Review of Miracles and Other Reasonable Things, by Sarah Bessey

Miracles and Other Reasonable Things

A Story of Unlearning and Relearning God

by Sarah Bessey

Howard Books (Atria), 2019. 222 pages.
Review written September 6, 2022, from my own copy
Starred Review

First, a big thank you to my friend Amanda who recommended Sarah Bessey’s writing. I purchased this book shortly after it came out, on her recommendation. When I finally got around to reading it a few years later, I wondered what took me so long. I loved it!

First, Sarah Bessey has a way with words. Her writing is lyrical and lovely. This book is full of stories that pull you into the scene and keep you reading. She also finds ways to interweave emotions and thoughts about God that get you thinking as well.

This book begins with a very bad car accident. One that significantly messed up her health.

In the middle of the book, she receives a miraculous and dramatic healing. But although that healing was real, other parts of her body were still in bad shape. She had to grapple with the miracle that did come and the miracles that didn’t come. And she explains that journey in a way we can all relate to.

Here’s a paragraph that I love, when she was talking about a way God had reached out when she was discouraged and told her she was not forgotten:

I have never gotten over that moment, that word of knowledge, and I hope I never do. My mantra was disrupted, and I had a new path to walk, a path I still walk to this day. If God had not forgotten me — and clearly God had not — and yet I was still part of the company of the unanswered prayers, perhaps that meant that I had misunderstood something about God. Perhaps the problem wasn’t God; perhaps the problem was the God I had created and the God I had been given.

In the miracles and the lack of miracles, she looks at what she needed to unlearn and relearn about God, and she takes the reader on that journey with her.

I also loved the chapter where she visits Prince Edward Island. I was there in 2019 with two of my best friends. I’m always happy to read the thoughts of an L. M. Montgomery fan! And yes, I can’t think of a better place for a spiritual retreat.

I’m going to look for more of Sarah Bessey’s writings. Like me, she comes from a Christian background, but some of her beliefs have changed as an adult. I appreciate her stance of not being certain that she has all the answers.

sarahbessey.com
SimonandSchuster.com

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Review of Jane Austen Cover to Cover, by Margaret C. Sullivan

Jane Austen Cover to Cover

200 Years of Classic Covers

by Margaret C. Sullivan

Quirk Books, 2014. 224 pages.
Review written July 25, 2022, from my own copy, given to me as a gift.
Starred Review

First, a great big huge thank you to my coworker Pam Coughlan, who gave this book to me as a parting gift when I got transferred so I was no longer her supervisor. What a delightful treat it is!

The book tells the history of Jane Austen’s publications — with pictures of covers along the way.

They started out quite plain, but it’s fun to watch fashions in cover design change over the years. Some of the covers are almost funny when a Jane-lover realizes how little they have to do with what’s inside the book.

The chapters cover distinct time periods: 1811-1818 — while Jane Austen was alive, and shortly after; 1832-1920, 1920-1989, and 1990-2013 (Yes, there has been a revival). After that, there’s a chapter with book covers that use stills from movie adaptations, and then a chapter of foreign language editions.

It’s peppered with Jane Austen quotations, especially ones appropriate to scenes shown on the covers, and plenty of information about the different editions featured.

Above all, it’s super fun for any Austenite to browse through. I’m keeping this one in my coffee table to pull out for browsing. (It’s a glass-topped coffee table with a drawer.) So much fun!

quirkbooks.com

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Review of Freeing Jesus, by Diana Butler Bass

Freeing Jesus

Rediscovering Jesus as Friend, Teacher, Savior, Lord, Way, and Presence

by Diana Butler Bass

HarperOne, 2021. 285 pages.
Review written July 25, 2022, from my own copy, purchased via amazon.com
Starred Review

In Freeing Jesus, Diana Butler Bass tells us her life story — and how her life experiences affected the way she looked at Jesus.

