Books That Bless

My love affair with books began long before I could read. I remember carrying around a particular book as a child. I could not make out a word of it, but I liked the look and feel of the book in my hands. I liked opening the cover, taking in the smell of the pages, flipping through it and dreaming of one day actually reading it. To this day I do that with the growing pile of books in my office. I caress them, flip through them, take in the smell of them and dream of one day reading them, not because I can’t read, but because I seem to have more books than time.

As I prepared to write this article I sifted through the books that bulge from my shelves and have burst onto the top of my desk, threatening to obliterate it from view. I wanted to make a list of all the books I’ve read since I’ve begun to collect theology books. I was sorely disappointed when the list of books I had read was much shorter than the list of books I had acquired. I suppose I’m not as dedicated a book reader as I am a book collector!

The titles I have read, however, are an eclectic collection that has helped to shape my thoughts and theology over the past few months. The books have challenged me, angered me, touched me, and educated me about what it means to be on a daily walk with God. Each author, in their own way, has brought me closer to God, whether I have agreed with their theologies or not.

The ability to make people change their thoughts and actions are what makes books such powerful tools. They can make you laugh or cry. They can make you angry, teach you valuable lessons and give you ideas to chew on and shape into actions. Men like Hitler knew the power of books, that’s why so many books were burned by the Nazis. The most frightening book I ever read was Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. In Bradbury’s futuristic world it is criminal to even own books because their power to change hearts and minds was recognized by the oppressive government. Firefighters in this world didn’t put out fires … they started them whenever they discovered books.

Bradbury’s world is terrifying. I cannot imagine a world without books. I don’t even want to. Books have been a powerful force in my life ever since I can remember. I wish to share with you some of the books that have spoken to my heart, mind and soul. Most book lists go in some alphabetic order, but with this one I seek to trace my spiritual journey over the past couple of years as I have searched for and found God in many delightful and strange places.

I share my list with you in the hope you’ll find your life changed by them as well.

Books For The Journey

Taking A Chance On God, John J. McNeill

This is the book that put me back on the road to God. I remember walking around with this book for weeks, reading bits and pieces every chance I got. It seemed to me it would be more efficient to underline the passages that didn’t speak to me than the ones that did … I would save a lot of underlining effort! I have the book in front of me as I write this and marvel at the vast amounts of passages underlined with little exclamation points next to them. This book told me it was okay to be gay and be a Christian. This is the book that restored my hope and my faith in God.

One passage in particular spoke strongly to me then and still makes my breath catch today:

“We gay people must risk believing that God is not homophobic, even though the human church is. We must learn to accept our gayness as a gift from God and live it out joyfully in a way that is compatible with God’s law. In that process of self-acceptance and in our new awareness of God’s love for us, we can then let go of our anger.”

McNeill’s words helped me realize I was angry with God. I blamed God for this affliction of homosexuality, and was angry with him for not removing it when I begged and pleaded for it to go away. I spent years being angry with God for all of these reasons. McNeill’s book helped me deal with that anger, and put me back on the path to spiritual reconciliation with God.

I’m still in the process of letting go of my anger at the church and society’s message that somehow I am flawed because of my sexual orientation. But by living joyfully in a way that is compatible with God’s law I learned, as McNeill says, “to see our gayness as a blessing and not as a curse, a blessing for which we should be grateful to God. We must learn as gay persons to celebrate our existence. We must learn to take a chance on God.”

I highly recommend this book if you are just getting back into a relationship with God. McNeill gives great advice on letting go of your anger, becoming intimate with God, growing in your faith and using your sexuality to the honor and glory of God.

Living Buddha, Living Christ, Thich Nhat Hanh

While I was in self-imposed exile from the Christian church, I explored other religious beliefs. Eastern religions held a great interest for me. I’ve always been attracted to the gentle nature of religions like Buddhism. I read, with great vigor, the Tao Te Ching, and various books on Buddhism.

I always believed Buddhism and Christianity were mutually exclusive religions, but Thich Nhat Hahn has taught me otherwise. In Living Buddha, Living Christ, he beautifully draws the parallels between these two religions and presents probably the best ecumenical book on this subject I’ve ever read.

