Pandemic Survival Books

Someday, you may get asked this question: how did you carry on through COVID-19? With all those months of home quarantine, social isolation, and mounting death tolls, what kept your soul and sanity intact? Did you lean hard on family, friends, or neighbors? Was your church a lifeline? Was there a particular prayer practice you observed? Was it your job or colleagues that got you through? Did you find ways to escape it all through computer games or the latest Netflix series?

A lot of things have helped sustain me through pandemic days. Digital church has certainly been a gift, even if I remain eager to meet together in person again. I took up new prayer practices last year, like Knox’s live streaming prayer time at 7:30 a.m. and using the Pray As You Go app over breakfast. My wife Jill and daughter Lucy have been precious companions on the journey. And soon after the days of home quarantine began, the three of us started meeting with our extended family each weekend on Zoom. I have been thankful for a great congregation to serve and wonderful colleagues in ministry. And yes, the occasional television show has caught my interest too – such as The Queen’s Gambit and Ted Lasso.

But books were an especially helpful support this past year also. Thank God for good books. “We read to know we are not alone,” says the character of C.S. Lewis in the movie Shadowlands.  Those words rang true for me in days of COVID-19. Here are some personal favorites from last year.

 The Dearly Beloved: A Novel by Cara Wall

I’ll admit, the subject matter grabbed me from the start. It tells of two Presbyterian co-pastors, their spouses, and the church they serve in New York City’s Greenwich Village through the turbulent ’60s. The novel is drawn from the author’s experience growing up in New York City’s First Presbyterian Church. While the book touches on faith, it is especially concerned with marriage. What makes love last through anxious and uncertain times? Can a Christian pastor and an avowed atheist enjoy a thriving marriage? How do you open your heart to another person after you’ve suffered a loss? I found it both a tender and engaging story throughout.

 How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram Kendi

In the wake of the George Floyd killing and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, books on racism quickly rose to the top of many of our reading lists. This book was a favorite, not only because of Kendi’s powerful insights on racism’s structural qualities but for the candid personal testimony he shares. Kendi presents anti-racism as a verb and not a noun, and argues that racist policies – and not merely personal prejudice – are the cause of racial inequalities. It is a timely call for structural change. But it is also a powerful memoir. Kendi shares poignant snapshots from his life and how these experiences shaped his thinking on race.

 The Overstory by Richard Powers

This is one of many great books I was introduced to through the Brothers K group at Knox.  The Overstory tells not one story, but many stories – with each story meeting and interweaving by the novel’s end.  Powers chose to write this book after encountering giant redwood trees for the first time. And in these days of climate change and ecological crisis, the book is a winsome call to consider our relationship with the natural world – and with trees specifically.  The Dearly Beloved tells of love shared between two human beings in marriage. The Overstory tells of a love shared between human beings and trees. I found both love stories touching and compelling.

 Tempered Resilience by Tod Bolsinger

I received an advance copy of this book just before the pandemic hit, and I am so glad I did. Knox’s session, staff, and deacons had read Bolsinger’s previous book, Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory, for a retreat back in 2016 – a gathering he also led for us. We worked together on developing adaptive capacity for the challenges of ministry in 21st century North America. Little did we know just how much adaptive work would be called for a few years later. The difficulties of pivoting in ministry and mission through 2020 were enormous – and exhausting. In Tempered Resilience, Bolsinger explores how leaders develop the resilience needed for long-term adaptive work. Lord, did I need resilience in 2020 – and grateful to have this book as a guide and inspiration in that journey.

Wishing you happy reading in 2021,

Pastor Matt