She goes through six names for Jesus, which fit how she saw him during six stages of her life. I thought it was interesting that they were the same six names — even “Way” and “Presence” — my pastors used in a sermon series on names of Jesus.

Her journey had many similarities to mine, about a decade before me. I know the Christian college she refers to, because I went to a nearby Christian university that was a sports rival with it.

But it also got me thinking about the ways my views of Jesus have changed — and many of those ways were similar to the journey she describes. I like reading about her wrestling with the theology she was taught, because I’ve wrestled with some of the same ideas. Here’s a passage I marked because I love the way she expresses these transcendent ideas:

Jesus was born a savior, and he saved during his lifetime. “Fear not!” “Peace on earth!” He did not wait around for thirty-three years and suddenly become a savior in an act of ruthless, bloody execution. Indeed, the death was senseless, stupid, shameful, evil. It meant little other than silence without the next act — resurrection — God’s final word that even the most brutal of empires cannot destroy salvus. This is no quid pro quo. Rather, Easter proclaims that God overcomes all oppression and injustice, even the murder of an innocent one. At-one-ment means just that. Through Jesus, all will be renewed, made whole, brought back into oneness, reunited with God. Salvation is not a transaction to get to heaven after death; rather, it is an experience of love and beauty and of paradise here and now. No single metaphor, not even one of Paul’s, can truly describe this. We need a prism of stories to begin to understand the cross and a lifetime to experience it.

I love this concept she spells out at the end of her book:

We know Jesus through our experience. There is no other way to become acquainted with one who lived so long ago and who lives in ways we can barely understand through church, scripture, and good works and in the faces of our neighbors. In these pages, I have shared six Jesuses whom I experienced through something I call “memoir theology” (not theological memoir). Memoir theology is the making of theology — understanding the nature of God — through the text of our own lives and taking seriously how we have encountered Jesus.

This spoke to me because I’m working on a book about Psalms that uses my own experiences to illuminate the different types of Psalms. But she demonstrates with this book how much richness is added to her insights by looking at them through the lens of experience.

And after she said that, she points out that even though many church “fathers” wrote theology in the context of memoir, it was taken seriously because only certain (mostly male) perspectives were taken seriously. But she points out that all our experiences matter:

There is an old Berber proverb: “The true believer begins with herself.” Your experience of Jesus matters. It matters in conversation with the “big names,” when you argue with the tradition, and when you read the words and texts for yourself. It matters when you hear Jesus speaking, feel Jesus prompting, and sink into despair when Jesus seems absent. It all matters. The Jesuses you have known and the Jesus you know matter.

Read this book to think about who Jesus is in the light of one woman’s life story, with inspiration to reflect on how Jesus has touched your own life story. Think about who Jesus is and how he has touched your life.

dianabutlerbass.com
harpercollins.com

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Review of The Bible and the Transgender Experience, by Linda Tatro Herzer

The Bible and the Transgender Experience

How Scripture Supports Gender Variance

by Linda Tatro Herzer

The Pilgrim Press, 2016. 126 pages.
Review written May 19, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review

This book is for Christians who want to understand what the Bible says about accepting transgender people. And who are willing to think about interpretation and context.

Now, I am all too painfully aware that some Christians are not willing to think about interpretation and context or the consistency with which they apply principles of interpretation. I have a transgender daughter, and less than a year ago, I left a church with a broken heart because of this issue. Most of the people there had their minds made up, and I wish I thought they’d listen to the words in this book more carefully than they listened to my words. (I did a blog series with the title “Transcending.”)

I’m not going to present all the author’s points, because those points deserve to be heard in their entirety. But she does tackle verses that are used to say that transgender people are sinning and explains why that’s a huge stretch. She also looks at passages that strongly suggest that God wants his people to be accepting and welcoming of gender variant individuals.

I’ve also read and reviewed Transforming, by Austen Hartke, which is another look at this same topic. There is not only one set of arguments, so you’ll get some new ideas and perspectives here. The study guide at the back of the book seems especially helpful, and the author is gentle and instructive for people who don’t know anything about gender variance but want to learn how to be respectful and supportive.

