The Books I Read in 2020 and What I Thought of Them

2020: Huh.

I’m still trying to come up with the right words to describe my experience of last year (aren’t we all?), but one thing I can tell you about for sure is what I read. I set myself a 2020 goal of just reading whatever I wanted, exactly what I wanted, not what I thought I should read. So here’s exactly what I wanted to read in 2020: feminist novels, funny memoirs, comforting classics from my childhood, and books that helped me unlearn my own racism and/or figure out how to move through the world as a white person without further screwing everything up.

Review Categories

The Best Book I Read in 2020
Highly Recommended
Recommended With Some Reservations
Not Recommended But I Don’t Know Everything So Maybe You’ll Like Them

Within each category, books are listed alphabetically by last name of author.

*Asterisks denote books I re-read in 2020. Sometimes you just want to know what’s going to happen at the end.

The Best Book I Read in 2020

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A Visit to My Dying Uncle in 22 Greek Flash Cards

ὁδός, way, road

The hospice building is clean and pleasant, in a small town a few miles from the Illinois/Wisconsin state line. After I get off the expressway, I drive past rolling fields beginning to turn golden, down state highways flanked by oak and maple trees. In late September, their leaves are still mostly green, but every so often a single branch is glowing brilliant red.

ἐσθίω, I eat

He’s not eating much these days, so I stop at a local chain’s drive-through for milkshakes. When the masked employee comes to the car window, I order a large strawberry shake for him and then stall out. Do I want a milkshake for myself? Chocolate or vanilla? Large or small?

There are no cars lining up behind me, but the decision still feels urgent. I panic and ask for a small vanilla. As I inch toward the pickup window, I think about how I used to be able to tell the difference between important and unimportant choices. Now every decision feels important. Or maybe every decision feels like it doesn’t matter, in the end.

Driving away, I rip the paper off one of the straws and take a slug of my small vanilla milkshake. I decide it’s exactly what I wanted.

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How to Write a Church Reopening Plan in 68 Easy Steps