He focuses a lot of attention on true dialogue and reconciliation between Buddhism and Christianity. Those involved in true dialogue must be willing to change. But dialogue is not a means to recruit people to your side. Instead, Hahn says, “we have to believe that by engaging in dialogue with the other person, we have the possibility of making a change within ourselves, that we can become deeper.”

I was reading this book when I got involved in a group called “Bridges-Across.” They are trying to foster real dialogue between gays, fundamentalist Christians and those who say they are “ex-gay.” Real dialogue was hard to do, but it was a rewarding experience. I count among my friends now a couple of people who say they are ex-gay. They have not changed my mind on ex-gay ministries, nor have I changed theirs. In talking with them I learned a lot about myself. I have become enriched and have a deeper sense of self through the experience.

This is the book that also taught me what it means to love my enemies. Thich Nhat Hahn says there is only one way to do that: “to understand him. We have to understand why he is that way, how he has come to be like that, why he does not see things the way we do. Understanding a person brings us the power to love and accept him. And the moment we love and accept him, he ceases to be our enemy. To ‘love our enemy’ is impossible, because the moment we love him, he is no longer our enemy.”

This was a profound realization for me. I have not yet learned this lesson thoroughly, but I struggle daily to try and understand my ememy, and in the end, to love him completely. Thich Nhat Hahn has taught me this great lesson in mercy and love.

If you are curious about Buddhism, this is a great book to help learn some of the basics. It is also a blessing if you are interested in knowing how to bridge the gap between yourself and those in other religions, or Christians who happen to hold different beliefs.

When We Talk About God… Let’s Be Honest, Kirby Godsey

I was born and raised Southern Baptist. My father was a Southern Baptist preacher. I remember, as a child, while others played in their back yards or on swing sets, I played in the church sanctuary. I lived and breathed the Southern Baptist church.

It was always my understanding that the Southern Baptist church was founded on the simple principle of the “priesthood of the believer.” In a nutshell, that means there’s nothing between you and God, not a church, not a denomination, not a person. You have direct access to God. Baptists cherish this freedom and fight to defend it. Congregations have left the denomination rather than be bound by the rules and regulations of a convention. Individuals have left churches rather than be bound by the rules and regulations of a pastor or a board of directors. Baptists have a fiercely independent spirit. It’s the one thing I’ve admired most about Baptists.

My admiration of this trait was at once dashed and bouyed by this excellent book. Godsey is the president of Mercer University, a Southern Baptist school in Macon, Georgia. His book is a hallmark of excellent Baptist scholarship. It is bold, unashamed and a true testament to what “priesthood of the believer” is all about. Godsey has searched his heart, his faith and his God and ended up in a startling place.

He concludes the Bible is not the inerrant word of God, that God is not an all powerful, all knowing, all controlling entity somewhere “out there” and that the concept of universal redemption can be held by a Christian without compromising one’s principles.

He also spared no words criticising what the Baptist church has become today:

“I have watched Baptists become so intense about being Baptist that you would think God was a Baptist — if you didn’t know better. When people who call themselves the people of God begin to carry their calling around like a prized possession won at the last year’s carnival in town, they inevitably set themselves against other believers. Before it is over, they begin to fight one another. Genocide and fratricide are common in the ranks of faith. We will do anything to be first in line with God, even if it means throwing stones at those who are climbing the mountain of faith alongside us.”

Godsey’s words were prophetic. Shortly after his book was published, the stones began to be hurled at him, by none other than his Baptist brothers and sisters. He was decried as a heretic, a non-believer, and certainly not a true Southern Baptist. His was called before a tribunal, and threatened with the loss of his job. He refused to back down, retained his position, but has been strangely silent since then.

I applaud Godsey’s courage. His book speaks of the independent spirit of a true Baptist believer. The vitriolic reaction to his book by the Baptist leadership betrays their ignorance of true Baptist principles.

Godsey helped me along my path back to spiritual wholeness. He gave me hope that even if my beliefs weren’t the same as other believers that I should not be afraid to speak them boldly, with conviction and with the assurance that God would reward my search, even as others throw stones.

Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis

Bouyed by this new revelation from Godsey that I could love God with my mind, as well as my heart, I wanted to read others who have really thought about what it means to have faith. Lewis’ book has always been canonical reading for those searching for themselves in Christianity.