I especially love the way the author closes out the main text of the book (before appendices with information to help you make your own church or group more trans friendly).

On a personal note, I am grateful for the gifts of honesty and courage I have seen manifested by gender variant people. They have inspired me to be as honest as they are about who God has created me to be, challenging me to ask myself, “Who am I vocationally? What are my unique, God-given gifts, aptitudes, and interests? Am I honoring and using them to their fullest? Who am I spiritually? What sort of spiritual practices work best for me, given my divinely created temperament and proclivities?”

Next, gender variant friends and congregants inspire me to live my answers to the preceding questions as courageously as they live their truths. Let’s face it, all of us are subjected to peer, parental, familial, societal, and even religious expectations about how we are and are not supposed to act. So to act in ways that are true to who we are but that may be contrary to people’s expectations of us takes great courage – for all of us! Watching transgender people courageously live their lives has been a huge inspiration to me to exercise the courage I need to live my divinely created truth each and every day.

Given the ways that gender variant people inspire me daily, and all the gifts I have seen them bring to the church and to the world, I close with two prayers.

My prayer for all gender variant people is that you will let the light of your vast and varied gifts continue to shine brightly. My prayer for all nontransgender people is that, in the same way we delight in the dusk and dawn of each new day, may we also celebrate the dusk/dawn light of gender variant individuals and the many gifts they bring to the church and to the world.

Amen! May it be so.

TransformationJourneysWW.com
thepilgrimpress.com

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Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

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Review of Collective Wisdom, edited by Grace Bonney

Collective Wisdom

Lessons, Inspiration, and Advice from Women over 50

edited by Grace Bonney

Artisan, 2021. 399 pages.
Review written July 23, 2022, from a library book
Starred Review

This gorgeous volume of photographs and profiles is a perfect coffee table book to read slowly.
I’ve been reading one profile per day for many months now, and I’m inspired. Yes, in my case I used a library book and simply kept renewing, but this would be a lovely investment to enjoy all over again even after you’ve been through it once, especially since 50 percent of the profits are to be divided among the women featured in the book.

There are 80 profiles in this book, all accompanied by full-page photographic portraits. Most of the profiles are of individual women who are over fifty, but also pairs of intergenerational friends, and some featuring groups of older women who have found community together. The majority of the individual women featured are in their seventies and eighties. These are accomplished women, and there were several writers whose work I knew about and admired. There’s great diversity in the profiles, with I think the majority being BIPOC, and queer and transgender women included as well.

I love rereading the Introduction after having read the whole book, because I think Grace Bonney has succeeded in meeting the goals she expresses there. Here’s a sampling from that:

Since the beginning of time, women have been the keepers of stories, traditions, and wisdom. And for too long, the powerful conversations women have with each other have been overlooked, because society often devalues women, age, and knowledge that is spoken rather than written. Collective Wisdom seeks to rebalance these scales by valuing women who have lived long and complex lives — and the experience and perspective that come with that.

My goal with Collective Wisdom is twofold. I want to gather and share stories and advice that we can all return to, over and over, whenever we need help finding our way. But I also want to remind anyone reading that the most powerful and life-changing tools we all have access to are the connections we form with other women….

In sharing and celebrating the stories and the lessons the women in Collective Wisdom have learned, my hope is that anyone reading will feel uplifted, less alone, inspired to reach out to women who are older or younger than they are right now, and moved to nourish and celebrate the relationships they already have. Your whole world can change when you change whom you listen to. Mine has changed from listening to everyone here.

The editor has met that hope in me with her wonderful book!

Another thing she’s accomplished is that listening to the repeated questions and hearing answers from so many different women, I’m mulling over how I, another woman over fifty, would answer them. Questions like: “What does your current age feel like to you?” “What are you most proud of about yourself?” “What misconceptions about aging would you like to dispel?” “When do you feel your most powerful?” “What role do you feel your ancestors, or the women in your family who came before you, play in your life?” “How has your sense of self-confidence or self-acceptance evolved over time?” “What would you like to learn or experience at this stage in your life?” “Knowing what you know now, what would you go back and tell your younger self?”

