionally, but she perpetuates the abuse she received from her husband on her slave Hagar. Rachel also abuses her handmaid, and Zeh reminds us that Rachel does not name her son Benjamin but rather Ben-Oni, “Son of My Sorrows.” Moses’ mother, she reminds us, is a clever hero, but one who still underwent a devastating reproductive loss even if it was to save her child. Rev. Zeh strives to read the stories of these women in new ways, ones faithful to scripture itself and to our own complicated lives. Read more

Enough with “Enough”: A Review of Seculosity by David Zahl

“Do you remember the days when the Sunday school was full and everyone went to church on Sunday?”

“It’s such a shame that stores are open and there’s soccer practice on Sunday mornings…”

You don’t have to be around a 21st-century church very long before you start to hear questions and comments like these. They reflect an ongoing narrative that recalls mid-20th century glory days of the church in which Christians enjoyed power and esteem ( glorious as long as you were straight and white and male, and as long as you did everything the right way…).

The specter of this bygone era of the church has the ability to consume modern faith communities, to push them into a mentality of scarcity over all-we-once-had-and-why-can’t-we-just-have-those-things-again.

Anxieties rise. New programs launch to make the church exciting and relevant once more. Maybe this time we’ll turn the tide.

Why don’t people seem to want religion anymore?

In a new book out this month, David Zahl, founder and director of Mockingbird Ministries takes this question head-on, with a perspective that offers the possibility of a way forward.  The book is called Seculosity: How Career, Parenting, Technology, Food, Politics, and Romance Became Our New Religion and What to Do about It.  In it, Zahl explores the possibility that our culture is not becoming less religious at all, but rather we are becoming religious about more and more things.

He uses the neologism ‘seculosity’ to describe the many activities and identities to which modern Americans devote a zeal that can be described as nothing so accurately as religious. From leisure activities (SoulCyle or CrossFit?) to parenting style (attachment or Babywise?) to political identity and work, from Zahl’s perspective, these are more than activities, they become part of people’s identities. These seculosities offer not just community, but a justifying story of their lives, a frame through which to see the world, a mechanism by which they can establish a sense of “enoughness.” They offer identity, community, meaning, purpose in ways that religion once did in wider society.

The problem arises, he argues, when we realize that no matter how much we devote ourselves to these pursuits, there is always more we could be doing or accomplishing or achieving. We could find our soulmate and get started on happily ever after. Our kids could win more awards. We could work harder, advance faster, earn more. But the focus on all of this makes the fact that the achievement of the goals we create for ourselves is an ever-vanishing horizon. Read more

You Are Found: A Review of One Coin Found, a Memoir by Emmy Kegler

Cover of One Coin Found

Cover of One Coin Found

When the Reverend Emmy Kegler gave a toast at my wedding, she said something that my relatives still remember with a chuckle. She said to my new wife and me, “I love you two so much. And if you ever break up, I’ll kill you both.” If you don’t know Emmy, this quote might seem jarring, but to me it shows exactly who she is: both incredibly loving in all she does and one of the fiercest people I’ve ever met.

In her new book, One Coin Found, this deep love and fierceness of hers is turned onto a new friend and foe: the Bible. In this beautifully written memoir, a personal journey of faith unfolds; one where love of God and church is present from an early age. Philosophical as a three year old, we hear her mother insist, “we need to get this kid in a church!” As the memoir progresses, we see the move from an enamored tween fascinated with the drama of Holy Week to a teen eager to join in her friend’s youth worship. We are with her at the difficult point when she is told by a young male preacher-in-training that it is a sin to be who she is: gay.

When told in church that being gay is wrong, Kegler must utilize her fierceness as she engages in a long fight between herself and what she is told is “sinful.” This memoir gives you a peek into her life, following not only her developing identity as a queer woman, but also her struggles with depression, codependency, and living with her father’s illness and decline. Woven around her own life story is her journey to befriend the Bible, but it isn’t one without pitfalls.

She battles with the church’s description of sinfulness and feeling like there was “no chance of redemption…’sin’ weighed down like an unbearable yoke.” Yet, as this idea is internally fought, there is also a deep calling that continues to lead her back to church, God, and the Bible: “Every Sunday in church I felt something catching at my heart, as light as fishing line and as thick as a construction-crane lifting hook, pulling me compassionately but resolutely toward the pulpit and altar.” As a fellow clergy woman, this story of her path to rostered ministry made me smile and remember my own journey, my own struggle, my own fishing line. Read more

They Don’t Teach That in Seminary: 99 Prayers You Need

“They don’t teach that in seminary.” A minister’s whole career could be summed up with that sentence. Seminary fills a person with a lot of knowledge. But somewhere between eschatology and soteriology, the Nicene Creed and the Barmen Declaration, aspiring ministers aren’t taught what to do when a market crash wipes out a church’s savings or a tragedy brings reporters camped out on the sidewalk. Enter 99 Prayers Your Church Needs [But Doesn’t Know it Yet].

This thin but weighty book of prayers composed by Bethany Fellows covers all manner of unexpected and yet thoroughly plausible situations that a minister and congregation may face in their shared lives together – everything from a pastor waking up too sick to come in on Sunday, to a congregation deciding whether to become welcoming and affirming, to a family welcoming a foster child. As communities committed to walking alongside each other through every season of life, we want to mark significant occasions. But too often we are like the Apostle Paul, not knowing how to pray as we ought.

We all know the moments that call for prayer: baby dedications and baptisms, budget meetings and, of course, before any meal with a pastor in attendance. But what do you say when a community member is being deported? How do you come up with words when your pastor is being deployed as a chaplain? What words can appropriately convey gratitude for a major donor gift without sounding uncouth?

It is easy to assume that as long as a prayer is expressed from the heart, our words can never be wrong. But too many of us have suffered through cringe-worthy prayers to know this is not always true. We want to honor the spirit in which all prayers are offered, but if we are intentional in reflecting theologically on what to say at the graveside of a beloved congregation member, shouldn’t we bring the same care to acknowledging the loss that comes when a church staff member is fired? 99 Prayers is an invaluable tool for ministers and congregations caught in situations they never expected and never prepared for.  Read more