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city-of-god2As Ash Wednesday approaches (it will fall on February 10th this year), I am re-reading City of God: Faith in the Streets by Sara Miles, and I expect this will become a pre-Lent tradition for me. Somehow, Sara Miles wrote the words that were on my heart and helped me to better understand why I love Ash Wednesday so very much. Even in years when I had decided adamantly that I was done with church, I felt drawn to attend Ash Wednesday services. In the past few years, when church has become important to me, the litany of confession has brought me happy tears. Why? What happens in this observance?

Ash Wednesday is about repentance. Not about  guilt, or about saying sorry, but about changing. “Repentance requires paying attention to others, and learning to love, even a little bit, what God loves so much: the whole screwed-up world, this holy city, the people God created to be his own.” It is about changing in a way that brings us closer to other human beings, and closer to God, and leaving behind—fasting from—that which separates us from others and from God. This kind of change affirms that life is short and the time to love is now. This, for me, is powerful and energizing.

We spend a lot of time and effort trying to get things figured out (or, at least, trying to appear that we have everything figured out). And then on Ash Wednesday there is this slap of truth: ashes to ashes. Some people might think receiving ashes, hearing “you are dust and to dust you shall return” is a morbid ritual. Yet my experience has been that it is absolutely liberating. We are mortal. Somehow the ceremonial acknowledgement of this reality is refreshing. Where I live, in the U.S., so much of the culture is focused on a false sense of immortality: buy this and everything will be fine; you will be happy and you’ll live forever! (Not in those exact words, perhaps, but that really is the gist of all marketing.)

And it’s not true. Our time is limited and precious and, too often, we squander it. Ash Wednesday is a precious gift of reminder. In the words of Will Hocker, friend of Sara Miles and chaplain at San Francisco General Hospital, Ash Wednesday is a chance “to bow down in public and say, I’m not in charge; I’m not going to live forever.” We are not in charge of life and death, and that is ok. The truth can be scary, but the truth also can be a blessing. It can be freeing to lay down the burden of impossible control.

Throughout City of God, as Sara Miles walks her neighborhood and shares ashes, readers can see the importance of community, of gathering, of collective acts that demonstrate we all are sharing this journey. We must support one another with any small mercy we can offer.

Last year I posted a review of City of God, which highlights some other elements of this energizing, reflective book.

Disclaimer: This review is freely given, based on my own copy of the book. No fee was received.

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Nadia Bolz-Weber writes of a faith that caught her completely off guard, a faith grounded in her lived experience. With her direct and refreshing voice, Pastor Nadia testifies that when you are a sober alcoholic, and you have felt your life saved by forces completely beyond your abilities to explain, resurrection begins to make sense. It becomes the most real thing in the world. Pastor Nadia’s memoir, Pastrix: The cranky, beautiful faith of a sinner and saint is honest, powerful, and brought tears to my eyes.

She writes about the church of her youth; encountering the profound limitations of churches; journeying through reckless behavior and toward sobriety; entering, with surprise, into seminary; founding a church where God’s mercy has a chance to shine through.

I have been reading the sermons and columns of Pastor Nadia for a while now, and I find her theology consistently inspiring. She preaches about Jesus transcending cultural boundaries, Jesus inviting everyone to the table, Jesus expecting all of us to forgive, Jesus calling for us to love everyone—especially when it is hard. If I lived in Denver, I feel certain I would make a home at Pastor Nadia’s church, House for All Sinners and Saints.

With eagerness I await Pastor Nadia’s forthcoming book, Accidental Saints: Finding God in all the wrong people, to be released September 2015.

Meanwhile, I shall try to remember this: “The kingdom of heaven, which Jesus talked about all the time, is, as he said, here. At hand. It’s now. Wherever you are. In ways you’d never expect.”

Disclaimer: This review is based on a copy of the book borrowed from my local public library. No fee was received.

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If you have any interest in health care, and in how we could be showing more love to those who need help, I urge you to read God’s Hotel: A doctor, a hospital, and a pilgrimage to the heart of medicine by Victoria Sweet. The author was a physician at Laguna Honda Hospital in San Francisco, which at one time would have been called an almshouse. It is a place that serves those with nowhere else to go. In God’s Hotel, Dr. Sweet shares a powerful journey of learning and healing.

During her studies of the history of medicine, Dr. Sweet focused on the medical work of Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th-century German abbess who left behind several written works as well as a corpus of music. In sharing a historical perspective, Dr. Sweet reconnects readers with the origins of hospitals, which grew out of the radical sense of hospitality in monasteries, where monks and nuns took care of anyone who knocked at the door. There was an understanding that “whatever our current role, it was temporary.” Today I may be the nurse, and tomorrow I may be the patient who is ill. We must care for one another.

Dr. Sweet has good sense and a compassionate heart, and her feelings about how to practice medicine emerge directly from her experience serving patients. She has been a witness to miracles, and this is not something to take lightly. In caring for patients who lived in quite desperate circumstances, Dr. Sweet witnessed that, despite all the capabilities of modern medicine, sometimes peace, rest, and safety are just what a person needs to heal.

The stories of patient care and transformation are powerful, and Dr. Sweet brings a refreshing perspective on healthcare and wellness in the U.S. I highly recommend God’s Hotel.

