18 Favorite Books for 2018

First Congregational ministers read!

Bill Smutz, Hannah Rice, Emily Stokes, Sarah Bereza, and Connor Filkins share their favorite reads from 2018.

For each book, we’ve listed links to IndieBound, which connects you with local bookstores, and Amazon. You can also contact local bookstores directly, such as Left Bank Books and the Eden Seminary Bookstore.

For the children among us

1. Baptism Promises by Carol A. Wehrheim, illustrated by Roz Fulcher, IndieBound, Amazon

Bill says: This sturdy board book is designed to assist parents (and grandparents!) in teaching young children the meaning of baptism. A delightfully diverse array of characters lift up and reinforce the message that in the waters of baptism, God's promise of love is poured out on both the baptized and all humankind. The book ends with a number of age-appropriate prayers for different moments of a day.

2. God is God, and We are Not by Carole Barner, illustrated by Rachel Asen, IndieBound, Amazon

Hannah says: This children’s book was written by a local UCC pastor, Carole Barner. Written in lilting rhyme, it is a theological reflection on what happens when we stop learning of God’s dreams for the world. It encourages us to build bridges, to share with others, tear down walls, and embrace diversity. I love that the illustrations depict the rainbow of humanity and the beauty of creation. While aimed at children, this book provides deep reflections for any age.

3. Sidney & Norman: A Tale of Two Pigs by Phil Vischer, illustrated by Justin Gerard, IndieBound, Amazon

Emily says:  I love this children's book because it addresses the idea that God loves everyone no matter how "together" you are. Sidney and Norman are two very different pigs. Norman has his life together. Sidney, however, struggles to do things "right". In the end, Norman learns that he is loved by God not because he is a good pig, but just because he is himself and Sidney learns that God loves him in spite of his messy clothes and messy life. It is such a heartwarming tale of two pigs.

4. When God Gave Us Words by Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, illustrated by Darcy Day Zoells, IndieBound, Amazon

Bill says: This beautifully illustrated book invites young children, and God's children of all ages, to think about the words we use and why we use them. Words can be used for gossip, or they can be shaped into poetry and song lyrics. Words can be woven into curses, or sculpted into a funny joke or an imaginative story. We can use our words to tell a lie, or combine feelings of longing, thanksgiving, and hope into a prayer of gratitude. God gave us words, and this has made all the difference!

5. Saint Nicholas and the Nine Gold Coins by Jim Forest, illustrated by Vladislav Andrejev, Amazon

Sarah says: I’ve been on a hunt for a Saint Nicholas book for my own little Nicholas, and I finally found this lovely book! It’s perfect. Nothing too fanciful, just a story of Nicholas taking care of a poor family, with a generous and humble heart. Beautiful illustrations.

If you're looking for fresh ways to pray

6. To Bless the Space Between Us by John O'Donohue, IndieBound, Amazon

Emily says: This book of blessings is a wonderful book of poetry that addresses almost every moment in life. From a blessing of “Morning Offering” to a blessing “At the Threshold of Womanhood” to a blessing “For the Family and Friends of a Suicide”, this book covers so much and offers deep meditation for the soul. As someone who has never really enjoyed poetry, I find O'Donohue's work to be beautiful, moving, and spiritual.

If you're looking for a powerful - and timely - novel

7. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, IndieBound, Amazon

Hannah says: The Hate U Give is categorized as a young adult novel, but I believe it is worth reading for those of us older than that age group as well. The novel tells the story of sixteen-year-old Starr Carter, who lives in a poor neighborhood but attends school at a fancy suburban prep school. That balance is difficult enough to keep, but becomes even more so when she witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend, Khalil (who is unarmed), at the hands of a police officer. Khalil’s death becomes a national headline, protesters take to the streets, and Starr struggles to decide how best to use her voice. This is a fictional story that feels so timely, and it doesn’t hold back. While some of the language may not be appropriate for younger readers, this is a great novel for many ages, and for people from different communities who may not have first-hand experiences like those depicted in this novel.

If you want to understand why people do what they do

8. The Four Tendencies: The Indispensable Personality Profiles That Reveal How to Make Your Life Better (and Other People's Lives Better, Too) by Gretchen Rubin, IndieBound, Amazon

Sarah says: Have you ever wondered, “Why can I exercise everyday when I’m walking with a friend, but never go once by myself?” Have you thought, “Why won’t my kid just do what they’re supposed to do?!” Or maybe, “Why won’t my patients follow their health plan when they know it’s good for them?” The Four Tendencies explain how people respond to inner and outer expectations in 4 different ways—inner expectations like “I want to exercise” and outer expectations like your supervisor saying “You have to do this project.” This personality framework is profoundly insightful, not just for yourself and understanding your family, but also if you supervise other people or have to gently encourage patients and students to follow a plan.

P.S. If you read this, come and talk with me—I can talk about the 4 Tendencies for hours! (You’ve been warned!)

If you'd like to reimagine the church

9. The New Parish: How Neighborhood Churches Are Transforming Mission, Discipleship and Community by Paul Sparks, Tim Soerens, and Dwight J. Friesen, IndieBound, Amazon

Connor says: This book is about decentralizing church from within the four walls and moving out in the community. It’s a great take on how to meet people where they are and not expect them to come meet us.

