Best Books of 2011

In 2011, I discovered the precious gift of Henri Nouwen. This book, "The Essential Henri Nouwen," is a collection of his best meditations on the love of God. Nouwen's gentleness and compassion helped me understand that I am God's beloved. One of the most healing and beautiful books I read all year. "Compassion can never coexist with judgment because judgment creates the distance, the distinction, which prevents us from really being with the other." --Nouwen, p.87

Barbara Brown Taylor's "Leaving Church: a memoir of faith" was the last book I read in 2011. Barbara was an Episcopal priest and although she loved her work, something was missing. Her journey from ordained clergy to religion professor is fascinating and insightful. This book gave me an increased compassion for members of the clergy--something I've desperately needed. Instead of holding pastors and priests to impossible standards, I'm beginning to examine the ways in which I contribute to an environment that denies them the permission to live as real human beings.

After watching Brene Brown's TED talk, I was inspired to read her book: "The Gifts of Imperfection: let go of who you think you're supposed to be and embrace who you are." Brene's research-based approach to understanding human connection was utterly compelling. She examines the things that keep us from true, wholehearted living--and shame is the biggie. There were points in this book when I was weeping with relief, saying things like: "Thank GOD, someone GETS it!" What I love about this book is that it's not all woo-woo. Brene combines research with heart--a powerful combination.

"An Altar in the World" is the follow-up book to Barbara Brown Taylor's "Leaving Church." The book describes all the various ways of finding and experiencing God outside the walls of church. Barbara shows how even mundane, everyday activities of life can point to deeper spiritual practices. Taking a walk, getting lost or just hanging laundry can all be moments of connection with the sacred. I would recommend this book to anyone who has had difficulty experiencing God inside church. This book gave me such hope.

"Grace (Eventually): thoughts on faith" by Anne Lamott is both witty and profound, sacred and profane. Her storytelling is spellbinding and I'm always amazed by how she's able to take even the smallest of daily interactions--the mundane events of ordinary life--and illuminate them with profound insight. One of my favorite things about Anne Lamott is how she doesn't take herself too seriously. She keeps it real and unpretentious, while also providing some of the best commentary on the life of faith.

I keep "Through the Year with Mary" on my bedside table and refer to it almost nightly. The brief, thoughtful reflections combined with quotes from saints, writers and mystics help me keep Mary in my heart and mind. After 25 years of neglecting her, I'm being intentional about including Mary in my spiritual practice. Being raised with such a predominantly male perspective of Christianity, reflecting on Mary helps me understand and appreciate her unique and special contribution to the faith I hold. It's amazing for me to realize how many great saints in Christianity held a special love and devotion for Mary.

I read "Grace-Based Parenting" on my flight to New York City--just before confronting Michael Pearl on Anderson Cooper's daytime talk show. This book was the best preparation. Indeed, it was so precisely what I needed to read at that very moment, it was nothing less than serendipitous. Written with such grace and gentleness, Tim Kimmel lays out a way of BEING--not a way of DOING. There are no formulas, here. Just an open-hearted approach to raising children with love, truth and grace.

I found "Hope Against Darkness" in a used bookstore. I have highlighted, underlined and copied passages from this book more than any other book I read this year. Rohr's way of seeing the world and understanding the underlying motivations that drive fear and anxiety are nothing less than revolutionary. This is a book you read slowly and in small pieces. I've been reading it for five months now, soaking it in, turning it over in my head.

"The soul must expand, it seems, so that we can carry the great mystery of God. 'We must learn to bear the beams of love' as William Blake would say. That learning is usually, I'm sorry to say, in the realm of suffering. It seems to be the only thing strong enough to make us surrender control and what we call logic." --Richard Rohr, pg. 16

This was the first book I read in 2011, and it was the perfect way to start the year. Ann Voskamp's "One Thousand Gifts: a dare to live fully right where you are" is one of those rare, beautiful books which is both elegantly written and profoundly truthful. Ann has learned and lives grace. The proof of this is that her book appeals to Christians of ALL types. The message is simple: live a gratitude-infused life. Well, it seems simple but I can't tell you how HARD this is to actually do. I have made and abandoned like 1,000 gratitude lists this year. On each list I get up to like 10 and then get distracted from it. But I keep coming back to gratitude-listing because the truth is, it works. And on a side note, I'm all stunned that I'll be sharing a speaking topic with Ann at the Relevant blogging conference this year. Pretty much what I'll be saying is: "Yeah, what Ann said. Ditto to what Ann said. Did you hear Ann? That's what I think, too." Heh. Just call me Ann's wingman. Er, wingwoman.

My birthday present this past year was a copy of Ina Garten's "How Easy is That?"  Barefoot Contessa is my favorite show on the Food Network and I've recorded and watched EVERY SINGLE SHOW for the past 2 years. Ina's cooking inspired me to roast our Thanksgiving turkey all by myself. And this year, my family has loved the Greek salad recipe and the lemon-chicken. In fact, they loved it so much that they request it for THEIR birthday dinners! I know it sounds silly, but I love Ina like a mother. I wish I could go sit in her kitchen and watch her make roast chicken for Jeffrey. I'd help roast the vegetables. We could talk about gardening--although I know nothing about that. The point is, I love her. And I cherish her cookbook. Someday, maybe I'll meet her. One can dream, right?