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Because January is a season for reflection and resolutions, my social media feeds have been filled with those setting reading goals or asking for book recommendations. It seems many of us are starting the year setting an intention to be more purposeful about the words and ideas we choose to occupy our heads and hearts.
As a writer and teacher, it’s no shock that I love talking about books just as much as I enjoy reading them. Conversations about books — the ones that have impacted us or the ones stacked in to-read piles on our bedside tables — spark awareness and connection.
While contemplating my own reading goals for the year ahead, I also found myself looking back on what words and stories from the last year have stuck with me. One year ago, each Sunday in January of 2022, I shared a profile on this blog about a Reformed female minister. As I look back, those five conversations with five remarkable women were among the highlights of my year. I learned much from their stories, their witness, and their wisdom.
Perhaps because I wanted an excuse to turn back and revisit their stories (and perhaps because I feel compelled to encourage you to do the same), I checked back in with those five female pastors and asked: What is a book you read in the past year that made you think, or brought you joy, or changed the way you think about something, or made you feel less alone? Their choice didn’t have to be their favorite book or the one deemed to have the most literary merit, but just a book that mattered to them personally.
If, as Virginia Woolf wrote, “Books are the mirrors of the soul,” I hope you, like I, will find some stories in the lives of these women well worth reading and re-reading.
In 1996, Rev. Dr. Mary Hulst was ordained at Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the first American woman ordained in the CRC. Pastor Mary has served as chaplain at Calvin University since 2009, and her testimony is a reminder of not just the courage required when one is called, but the importance of being lifted up by a community attentive enough to give voice to that call and walk beside them through the call’s inevitable discomfort.
Pastor Mary’s pick of books for 2022 was The Way of the Heart: The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers by Henri Nouwen, a title that came to her “in a timely way” when she was invited to re-read it as part of a course she is taking. Mary says that Nouwen’s book was “a reminder that our relationship with God grows and changes and deepens just like our relationships with one another,” and identifies this title as one that conveys “beautiful truths in gracious ways.”
Rev. Laura de Jong, a blogger here and youngest female pastor to be profiled, was raised inside a Canadian CRC congregation. She recounts, “As a young girl I don’t remember ever questioning; I never knew a reality where women couldn’t be pastors.” Laura grew up watching women lead, including her mother, and didn’t realize that ordaining women in ministry was even a controversial issue until she arrived as an undergraduate student at Calvin College.
The book that has stayed with Laura is Becoming Mrs. Lewis by Patti Callahan, a novel based on the true story of Joy Davidman and C.S. Lewis becoming friends and then finally getting married. Laura writes, “Pieces of their published works weave in and out of their fictional letters and conversations. The whole book felt like a warm hug, but it particularly met me in a moment of searching where I needed to be reminded about the importance of stories, words, and mystery, and for that I’m very grateful.”
Rev. Dr. Denise Kingdom Grier, who identifies herself as a mom, minister, missionary and mobilizer, has been an ordained minister for 15 years in the Reformed Church in America and now serves at Mars Hill Bible Church, a non-denominational church in West Michigan. A graduate of Western Theological Seminary, Pastor Denise was the first African American female to graduate from WTS with the Master of Divinity degree and the Doctor of Ministry degree.
The book Pastor Denise recommends is Finding Me, the autobiography of actress and producer, Viola Davis. She says the book “was healing, joy giving and absolutely inspiring,” and also recommends the audiobook, which is read by Davis herself.
Pastor Carrie Rodgers is a commissioned pastor who now leads the newly-formed Canvas Church in Grandville, Michigan. Carrie might describe herself — and her ministry — best with a metaphorical call to the river’s edge: “We’re born into a river of sin, and the church should be on the water’s edge, making piers and bringing people into belonging, encouragement, comfort, and care. But instead, we’ve packed up, headed up the hill, and dug a moat around ourselves. We let the drawbridge down for people who are like us.” When Carrie talks about what she wants her church to be, she describes a pier ministry, one that is “inconvenient, uncomfortable, and messy.”
Carrie identified two books she read this year that were very different but both impacted how she views and interacts with reformed theology and people, while also challenging the human tendency to make sense of things so that they fit neatly into a box. The Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires our Trust more than our “Correct” Beliefs by Peter Enns, gave Carrie the permission to stay curious about scripture and theology. “We can be certain about our life with Christ while still asking good and faithful questions,” she said.
Carrie’s other recommendation is a fantasy novel she read with a book club: The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune. Carrie appreciated the way Klune’s book causes readers to consider the way the world interacts with anyone who is different. “Instead of asking questions and getting to know people, we are so quick to judge and divide people into good and bad,” she says. Both of these books caused her to think deeply about the great divides in our country and the church. “We pick up scripture as weapons to hurl at each other instead of asking questions and staying curious about the God who created all and desperately loves all that he created.”
Stephanie Schuitema, is a licensed therapist and the first female I knew from my home congregation to go to seminary. Though Stephanie always had a career as a social worker or therapist in mind rather than pursuing a path to ordination, she attended seminary with the goal of the understanding and the insight that comes from a deep dive into scripture. Stephanie and I talked of how neither of us recalls ever seeing or hearing women preach, but that our faith was formed by female teachers and mentors from our congregation.
The book Stephanie recommends, Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith, is written by another female minister, Barbara Brown Taylor. Stephanie says the book was a “great reminder that God is everywhere and all around us, always. And, that we can connect with God in ways that don’t look like the old, prescribed way. Be willing to try and see where you can find God.”