There’s so much beauty and wisdom in this book! I love the way the large photographic portraits show that each woman is fabulously beautiful, including those wrinkled with age. This book uplifted, inspired, and encouraged me from start to finish.

artisanbooks.com

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Review of Playing with Myself, by Randy Rainbow

Playing with Myself

by Randy Rainbow
read by the author

Macmillan Audio, 2022. 7 hours, 2 minutes.
Review written July 21, 2022, from a library eaudiobook
Starred Review

I love Randy Rainbow! If you lean at all liberal politically, or maybe if you just enjoy show tunes, I hope you’ve seen his parody videos. They usually deal with current issues, but often include other fun content. He has a new one out, written with Alan Menken, called “Pink Glasses” about being willing to be yourself, using his trademark pink glasses as a symbol.

If there’s anyone out there who still doesn’t believe that some people are born gay, this audiobook is solid refutation of that world view. From childhood, Randy Rainbow (Yes, that’s his real name.) loved Broadway show tunes and dressing up and acting out the female parts. This is the story of his unconventional route to fame — making parody videos in his bedroom.

In the audiobook, Randy’s mother makes a special appearance as he interviews her about his childhood. I thought that chapter was especially fun.

But I found the whole thing adorable and inspiring. Yes, there’s profanity peppered throughout — at a similar level as in his videos. Also a touch of adult humor here and there. But overall, it’s a story of a kid who was bullied in school for being gay and overweight and having a funny name — going on to smashing success in part because of his exhaustive knowledge of Broadway show tunes.

It’s fun hearing about his unlikely path to stardom and his unbridled joy in getting appreciation from his idols such as Barbra Streisand and Patti LuPone. This audiobook felt like hearing a friend tell his story and just made me so happy for him as he found a true expression of his unique talents and a way straight into people’s hearts (well maybe not exactly straight), including mine.

randyrainbow.com

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Review of Silent Cities, by Jeffrey H. Loria and Julie Loria

Silent Cities

Portraits of a Pandemic
15 Cities Across the World

by Jeffrey H. Loria and Julie Loria

Skyhorse Publishing, 2021. 366 pages.
Review written March 11, 2022, from a library book.

This book is a large-format doorstop of a book full of large photographs. I read it at the library, looking at photos from a city or two each day, so I wouldn’t have to carry it home and back.

The idea is simple: Photos of fifteen cities taken during the start of the pandemic, when those cities were more deserted than they will ever be again. It’s striking to see the famous buildings and sites without crowds of people.

I think I will enjoy this book more in about ten years. Now it’s almost painful to remember back when the world felt we were all in this together. There are many photos celebrating healthcare workers as heroes, and almost every person who does show up in the pictures is wearing a mask.

The cities featured are London, New York, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, Madrid, Miami, Paris, Chicago, Rio de Janeiro, Boston, Rome, San Francisco, Tel Aviv, Tokyo, and Washington, DC. The photos were taken by different photographers during the beginning of the pandemic and collected by the authors. They provide very little commentary, as the pictures speak for themselves.

This book is worth taking the time to look through and see what happens to our great cities when the people are pushed out of the picture.

skyhorsepublishing.com

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Review of Conversations with People Who Hate Me, by Dylan Marron

Conversations with People Who Hate Me

12 Things I Learned from Talking to Internet Strangers

by Dylan Marron

Atria Books, 2022. 257 pages.
Review written June 15, 2022, from a library book
Starred Review

I am so impressed with this book and so inspired by it.

As it happens, the morning before I picked this up, my pastor had preached about empathy. He said that when we interact with people we disagree with on the internet, we tend to look at them at a distance, through binoculars, focusing on our broad differences. But empathy comes close and sees people as individuals, in all their humanity and particularities.