I came across Lewis at a time when I was reading material related to morality. I had been upset to see so many Christian websites use the words “immoral” and “homosexual” like they meant the same thing. I was very interested to read Lewis’ take on morality, especially sexual morality. He says this is not the center of Christian morality.

“The sins of the flesh are bad, but they are the least of all sins. All the worst pleasures are purely spiritual: the pleasure of putting other people in the wrong, of bossing and patronising and spoiling sport, and back-biting; the pleasures of power, of hatred. For there are two things inside me, competing with the human self which I must try to become. The are the Animal self, and the Diabolical self. The Diabolical self is the worse of the two. That is why a cold, self-righteous prig who goes regularly to church may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute. But, of course, it is better to be neither.”

Lewis helped me get some perspective on morality as it applies to gays and lesbians. God calls us into balance. We are warned about being extreme in any area, be it sex or righteousness. Homosexuality does not equal immorality. There are moral homosexuals, just as there are immoral heterosexuals. I thank Lewis for his insights.

Like Thich Nhat Hahn, Lewis also gave me part of the answer I needed as I sought to honestly love my enemies. It always troubled me that people with such diametrically opposed views could all still claim to be Christian. Surely, one of us must be wrong. Lewis says, not necessarily.

“You will find this again and again about anything that is really Christian: every one is attracted by bits of it and wants to pick out those bits and leave the rest. That is why we do not get much further: and that is why people who are fighting for quite opposite things can both say they are fighting for Christianity.”

It’s true, we all pick and choose our theology, from liberal to fundamentalist, there’s some part of the Bible we all disregard in our quest for God. Lewis warns against judging one another for this however saying, “It would be wicked arrogance for us to say that any man is, or is not, a Christian” since it is only God who can see what is truly in our hearts.

I may not understand everything about Christianity or those who profess believe in Christ, but I will not deny the faith journey of any of my fellow seekers, whether they extend me the same respect or not.

Gays Under Grace, Maury Johnston

The issue of morality remained on my mind. Lewis had answered many questions, but the main question of how morality and homosexuality can merge remained a mystery, until I picked up Johnston’s book.

I’m not sure how I got this book. I don’t remember every buying it or borrowing it. But there it was on my shelf one day as I was looking for a new book to read. I had never seen it on the shelf before. I asked my partner if it had been hers before we met. No, she had never seen it either. So, I count the book as a gift from God, since it spoke deeply to my heart at a time when I needed it.

One of the most damaging messages our community hears is that we are damned to eternal hell because of our sexual orientation. To enter God’s kingdom we must give up our orientation and become either celibate or heterosexual. Most gay and lesbian people believe this so thoroughly that they have given up any hope of ever being loved by God. This loss of hope leads to despair that plays itself out in a myriad of physically destructive behaviors like drugs, alcohol, excessive anonymous or abusive sex, and maybe even suicide. Losing hope also gnaws at a person spiritually, leading often to a form of spiritual suicide.

Johnston’s book holds out hope for gays and lesbians who wish to keep both their God and their sexual orientation. You can be both moral and gay, Johnston asserts. “It is not our sexual orientation that is foremost in God’s concern, but the way we express that sexuality within the framework of God’s commands for responsible, loving sexual behavior.”

Johnston wastes no words in castigating gay churches for not teaching this simple, yet difficult, lesson to our community. He even criticizes UFMCC founder Rev. Troy Perry for his statements that a truly loving experience can be found in a one-night stand. His words step on many toes in the gay community:

“If our fellowship is to be a true expression of gay Christian liberation, we must have the courage to emerge from the shell of shallow sexuality which heterosexual prejudice has decreed to be at the core of the gay community’s corporate identity. As followers of Jesus Christ, we have been called to rise about the stereotypes projected of us, and to reflect instead the ‘whole-i-ness’ of love, which includes our sexual orientation as an integrated part of the Christian self-expression.”

Johnston’s book is a bold call to sexual morality for gays and lesbians. It’s a call that is sorely needed to be heard not just by gays and lesbians, but our heterosexual detractors as well. Only when we act with morality and integrity will the word “immoral” stop meaning “homosexual.”

The Christian Agnostic, Leslie Weatherhead

By this time, my return to God was nearly complete. I was beginning to feel the love of God again, and was making peace with my status as a lesbian Christian. But it remained an uneasy peace.

