Swim, Ride, Run, Breathe

swim-ride-run-breatheThe first thing worth saying is that I should apologize to my friend for taking two years to read her book.

The second thing worth saying is that Swim, Ride, Run, Breathe: How I Lost a Triathlon and Caught My Breath is beautiful and quirky and encouraging, and I love it even though I can never remember the order of verbs in its title.

Because I know author Jennifer Brownell personally, on every page I hear her voice chatting and interweaving stories from her childhood and adulthood, from church to pool to hospital. And to my reader’s ear, she laughs easily through the stories as she does in real life, highlighting the odd and the comical in order to soften the impact of the book’s honesty about fear: childhood fears and adulting fears, fears of real life-and-death matters, fears and challenges of flesh, like the work of living in a body and the work of loving another body.

It’s the honesty that makes Swim, Ride, Run, Breathe so accessible and endearing and comforting, like sitting with a girlfriend over coffee and swapping troubles to remind one another that you’re not alone. (Although since we’re friends already, the next time Jennifer and I sit together over coffee we’ll need to talk first about our shared love of Free to Be You and Me and try to recite “Boy Meets Girl” together … and then we can discuss the deeper topic of incarnation.)

Because, like any good book, Swim, Ride, Run, Breathe is about more than it says it’s about, and Brownell’s book isn’t so much a memoir about a triathlon as it is a memoir about incarnate grace — of mercy and delight through (and sometimes despite) the flesh.

It’s not a hero’s story. It’s not a memoir of exceptionalism. It’s a tale of faith that acknowledges — without snark or animosity — life’s hardships and fears but still attests that love remains.

And that’s the most important part: that love remains.

Thank you, Jennifer, for this beautiful reminder and for putting to paper how you caught your breath.

Love Never Fails

Love-Never-FailsTime and time again, I am blessed to know the good people and the beautiful work of Paraclete Press. Most recently, I am moved by the thoughtfulness of word and art in Paraclete’s new book, Love Never Fails: A Journal to be Inspired by the Power of Love by Hilda St. Clair.

Love Never Fails is a creative book for such a time as this: a touchstone of love to hold fast in a landslide of fear; a stimulus toward generosity amidst an inundation of selfishness; a reminder to be faithful in the ways that change the world: listening, caring, connecting.

With compelling quotations, gentle prompts, and blank space for writing, drawing & coloring, Love Never Fails is a visually-engaging invitation to reflection …

love-never-fails-baldwin… and not just inward reflection, but outward engagement: living with love in the world, working for reconciliation in relationships, stepping across misjudgment to understanding, breaking open a spirit of gratitude.

Or at least, that’s what Love Never Fails does for me when I read it. And, having read it once, I’m planning to engage it more thoroughly a second time by making Love Never Fails my daily journal for Lent.

I encourage you to do the same — whether for Lent or not, if you find yourself discouraged for lack of love in the world or overwhelmed for a place to start, let Love Never Fails bolster your spirit and inspire you to greater love-filled living.

Sacred Habits

In addition to my experience of Carol Howard Merritt’s new book, Healing Spiritual Wounds, as part of a larger conversation on Church & faith in the 21st century, recently new to the same conversation is a collection of essays entitled Sacred Habits: The Rise of the Creative Clergy.

sacred-habits-clergyEdited by my colleague Chad Abbott, Sacred Habits (Noesis Press 2016) features personal, professional & practical reflections on the roles of clergy in the 21st century. The essays are written by ministers who serve in local churches, academia, institutions, and entrepreneurial ventures. My own chapter in Sacred Habits is “Disrupting Sabbath.”

If the book’s subtitle — The Rise of the Creative Clergy — implies new revelations in the rise of its essayists’ practices and perspectives, I might temper such a hint to emphasize that Sacred Habits represents creativity more than discovery, not so much a new wheel but a new set of voices. In seasons of change & upheaval such as the 21st century Church is experiencing, it can be tempting to claim newness in all things, to perceive the changing climate as completely unique (it’s not: change is ongoing), and to see ourselves as uniquely positioned to save it (we’re not: theologically & practically speaking, ours is not the task of saving but of faithfully engaging).

It’s possible that I’ve stepped on the “Let’s save the Church!” soapbox a time or two, which is why I offer caution.

Sacred Habits is a useful book for clergy who seek to engage faithfully, not to save but to participate in change with intentionality and authenticity. The book is rich food-for-thought for ministers, ministry settings, and those training for ministry. It could serve to support a brainstorming session between a pastor and the leaders in her congregation. It could prompt a monthly series of ministerium conversations. It could encourage a minister whose theology for ministry has become disconnected from his practice of ministry.

Reading Sacred Habits as a colleague in this ongoing conversation about ministry in a changing Church and faith in the 21st century, I tumble with questions for my fellow essayists:

Are we aware of how many dead white men we quote and cite as central to our theological compasses? And, if we’re aware of it, how are we responding to it?

Have we adequately discerned our own critiques of Church from the wider world’s critiques of Church? Maybe that’s an unrealistic or unnecessary distinction, but in our essays I hear the occasional conflation of ideas that suggest (to me) that we have borrowed others’ critiques without much reflection: systematic theology, for example, is not synonymous with doctrine; the latter tends to get a bad rap (understandably) but the former means a way of thinking about faith — which I hope we’re doing! Also in the category of words not currently in vogue is “institution,” which the book’s chapters occasionally lament even though each clergy essayist serves as a representative of the Church as institution.