The amazing thing Dylan Marron has done is achieved empathy even on the internet.

I was excited about this book because I enjoyed Dylan’s videos for Seriously.TV a few years ago. He’s a gay person of color, and made wonderful points from a progressive perspective, and I was onboard and cheering for his side of the debate.

But he, amazingly, brought things beyond debate to empathy. As you may guess, the videos that I liked so much had plenty of people who felt the opposite and told him so in no uncertain terms. But Dylan explains in this book that since the videos were posted on Facebook, he was able to look at the commenters’ Facebook pages and find out these were humans saying harsh things, not monsters.

And that started a project that became a podcast, “Conversations with People Who Hate Me.” He found detractors who said harsh things (though ruled out the death threats) and engaged them in conversation. Found out about who they were as people. It wasn’t about debate, but was about empathy, about seeing people with different opinions as humans worthy of respect.

Dylan tells that story in his book, and it’s a beautiful thing to watch. I’m not sure I could do it. Dylan does point out that he’s coming from a place of privilege, and some people are so abused, it’s too much emotional work to try to have empathy for their abusers. But I’m coming from a place of privilege, too, and I simply have a hard time looking past opinions I think are despicable. I easily forget that they are humans who hold those opinions for reasons. And Dylan Marron inspired me to try, showed me that it’s not impossible, and has given me an amazing example of human kindness.

He didn’t necessarily change minds with these conversations. And that wasn’t the point. But he did achieve the goal of the participants in the conversations seeing each other as fellow humans, and not as enemies.

The book does outline lessons he learned and things he noticed along the way. There are many obstacles to finding empathy, and he didn’t always make it past those obstacles. But there’s so much beauty in the attempt.

It all goes back to what my pastor talked about — empathy. One of the lessons that Dylan learned is that empathy is not endorsement. He still disagrees with many of the people he interacted with. But he sees them and knows human details about them and thinks of them as friends. And that’s amazing to me — and I want to learn to do it myself.

In his last chapter, he discusses how “snowflakes” make a good metaphor for his guests, in all their unique individuality.

And just as snowflakes are breathtakingly beautiful up close, my guests are breathtakingly beautiful up close, too. From the moment they first say “Hello” I am able to appreciate them as individuals and it is at this close range — voice to voice — that it becomes clear that they aren’t my enemies at all, no matter how vehemently we may disagree. Hearing Josh’s laugh, or Frank’s accent, or learning the tiny detail that E was applying for jobs around the time of our call, allowed me to see them as human, and this opened the door for empathy. And as I walked through that door, my fear dissipated.

I highly recommend this book, partly for the reasons Dylan Marron writes in the final paragraph:

One conversation will not heal the world. Empathy alone will not cure what ails us. Inspiring words will not protect us from harm. But in an era when we feel increasingly isolated, when we speak to each other on platforms that divide us by rewarding competition over connection, conversation is a tiny, enormous, mundane, epic, boring, thrilling, simple, complex act of rebellion that builds a bridge where there wasn’t one before.

simonandschuster.com

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Review of The Heavenly Man, by Brother Yun with Paul Hattaway

The Heavenly Man

The Remarkable True Story of Chinese Christian Brother Yun

by Brother Yun
with Paul Hattaway

Kregel Publications, 2020. First published in the United Kingdom in 2002. 338 pages.
Review written May 28, 2022, from a library book
Starred Review

This book is the amazing true story of the life of Brother Yun, a pastor in the Chinese house church movement. The story of Brother Yun’s faith is full of miracles from start to finish. His family first accepted Christ when Yun was a child, after his mother received a vision and then his father was miraculously healed of cancer.

Brother Yun devoted his life to Christ when he was still young. One of the early miracles he experienced was when he prayed earnestly for a Bible, and one was then brought to him. The entire book testifies over and over to the great power of God.