As I surveyed the condition of Christianity in this modern time, I began to wonder if I really fit into the definition of Christian. According to what I had been taught long ago, a Christian is a person who believe Jesus is the only Son of God, who died for our sins on the cross. In addition, a Christian believes in the virgin birth of Jesus and his physical resurrection. Not only that, a Christian must assent to the notion that not only is Jesus the Son of God, but, indeed, God himself.

I wasn’t sure I could truly and honestly say I believed any of that. I believe in God, and God’s saving grace. I believe Jesus is a man who totally embodied God on earth in a way that few others have done. I believe it is this example we must follow to also embody God here on earth.

Does this make me a Christian? I couldn’t be sure. Holding myself in tension over these questions became exhausting, until a person on an e-mail list suggested Weatherhead’s book. It can be hard to find, but I was fortunate enough to discover a hardback first edition copy at a used bookstore.

The words of the preface immediately spoke to me:

“This book would say to the modern layman, “Don’t exclude yourself from the fellowship of Christ’s followers because of mental difficulties. If you love Christ and are seeking to follow him, take and attitude of Christian agnosticism to intellectual problems at least for the present. Read this book to see if the essentials of the Christian religion are clarified for you and only accept those things that gradually seem to you to be true. Leave the rest in a mental box labeled, ‘awaiting further light.’ In the meantime, join in with us in trying to show and to spread Christ’s spirit, for this, we feel, is the most important thing in the world.”

It was Weatherhead who taught me I didn’t have to give blind consent to any creed or doctrine. Instead, if my search for truth was honest and genuine, I could be agnostic about such things as the virgin birth and bodily resurrection, and still claim the spirit of Christ. Weatherhead reminds us it is the church that demands creedal and doctrinal consent. Jesus, “never demanded from anyone support for theological propositions, but told us to love God and our fellows and to react in all crises in the spirit which animated him, and which still calls for our worship and adoration.”

This is an excellent book for spiritual seekers, but I must also give a caveat. Weatherhead states that homosexuality is a mental disease. We must, however, remember this book was written in 1965, when homosexuality was still listed as a mental disorder by the American Psychological Association. I feel certain that a man such as Weatherhead, being open to new spiritual insight, would have rethought that belief when new light was shed on the causes of homosexuality. Do not let this bit of seeming homophobia dissuade you from reading this wonderfully spiritual book.

Meeting Jesus Again For The First Time, Marcus Borg

Having found my new status as a Christian agnostic, I went in search of the “further light” that might help me fully understand my faith. As much as Weatherhead’s book put my mind to rest that I can still be a faithful Christian without blindly accepting church doctrine, I was troubled because I wasn’t sure what to think about the man we call Christ. Was he the only Son of God? Was he God? Was he truly a divine individual who bodily ascended into heaven after walking out of his tomb? Did he, indeed, die for my sins? Just who was this Jesus anyway?

Borg’s answers to those questions rocked my world.

Borg is a member of the controversial Jesus Seminar, a group of theologians and scholars who have embarked on a search for the authentic words and acts of Jesus. Their work is startling. They conclude that a large part of what is reported in the Gospels are not the words of Jesus at all. Instead, “the gospels are the church’s memories of the historical Jesus transformed by the community’s experience and reflection in the decades after Easter. They therefore tell us what these early Christian communities had come to believe about Jesus by the last third of the first century. They are not, first and foremost, reports of the ministry itself.”

Whoa! The gospels are not eyewitness accounts of what Jesus said and did? Didn’t we all grow up believing they were? I sure did. This was news to me, and it shook my faith to its core. [For more reading on the history of the gospels, see The Gospel Truth by Russell Shorto and Liberating the Gospels by John Shelby Spong]

So, again I asked, who was this Jesus anyway?

Borg paints a four-part picture of Jesus. He is a spirit person with an “experiential awareness of the reality of God”; a teacher of wisdom who taught “a subversive and alternative wisdom”. He was also a social prophet, with “an alternative social vision, and was often in conflict with authorities”; and a movement founder, who “challenged and shattered the social boundaries of his day.”

Borg takes great pains to trace all four aspects of Jesus throughout his book. In the end he gives us a Jesus for today who invites his “followers and hearers into a transformed relationship with the same Spirit that he himself knew, and into a community whose social vision was shaped by the core value of compassion.”