  1. Close your eyes and pray.
  2. Take a deep breath and offer your life and ministry up to God. Ask for guidance, wisdom, and grace as you attempt to lead your community through a faithful response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
  3. Consider both the short-term health of your individual church members and the long-term health of the church.
  4. Consult your state, local, and denominational reopening guidelines.
  5. Shit, these guidelines are all different. Which ones are you supposed to follow?
  6. Probably the most conservative ones, right?
  7. But wait, those guidelines are by definition overly broad. Maybe you’re being too cautious. There have been a lot of coronavirus cases in your state, but not that many in your region.
  8. Yet.
  9. Why do these denominational guidelines say you’ll be receiving more information in June when it’s already August?
  10. Hang on, you’re looking at the wrong PDF. This is version 1. Your regional judicatory is now on version 6.
  11. Check your email to see if version 7 has come out yet.
  12. There’s no version 7, but you do have a new email from a parishioner who would like to see you. After a lifetime of struggling with alcohol, she was finally getting her drinking under control when the pandemic hit. Now she’s drinking to the point of blackout every night and feeling very scared. She would consider inpatient rehab, but she’s in her 60s and afraid of contracting COVID-19.
  13. Reply to her and offer to meet with her next Thursday.
  14. Recall that this parishioner is confused and overwhelmed by Zoom. Suggest that you meet outdoors, in the park across the street from your church building, where you will sit six feet apart from each other while shouting over the noise from the busy street, your voices muffled by masks.
  15. Briefly anticipate yourself squinting through your foggy glasses, sweat trickling down your temples, as you lean forward and repeat: “I SAID, SO YOU MENTIONED BEFORE THAT YOU STARTED DRINKING AS A WAY TO COPE WITH TRAUMATIC FLASHBACKS FROM THE ABUSE YOU EXPERIENCED AS A CHILD?”
  16. Close your eyes and pray.
  17. Okay, back to the reopening plan.
  18. Review your notes from the last Zoom meeting of the reopening committee. Two members feel strongly that the church should reopen its building for worship, two members feel strongly that the church should keep worship exclusively online, and two members missed the meeting because they logged into Google Meet instead of Zoom.
  19. Recall that all six members are in agreement about one thing and one thing only: Ultimately, the final decision and its consequences belong to you.
  20. Check your email to see if you’ve heard anything new from the reopening committee.
  21. There’s nothing from them, but you do have a new email from another one of your parishioners with a link to that month-old New York Times article about coronavirus transmission in churches. The subject line is “Have you seen this yet??????”
  22. Reply to him with a complete sentence, not just the word “Yes.”
  23. Re-read the article in spite of yourself.
  24. Gosh, it’s pretty bad.
  25. Close your eyes and pray.
  26. Think about Frances. Frances is a 96-year-old woman who has been attending your parish since she was baptized there as a baby. She has no home Internet access, so she hasn’t been able to participate in online worship. Every time you talk to her on the phone, she tells you tearfully that she’s been a faithful churchgoer every Sunday of her life, and she never thought she would go so long without darkening the door of a church.
  27. Think about how, frankly, you never thought you would either.
  28. Think about how you would very much like to live long enough to do Frances’ funeral.
  29. Think about Esther. Esther is a 6-year-old girl who has been attending your parish since she was baptized there as a baby. Every time you talk to her on the phone, she tells you with quivering resolve that she misses church and Sunday school “so, so, so, so much.” Her mom and dad helped her mail you a picture she drew of your family and her family having a picnic together at church. It is labeled PICNIC HAPPY. You put it on your fridge.
  30. Think about how you know first-graders named Esther, Vivian, Hazel, and Ruby.
  31. Calculate how long it takes old-lady names to become baby-girl names again.
  32. Think about how it would feel to do Esther’s funeral.
  33. Close your eyes and pray.
  34. No, for real now, you need to get to work on this reopening plan.
  35. Jiggle your key in the lock to let yourself into the sanctuary. It will take you a minute to get the door open.
  36. Remember that you used to do this key jiggle flawlessly, without even noticing, back when you were in the church every day.
  37. Inventory your supplies. You have 500 disposable masks, 6 gallon jugs of hand sanitizer (you wanted those touchless dispenser things but couldn’t find anywhere to buy them), and 30 rolls of blue tape.
  38. Is it even smart to be messing around in your sanctuary with the blue tape? Should you just be holding services outside in the noisy public park?
  39. Wait, speaking of noise, you need to do a microphone check. Turn on the sound system, tighten your mask, and recite your favorite psalm into the pulpit mic.
  40. Pretty good. As long as you have no parishioners who depend on seeing your entire face to help them understand your words, and as long as you are careful not to say any words ending in “t,” people should be able to hear you just fine.
  41. Back to the matter at hand. First, you need to figure out your newly reduced seating capacity, based on safety guidelines and the size of your worship space.
  42. You know what would be really helpful here? A tape measure.
  43. Leave all your rolls of blue tape piled on the altar and wander away to go look for one.
  44. Return to the altar 40 minutes later, defeated. There is no tape measure to be found anywhere in this church.
  45. Oh well, you’re 5’3″, so if you can lie down between two seats with a decent amount of head room, that’s about six feet, right?
  46. Remember your former bishop’s admonition never to set your pen or coffee cup on the altar because “the altar is reserved for that which you are offering up to God.”
  47. Touch the altar. Think about how long it has been since you received the Eucharist.
  48. Gaze heavenward and say aloud, “Look, all I have to offer you right now is myself and this fucking blue tape.”
  49. Close your eyes and pray.
  50. Go back to your state, local, and denominational guidelines about seating capacity. Based on the guidelines, determine that your new capacity is either 35 or 50 or 124.
  51. Probably best to go with the most conservative figure, right?
  52. Get to work taping out 35 seats for worshipers.
  53. Wait, you and the organist have your own seats. Do you count as part of the 35?
  54. Probably best to assume yes, right?
  55. Get to work taping out 33 seats for worshipers.
  56. Under your breath, start singing one of your favorite hymns from childhood: “Be not afraid; I walk before you always …”
  57. Abruptly remember that you’re not allowed to sing.
  58. Pull out your phone and check your email to see if your music director has had any epiphanies about participatory worship music with no singing.
  59. There’s nothing from him, but you do have a new email from the sexton. All the basement flooding from heavy rains this summer has led to black mold in the third-grade Sunday school room. He just wanted to let you know.
  60. Size up the X of blue tape you have laid out to demarcate the seats in the fourth pew. That’s about six feet, right?
  61. Crawl under the X. Lie down on the pew and line up your feet with one end of it. Reach up above your head. Yup, seems fine.
  62. Look up at the ceiling. Watch the light filter in through the stained-glass windows. Look at the particles of dust dancing in the air, captured by each ray of sun.
  63. Think about how much easier all this would be if COVID-19 particles were visible to the naked eye, like dust.
  64. Take a deep breath. Breathe in the stale, holy air of this space.
  65. Breathe in all the prayers and hopes and dreams that people have brought here over the generations.
  66. Breathe in the Holy Spirit.
  67. Remember that the Holy Spirit is everywhere.
  68. Close your eyes and pray.

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What Your Reaction to “What Your Seminary Says About You” Says About You: Errata, Elucidations and Updates

Hey, Reverend! Hi! Nice to see you again!

Boy, was I surprised by the sudden wave of traffic my last post received. This blog is a pretty tiny, churchified niche of the Internet, where I tell you what to buy as an ordination gift or how to be a youth pastor if you’re not cool. Most of my posts are only read by desperate seminarians and two of my aunts. (Hi, Aunt Maureen and Aunt Peggy! Love you!)

But it turns out a LOT of us have strong feelings about where we went to seminary. I feel compelled to specify that I’m just a stranger on the Internet. I’m not on an ATS accreditation team or anything. If your school didn’t make the list, the reason is simple: I couldn’t think of a joke about it.

However, having received some helpful tips and corrective feedback, I have a few things I want to clear up:

What Your Seminary Says About You (abridged, with comments)

Virginia Theological Seminary
You are 27 years old and contemplating your first run for bishop.