(There are more questions to be asked. The book’s provocation to conversation is one of its assets, and I would buy the first round of drinks for the above and additional conversations.)

Questions noted, I am proud to be a contributor to Sacred Habits and I am impressed by my colleagues who are so thoughtful, resilient and faithful in their ministries. I commend Sacred Habits to readers who seek a nudge of inspiration for their ministries, who are looking for a tool by which to reflect on their ministry calls & contexts, who might be encouraged by a vision of creative ministries and by a community of conversationalists who are earnestly & faithfully engaging change in the 21st century Church.

Healing Spiritual Wounds

healing-spiritual-woundsI’m ever grateful for the written work of colleagues whose words deepen the ongoing conversations about Church & faith in the 21st century.

Carol Howard Merritt’s new book, Healing Spiritual Wounds: Reconnecting with a Loving God after Experiencing a Hurtful Church (HarperCollins 2017) is an important addition to these conversations, as she turns a practiced & pastoral eye on the Church and the ways in which it harms its own.

In the 21st century American context where the Church continuously rebrands itself against decreasing statistics & cultural prestige, the work of confession cannot be separated from efforts of relevancy. Contrary to popular complaints among church professionals about scarcity in the pews, Christians who reject the Church or keep their affiliations to a minimum are not merely distracted by Sunday soccer or satisfied to pray on a stroll through the park. More significantly, too many have not found the Church to be a sanctuary for their spiritual journeys. There are necessary lessons for the Church to infer from Healing Spiritual Wounds, and I encourage church professionals not to skim past these.

Carol, however, importantly & necessarily strives to speak foremost to those who have been harmed by the Church, its ministers, its theologies, and its communities. Such an audience may have no reason to trust a Church insider, but Carol does not offer light platitudes and she does not belittle spiritual pain. She vouches for the reality of the Church’s sins with her own story, and she shares several others’ experiences to give readers plenty of room to hear validation rather than dismissal of the Church’s harm.

Healing Spiritual Wounds is the gift of Carol’s retreat leadership in book form, complete with reflective opportunities and creative exercises to peel back the spiritual scabs and renew faith in God. The book is a deceptively easy read — the pages flip past like a good & heartfelt spiritual memoir — but each chapter does heavy lifting to unpack theology & sociology & history in order to give the reader permission to name spiritual wounds and to claim new, grace-filled understandings.

(I appreciate enormously that Carol does this work without falling into unhelpful categorizations of “conservative” or “liberal” theologies. She names the Church’s harms topically — emotional, physical, financial, spiritual, etc. — and through stories acknowledges that harm is caused by the Church across its theological/political spectrum.)

If the book can be faulted for being almost too simple in its effort to be accessible — at times I wanted the theological conversation to be more overt — nevertheless the aim of accessibility is important enough to overlook such a minor fault. Because the Church needs this book. Because people who have been hurt by the Church need this book.

As I was pleased to express in my endorsement: “Healing Spiritual Wounds is a gift of candid and caring space for those who have been hurt by the Church, and Carol Howard Merritt is a wise and gentle guide through the complex work of spiritual recovery. Welcome to a deeper, healthier faith journey.”

Book Week: Desperately Seeking Spirituality

It’s okay to not know.

It’s okay to struggle with God.

It’s okay to admit that you’re a little dysfunctional in faith.

It’s okay to wake up, look around, and realize that familiar spiritual practices aren’t nurturing growth in your faith & well-being anymore.

It’s okay to occasionally side-eye the whole thing as a “cosmic pain in the butt” (8).

meredith-gould-dssThis is the good news of Desperately Seeking Spirituality. Even as I write these words, I too need to hear them. And “desperately” is not an exaggeration.

I read Meredith Gould’s new book earlier this year when it was released but neglected at the time to give it the acclaim & blog space that it deserves. Now as I return to its pages to write this review, I am convicted and comforted all over again.

It is the rare person who strives after God and/or purpose without doubts and quandaries and failures, but often we feel and/or convince ourselves that we are alone in our wanderings of the spirit. Desperately Seeking Spirituality is the irreverent best friend who tells it like it is when our spirits are out-of-wack, the wise best friend who sets us back on track with just the right word of insight and reminds us that we are not alone at all.

Gould is a witty writer, so fabulously so that you may find yourself chuckling over a turn of phrase when suddenly you realize: Hold on, she just got me. I strongly encourage dog-eared pages and underlined passages so that you can return often to the “aha” moments and the practices that will nurture your journey.

Desperately Seeking Spirituality weaves together a breadth & depth of wisdom from diverse disciplines to help you consider your spiritual journey from many angles, providing many practical tools and opportunities for reflection. This book is a delightful and generous companion for the journey.

If you, like me, stockpile books in an online shopping cart in advance of Christmas, click “Add to Cart” now on Desperately Seeking Spirituality and figure out who (and how many) you know whose spirits need the encouragement, humor and grace that this book offers.

Then again, don’t wait for Christmas.