The picture is refreshing, but his answer led me to a new question: How can I still believe in Jesus? Borg says the problem is with the word “believe.” At its root, it does not mean giving assent to doctrines or teachings, but in both Greek and Latin in means “to give one’s heart to.”

“The heart is the self at its deepest level. Believing, therefore, does not consist of giving one’s mental assent to something, but involves a much deeper level of one’s self. Believing in Jesus does not mean believing doctrines about him. Rather, it means to give one’s heart, one’s self at its deepest level, to the post-Easter Jesus who is the living Lord, the side of God turned toward us, the face of God, the Lord who is also the Spirit.”

I thank Borg for reintroducing me to Jesus, and teaching me to believe.

Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, Kathleen Norris

Ever since I was a child I have felt a calling to ministry. I never got a clear picture of what it was I was supposed to do. I didn’t know if I was supposed to be a preacher, like my father, or do something else to enrich the spiritual lives of others. Somehow, deep inside, I knew if I kept searching, one day my ministry would become clear.

It seems the world conspired against me to keep me from fulfilling whatever that calling was. For several years, I wandered in the wilderness, away from the church, away from God because I believed I did not belong within the folds of Christianity. Even upon my return to Christianity I was stumped. The call in my life has been so strong, but a direction has never become clear. Most of the stumbling blocks along the way to finding and answering my call have to do directly with Christianity and its baggage of words, creeds and doctrines. How can I fulfill my call if I can’t even fathom such concepts as “eschatology”, “repentance”, “incarnation”, “trinity”, “hell”, “judgment” or “evangelism”? These are words and doctrines that stump me, and keep me from answering God’s call with honesty and integrity.

Norris tackles these concepts and more, with the heart and mind of a true mystic poet. Her gentle spirit, and amazing prose, brings each of these concepts to life, and gives you a way to grasp each concept with ease. She spins stories of her life within the pages, and in the end brings you closer to God then when you started the book.

I was reading Norris’ book as I was having second, fourth and fifth thoughts about entering the seminary. Her gentle reassurances that God is not as rigid or inaccessible as some right wing zealots would have you believe, helped me to finally answer God’s call and dedicate my heart and mind to my Christian education. It was a step I don’t think I could have taken without her gentle guidance through the pages of this amazing book.

Norris also gives me hope as a gay Christian. We’ve been attacked from all quarters in the church, and made to feel unwelcome in God’s house. With Norris, I’ve learned to stand my ground and say with her, “I refuse to be shaken from the fold. It’s my God, too, my Bible, my church, my faith; it chose me. But it does not make me ‘chosen’ in a way that would exclude others. I hope it makes me eager to recognize the good, and the holy, wherever I encounter it.”

I still don’t know where God’s call will ultimately lead me, but now I feel secure that I, too, have a place within God’s kingdom.

Sermon On The Mount, Emmet Fox

If the other books on this list did nothing, they taught me how to love God with my heart and soul. Emmet Fox taught me how to love God with all my mind.

His basic premise is that we are what we think. His words agree with Jesus that it’s not what goes into us that defiles us, but what comes out. What comes out of us is what is really in our hearts. If we have pride, greed, hatred and other evil in our hearts, it will eventually be expressed.

Instead of dwelling on the past and past offenses, we should instead dwell on the fruit of the spirit. We should dwell on compassion, love, honesty and integrity.

He makes this point by working his way through Jesus’s sermon on the mount.

These passages have always been a head scratcher for me. It all sounds nice, but I’ve never really figured out just how it should be applied in my own life.

The Beatitudes were always the toughest for me. I suppose it seems simple enough to walk away knowing the mourning will be comforted, the meek will inherit the earth and the persecuted will be blessed. But just how does this work in daily life?

Emmet Fox ‘s answer startled me. Jesus calls us, through the sermon on the mount, into right thinking.

“What matters to you, truly, is not people or things or conditions in themselves, but the thoughts and beliefs that you hold concerning them. It is not the conduct of others, but your own thoughts that make or mar you. … Right reaction is the supreme art of life, and Jesus compressed the secret of that art into a sentence when he said: Resist not evil.” [Italics his.]