No one disputed this.

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What Your Seminary Says About You

Hey there, Reverend. I’ll be honest: I’ve spent three months trying to write one encouraging post about “ministry in the age of coronavirus,” and another about “motivating your church to work for racial justice,” and I just don’t have enough in the tank. Maybe you’ll get those when the pandemic is over. Or when I have child care again. Whichever comes first.

I recently attended a compulsory clergy retreat, on the topic of Finding Your Center During a Global Pandemic. By “attended” I mean I turned off my Zoom video and half-listened through headphones while feeding beans to my toddler and then helping her fit the pig, barn, and chicken pieces into her farm puzzle approximately 1,000 times. I only caught the gist, which I believe was “find your center,” but as I pocketed the rejected pieces of the farm puzzle (sheep, goat, horse, cow, and duck), I thought about the three things that help me center my soul instead of letting it spin around like an unsteady top:

  1. Dwelling in the presence of Jesus, who is the light and hope of my life.
  2. The love of my family and friends, even when transmitted over Zoom.
  3. Dumb jokes.

It is in the spirit of this last item that I present to you the following list. If your seminary is not included, it’s probably because I don’t know enough about it to come up with any sweeping generalizations, but if you mention it in the comments I’ll make one up.

I hope you will take this list in good fun (and perhaps comment to let me know whether I got your seminary right). We’re in this together, Reverend. Hang in there.

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How to Write a Kickass Ember Day Letter

Greetings, my fellow Episcopalians!

So you’ve been admitted to postulancy for Holy Orders. Congratulations! Time to get to work brainstorming your first Ember Day letter.

Ember Days are special occasions when the church is invited to pray for all those preparing for a life in ministry. If you yourself are preparing for a life in ministry, and by chance you have picked the ordained kind, Ember Days seem like they should be a chance for everyone to dote on you. Nope! Instead, they are a chance for you to do a little extra work.

By canon law, if you are in the ordination process as a postulant (step 1) or candidate (step 2), you are required to “report” to your bishop four times a year — during, you got it, the Ember Days. I will just go ahead and tell you when they are, because as far as I am concerned there is no earthly way you could guess. Continue reading

Every Single Book I Read in 2019 and What I Thought of Each: An Exhaustive List

Hello, Reverend! I recognize that 2019 was a quiet year on this blog, in large part because it was not quiet anywhere else. With my family, I moved cross-country, bought a house, started a new call at a new church, and adjusted to life with a tiny baby … who is now a not-so-tiny, joyful, rambunctious toddler. Nobody warned me that every cliché about how fast they grow up is true.

IMG-7573

She also helps unload the dishwasher.

In the midst of all that chaos, I did manage to read a few books. Not nearly as many as in past yearsI’ve kept a running list of every book I’ve read since 2007but enough to keep me sane amidst the chaos of ministry and parenthood. If you need a book to do the same for you, allow me to present the following 17 micro-reviews as a small encouragement to read something non-work-related in 2020. Woman cannot live on Feasting on the Word alone. Continue reading

Youth Pastor Ken (or: On Being Uncool in Youth Ministry)

Good morning, Reverend! Is this a busy week, or what?

Here in my neck of the woods, we’re getting ready for Homecoming Sunday. I am hard at work prepping my sermon, trying to recruit that final leader for seventh-grade Sunday school (why is it always the hardest position in the church to fill?!?!), and counting the days until I get to see my beloved high school youth group kids again.

I have two words about high school youth group: GIANT JENGA.

Actually, I also have a little story. Consider it a pep talk as you launch into this crazy time of year, at least if you are resolutely uncool like me. Continue reading

Spiritual Strengths Inventory (for when your faith is down in the dumps)

Hey there, Reverend! I know it’s been a while since I’ve written. If you ever choose to go public with your thoughts about sexual harassment or sexual violence in the church, I suggest building in several months off afterward to deal with all the mail.

On a not wholly unrelated note: I don’t know about you, but I found my seminary training to be a bit lacking in the pastoral counseling department. I did take one class on something called “spiritual care,” during which I learned a great deal about the love lives of my classmates and very little else. If I am ever again in a position to counsel someone who is heartbroken after desertion by a paramour from the back row of Old Testament II: Histories & Prophets, I will be ready to roll.

Somehow, though, I had a feeling that my friends in the mental health field were developing skills a bit more sophisticated than “mirroring” and “active listening.” They were learning to notice their clients’ thinking errors and challenge them, directly but kindly. They were learning how to help people name their struggles and — even more important — start to imagine being able to overcome or endure them. Continue reading

Rock That Collar: Featured on Beauty Tips for Ministers!

I’m a longtime fan of Beauty Tips for Ministers, a blog by PeaceBang, otherwise known as my fellow Massachusetts clergywoman the Rev. Dr. Victoria Weinstein. She writes about clergy image and style, offering plenty of beauty tips but also so much more:

So you can only imagine my pure giddiness at being featured on BTFM. Continue reading