Disclaimer: This review is freely given, based on a copy that I borrowed from my local public library. No fee was received.

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We move through our days, many of us, with eyes on to-do lists, blissfully unaware that this moment, this very moment, could be our last. Yet, through the eyes of author Sara Miles, I have been reminded that it is profound and precious gift to remember our mortality. In City of God: Faith in the streets, we follow the author on Ash Wednesday, as she distributes ashes in a busy neighborhood of the Mission in San Francisco. For many Christians, Ash Wednesday gives us a chance, in the words of Episcopal priest Will Hocker, “to bow down in public and say, I’m not in charge; I’m not going to live forever.” This can be a freeing gift, and it reminds us of the most basic thing we have in common with one another: regardless of where you are from, what you look like, who you love, which religion you practice, you were born into a mortal body, and one day you will die. We all will. To acknowledge this is to notice the preciousness of our being here, now, together.

For the church, Ash Wednesday presents an opportunity to focus on repentance. In the words of Sara Miles, “Repentance requires paying attention to others, and learning to love, even a little bit, what God loves so much: the whole screwed-up world, this holy city, the people God created to be his own.” The city here means the author’s home in particular, but also every place any of us calls home; the people God created means all of us. We have an opportunity to leave indifference behind, and instead to turn to one another with love and compassion.

The day in the Mission is about being with other people and witnessing what God already is doing in the lives of others, through the bodies of others. As Sara Miles and her companions set out to meet others where they are, they experience God alive in everyone. There is an opportunity to connect with strangers, to share in the truth of our mortality as the words are whispered: “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

We can go and do likewise. We can bless the places we live by paying attention to one another, by turning the excessive love that God has shown us into excessive love for our neighbors. The blessing is not merely within churches, but “has been set loose.” It is where we are, where we meet one another in love and tenderness.

The pages of this book are full of fierce joy and honest questioning. I particularly recommend City of God as a beautiful read prior to Lent. However, the book has a very special perspective that will be appreciated readers who are not religious as well.

This year Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent, will be observed on February 18 in many denominations.

Disclaimer: No fee was received for this review. Review is written based on a personal copy of the book.

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When I first encountered the title Flunking Sainthood: A year of breaking the sabbath, forgetting to pray, and still loving my neighbor, I thought, “That sounds like me in my stumbling efforts.” I sensed I would find a kindred spirit in author Jana Riess, and I read this memoir hungrily.

I enjoyed this book very much and could identify with the author’s longing to cultivate good habits and to deepen prayer life. I laughed aloud, and nodded my head in solidarity. I, too, have craved closeness with God, and tried many practices suggested by spiritual leaders. The chapter on praying the liturgy of the hours (or divine office) really struck home. I have been trying, unsuccessfully, to read morning psalms and then the compline prayer service at bedtime each day. Rather than feeling frustrated when I forget to do this, I enjoy the prayer time when it happens. After all, the quiet time is a gift to myself, and not an obligation in any way.

The chapter on Benedictine hospitality sent me straight to the library so that I could reread the Rule of Saint Benedict. How I long to be able to live the instruction that “all guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say: ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me.'” As Jana Riess experienced, it is not easy in our fast-paced culture to slow down and enjoy our unexpected encounters with people.

While I read Flunking Sainthood in two eager sittings, I appreciated that the book could be picked up once a month, taking one chapter at a time and trying a spiritual discipline alongside Jana Riess. For this reason Flunking Sainthood would make an ideal read for the start of the new year, when many of us try to adopt positive habits. Perhaps you long to try lectio divina, centering prayer, or a deeper sabbath observance. With Flunking Sainthood, you can enjoy the companionship of Jana Riess as you experiment and journey.

The honesty and sincerity in the writing of Jana Riess provide encouragement, inspiration, and laughter. I am excited to see that Paraclete Press has published a useful companion volume, Flunking Sainthood Every Day: A daily devotional for the rest of us.

Disclaimer: A review copy was provided by the publisher. No fee was received.

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After reading Shirt of Flame: A year with Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, I feel grateful to author Heather King. Through this book, King uses her immersion in the life and writings of Thérèse to make this saint vibrant and relevant for contemporary seekers.

In the past I had picked up the writings of Thérèse and found her to be unremittingly optimistic. Thankfully, King has blessed me with a fresh perspective on this young woman, who lived quietly from 1873 to 1897, and her approach to spirituality.

Throughout this worthwhile, enjoyable book King relates significant moments in the life of Thérèse with events that have shaped her own spiritual journey. Each of the twelve chapters concludes with a beautiful prayer, each based on that chapter’s theme. The book concludes with a helpful appendix of life events in chronology. Unobtrusive endnotes aid the reader in locating sources for quoted passages in the text.

Like Thérèse, King invites us to consider how we are spending our days. Are we making time for prayer? How much energy are we giving to loving others? Are we mindful that through serving others we might show our love for God? As King writes, “To let our own flames burn hot, then, requires a radical re-ordering of our time, energy, activities, attention, and orientation of the heart.” I encourage you to pick up this book and experience how these lessons might touch your own heart.

A Catholic convert, author Heather King also has written the books Parched and Redeemed. Her essays have been published in a number of magazines, and  she blogs at .

Disclaimer: A copy of this book was provided by the publisher for review purposes. No fee was received for this review.

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