This is the key to success, Emmet says. If we are centered on Christ and his message to resist not evil, we can master anything … we can honestly turn the other cheek, we can honestly love our enemy. We must strive every moment to see the divine presence in ourselves and those around us.

I admit when I first picked up this book, it struck me as a “just think good thoughts, and good things will happen” new age philosophy book. I thought of the old X song, “I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts”! As I read further and really tried to understand Fox’s plea for us to get into a right thinking about life and the people around us, I saw what he was asking is incredibly hard. It’s not just a simple adoption of a mantra of “I must not think bad thoughts,” but it’s a call to change our entire attitude and outlook on the people and situations that surround us. Instead of working ourselves into a lather about the latest assault on glbt people, or lashing out at people and situations that frustrate us, it’s a call to return to God, and concentrate on the fruit of the spirit within ourselves and those around us when things seem troubling. Resist not evil, see it for what it is, befriend it, and it ceases to be evil.

Works of Love, Søren Kierkegaard

I’ve purposefully saved this book for last, because it has meant the most to me out of all of these books. I bought this book on July 4, 1997, and I have still not finished it.

If you’ve ever attempted to read Kierkegaard, you know he can be a challenge. His sentences are made to be read aloud, and that’s what you end up doing, because skimming him is next to impossible. For all the difficulty in his language, his message is clear: love is a Christian’s main concern.

Love is such an abused word in our day. No one really understands what true love, in a Christian sense, is all about. Kierkegaard takes 378 pages to remind us exactly what Christian love is, in no uncertain terms, but sums it up beautifully in one paragraph:

“Christian love teaches love of all men, unconditionally all. Just as decidedly as erotic love strains in the direction of the one and only beloved, just as decidedly and powerfully does Christian love press in the opposite direction. If in the context of Christian love one wishes to make an exception of a single person whom he does not want to love, such love is not “also Christian love” but is decidedly not Christian love.”

It took this passage to make me realize I cannot exclude people like Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell or even Fred Phelps from my realm of love. The moment I make an exception for any of them, I no longer practice Christian love. Don’t get me wrong, the love I feel for them is decidedly not warm and fuzzy. These men do despicable acts in the name of God, but I see their suffering. They strike out because of fear, and maybe some manner of self-loathing. They are also motivated by power, and seek to exploit the weak to build their earthly empires. But, if I fail to love them with the unconditional love of Christ, then I am not acting as a Christian.

As Christians, we get caught up in dogmas, doctrines and beliefs that separate us from one another. Christian love is supposed to be what unites us, despite all of our differences. We so often forget that underneath all the differences in belief, we are all the same. True Christian love teaches us to see one another as equals.

“When one walks with God, he no doubt walks free from danger, but one is also constrained to see and to see in a unique way. When you walk in company with God you need to see only one single person in misery, and you will not be able to escape what Christianity will have you understand, human likeness.”

Gay, straight, bisexual or transgender, we are all the same. We are all children of God, striving to find the answers to life’s hardest questions. We constantly undermine one another on that search for truth and happiness. Instead of building up one another in love, we tear each other down with hatred and pettiness. We must learn to love.

True love edifies and builds up. Kierkegaard knows this better than any other author I have read. If you are truly interested in learning what Christian love is all about, and how you can spread God’s unconditional love, even to those you may consider enemies, get this book. Like me it may take you a long time to read it, but it’s a lesson in true love you can spend a joyous lifetime learning.

Divine Bards

The divine bards are friends of my virtue, of my intellect, of my strength. They admonish me that the gleams which flash across my mind are not mine, but God’s; that they had the like, and were not disobedient to the heavenly vision. So I love them. Noble provocations go out from them, inviting me to resist evil; to subdue the world and to Be.

Ralph Waldo Emerson sums up how I feel about each of the authors I’ve presented to you. To me they are divine bards, friends of my virtue and my strength. They remind me that we all are divine bards. Whenever we seek to understand God in the world around us, we are about divine work; we are part of the heavenly vision.

These authors have, in their own ways, challenged, edified and uplifted my soul. Each of these divine bards has invited me to resist evil, to subdue the world and most importantly of all, to Be, in a very real and wonderful sense. I commend them to you in the hope they can do the same thing for you as you make your spiritual journey.