After Brother Yun became a pastor, he was imprisoned in China three times. Each time, he was tortured horribly. At one point in prison, he followed the Holy Spirit’s guidance and miraculously went without food or water for 74 days.

And despite all the torture, all the difficulties, his passion for Jesus, commitment to tell about him, and determination not to betray his brothers and sisters all shine through. During his third time in prison, he experienced a miracle like Peter’s as the doors of the prison were standing open and he walked right past the guards to escape, with his broken legs cured as he walked away.

Brother Yun’s story is told in his own voice, with interludes from his wife, telling how things were for his family when he was imprisoned. Both attest to miracle after miracle and God’s faithful care.

After the escape from prison, Brother Yun miraculously made his way to the West. He still preaches to those who haven’t heard, especially as part of the “Back to Jerusalem” movement, which plans to send millions of missionaries from China.

I was amazed that Chinese Christians don’t want people in the West to pray that their persecution will stop. Here’s one place where Brother Yun talks about this:

Don’t pray for persecution to stop! We shouldn’t pray for a lighter load to carry, but a stronger back to endure! Then the world will see that God is with us, empowering us to live in a way that reflects his love and power.

This is true freedom!

This book is riveting reading. As a western Christian reading it, of course I’m struck by how different my life is from Brother Yun’s. It’s a story of God’s power and the Lord’s amazing faithfulness. And amazing stories of how God is changing lives today.

The one thing I didn’t like was that, because this was originally published in 2002, that’s when the story ends. I am completely sure that Brother Yun did not stop following God twenty years ago, and I would like to know what happened next.

asiaharvest.org

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Review of Invisible Acts of Power, by Caroline Myss

Invisible Acts of Power

Channeling Grace in Your Everyday Life

by Caroline Myss

Atria (Simon and Schuster), 2004. 269 pages.
Review written April 26, 2022, from my own copy, purchased via Amazon.com
Starred Review

I read this book slowly, trying to absorb a small section each day. This is a book that works well for that.

The “Acts of Power” in this book are about personal power and grace to bless others. The author solicited stories from contributors, asking them to tell about times that other people had blessed them.

Here’s how she talks about those stories. You can hear how they touched her life — and they will touch her readers’ lives as well.

In the course of writing this book, I solicited stories from readers and subscribers to my Web site about their experiences with grace and life-changing acts of service. I was honored and overwhelmed to receive twelve hundred letters within six days of making my request. I discovered that it is one thing to talk abstractly about human goodness and our potential to be kind, but it’s quite another to come into direct contact wwith hundreds of real stories of real people exercising their power to heal, to help each other, to make a difference. I felt saturated in the caring and warmth of being human that these stories convey. They are solid evidence that the great power of compassion, honor, and grace still exists, even in the middle of national and world crises. They also prove that we are not alone in this world and that even in the direst times, our prayers are heard and answered.

The stories are divided up by seven chakras — essentially how deeply the recipient was touched, going from purely physical help to deeply spiritual help. She explains how this arose naturally from the letters:

As I considered how grace, intuition, and power worked together in the stories of the people who wrote me, I noticed that most of the writers quite unconsciously categorized their letters for me by using the same or similar turns of phrases. For example, people who received assistance out of nowhere from a stranger referred to either the person or his or her story as “The Good Samaritan.” After I organized all the letters, seven categories emerged….

When seven categories emerged out of one thousand two hundred letters, I wanted to see if they might correspond with the meaning of the chakras. At first I did this out of curiosity, not really expecting that I’d find a new perspective on the architecture of the human energy system. Yet when I finished this little exercise, I discovered that just as there is a hierarchy of power, there is also a hierarchy of grace. And I realized that the call to be of service to one another, the intuition that prompts us to use our power to help others, is wired into our physical and spiritual nature.

Reading this book gave me a much deeper awareness of how my life can touch others and made me want to be more aware of intuitive promptings to be a help to other people. A very uplifting book. Reading this book was itself a blessing.

myss.com

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