If you (or a kid you know) like sci-fi/fantasy novels

10. Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper, IndieBound, Amazon

Bill says: Three siblings, a sister and two brothers, on holiday along the Cornish coast in southwestern England, are guided by their mysterious Great Uncle Merry on a quest of myth and magic, as they engage in the age-old struggle between the forces of light and the forces of dark. The first book in the five-volume "The Dark Is Rising" series, Over Sea, Under Stone is a humorous and compelling journey along the blurred edges of time and history. Appropriate for 4th or 5th grade on up, this science fiction/fantasy book and series is not as dark as Harry Potter can be, nor as intricate and complicated as Tolkien.

If you want to feel "present"

11. Time and Despondency: Regaining the Present in Faith and Life by Nicole Roccas, Amazon

Sarah says: Being present is a trendy topic right now, but it’s something Christians have been talking about for millennia, since we meet Christ only in the present. One way to explore living in the present is through the lens of despondency (or in Greek, acedia), which is a way of talking about apathy and spiritual listlessness. Despondency and living in the present might seem like big, abstract subjects, but Nicole makes them concrete and personal through her abundant (often brilliant) metaphors, warm writing style, and practical, even lighthearted, suggestions. (Full disclosure, Nicole is one of my best friends, but this is a fantastic book whether or not you know the author :)

If you want to cultivate your inner life

12. Becoming Wise: An Inquiry Into The Mystery And Art Of Living by Krista Tippet, IndieBound, Amazon

Bill says: Tippet's work, along with scripture, served as the sources for Summer 2018 Preaching at First Congregational Church. Interested in embracing life as an art form, rather than a checklist to be completed or a contest to win, Tippet explores the margins of human existence for purpose and meaning. Aware that the 21st Century "is throwing open basic questions the twentieth century thought it had answered," Tippet searches for new ways for cultivating inner life, built on the premise, "that the well being of others beyond kin and tribe - the stranger, the orphan, the outcast - is linked to one's own well-being." Her work is complex at times, though always accessible. Tippet's dialog with those whom she perceives to have "graceful minds and lives" introduces the reader to additional avenues of wisdom and practice worthy of further exploration.  

If you feel discouraged about the world

13. Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks by Diana Butler Bass, IndieBound, Amazon

Hannah says: Diana Butler Bass is a historian, scholar, theologian, and writer in the areas of religion, spirituality, and culture, who was introduced to me my first year of seminary. Her latest book explores what it means to be grateful: both personally and communally, in feelings and in actions. Bass opens up gratitude way beyond “write in a gratitude journal every day and your life will improve,” to how gratefulness can impact how we act in the world and our relationships with God, others, the world, and our own souls. This is a very accessible and enjoyable read, full of personal stories (which Bass writes so well) and thorough research. It is written firmly in this place in time, with reflections of the current atmosphere of our country and world.

If you've ever felt like your body isn't good enough

14. The Body Is Not An Apology: The Power of Radical Self-Love by Sonya Renee Taylor, IndieBound, Amazon

Sarah says: This isn’t a Christian book, but this is the most profoundly Incarnational, “We’re made in the Image of God” book I’ve read. If you’ve ever felt like your body isn’t good enough, pretty enough, strong enough, and you want a powerful reminder that our bodies are good full stop, this is the book for you.

If you love American history

15. The Shingle Style and the Stick Style by Vincent J. Scully, Jr., IndieBound, Amazon

Bill says: Adapted from Scully's PhD dissertation, The Shingle Style and the Stick Style explores the historical development of American suburban/vacation architecture in the post-Civil War period to approximately 1890. Beginning with the architectural roots from which the Shingle Style blossomed, Scully traces its development through important American architects such as H. H. Richardson, Louis Sullivan (architect of St. Louis' Wainwright Building) and Frank Lloyd Wright. The book is well-documented, well-illustrated, and written by one who has great passion for their work!

If you want new ways to think about the Bible and the Church

16. Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again by Rachel Held Evans, IndieBound, Amazon

17. Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church by Rachel Held Evans, IndieBound, Amazon

Emily says:  I absolutely Love Rachel Held Evans! Her books are so insightful while being a true reflection of what I and so many of my friends have experienced in our lives. She writes in a way that expresses thoughts and feelings I've had for years but could never articulate as well as she can. In Inspired, Rachel delves into the Bible, touching on different themes she sees and how they intersect with our lives. Some of the themes she writes about include origin stories, war stories, fish stories, and resistance stories. In Searching for Sunday, Rachel tells the story of her personal struggle leaving the church and finding her way back. The stories are humorous while being eerily accurate. So many of her stories were stories I could tell myself! Rachel Held Evans' books are so inspiring to me because she really seems to have captured the essence of faith and the struggle to be a part of the church for my generation.

If you live primarily in white spaces

18. I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness by Austin Channing Brown, IndieBound, Amazon

Sarah says: I live primarily in white spaces and have almost always ministered in majority-white churches. It is so important for me to listen to what Austin Channing Brown is saying, and to reckon with the ministry I have (and don’t have). The book’s last chapter, “Standing in the Shadow of Hope,” and Brown’s recent blog post “What If?” are sticking with me, reverberating in my soul as I figure out how to live in a world made by God but marred by death.

These are the books we read this year that were our favorites. What makes your list for 2018?