On God's Side

Ina Hughs: Top book picks from this year's reading

The best gift in Santa’s pack or under the tree as far as I am concerned is a good book. Or several, even better.

This time of year, every publisher and book site on the Internet has its own “best of” list, including reviews to check out, excerpts to read and information on ordering it online.

For what it’s worth, here are some of my favorite books I read this year in case it might help you with your lists.

For fiction readers:

Loving the Least of These - A Social Change Movement

I recently had the privilege of speaking with Jim Wallis, President and founder of Sojourners, a Christian organization committed to faith in action for social justice, Jim Wallis is also the author of "On God’s Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned about Serving the Common Good,” a New York Times best seller. That book encourages Christians to love their neighbors and thereby serve the common good. Jim believes the good news of Jesus not only transforms our personal but also our public lives.

Why Did Jesus Come?

“Jesus did not come just to save our souls,” wrote New York Times best-selling author Jim Wallis in his new book, “On God’s Side.” “Jesus’ gospel of the kingdom is much more than the ‘atonement-only gospel,’ a message that was mostly about how I could get to heaven and not about a new order that had come to change the world and me with it,” says Wallis.

‘Foreword Reviews’ Names Book Of The Year Finalists

Select titles from the Religion Nonfiction finalists are: Boring by Michael Kelley (B&H Books); Consider the Birds by Debbie Blue (Abingdon Press);On God's Side by Jim Wallis (Brazos Press/Baker Publishing Group); Playing God by Andy Crouch (IVP Books); Stop Asking Jesus Into Your Heart by J.D. Greear (B&H Books); and The Good Funeral by Thomas G. Long and Thomas Lynch (Westminster John Knox Press).

On God's Side

Jim Wallis’s On God’s Side comes in two parts. In the first, he argues that biblical Christianity involves not only the personal, individual standing of the Christian before God and the individual’s relationship with Christ, but also a deeply communal element that inspires genuine concern for one’s neighbors. In the second, he fleshes out how these sometimes-competing concerns ought to inf luence Christian political thought and engagement. Wallis’s inspiration for the title of the book is a quote from Abraham Lincoln—“My concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side”—and he uses this second half of his book to explore exactly what being “on God’s side” would entail, tackling several prominent and hotly debated issues ranging from the structure of the American political system to specific policy issues.

'I Have A Complaint' — No — 'I Have a Dream'

Martin Luther King, Jr., photo: public domain. Illustration by Sandi Villarreal
Martin Luther King, Jr., photo: public domain. Illustration by Sandi Villarreal / Sojourners

Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of a day that changed America, changed the world, and changed my life forever. I was fourteen years old on Aug. 28, 1963, in my very white neighborhood, school, church, and world. But I was watching. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., became a founding father of this nation on that day, so clearly articulating how this union could become more perfect.

He didn’t say, “I have a complaint.” Instead, he proclaimed (and a proclamation it was in the prophetic biblical tradition), “I have a dream.” There was much to complain about for black Americans, and there is much to complain about today for many in this nation. But King taught us that day our complaints or critiques, or even our dissent will never be the foundation of social movements that change the world — but dreams always will. Just saying what is wrong will never be enough the change the world. You have to lift up a vision of what is right.

The dream was more than the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, which both followed in the years after the history-changing 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It finally was about King’s vision for “the beloved community,” drawn right from the heart of his Christian faith and a spiritual foundation for the ancient idea of the common good, which we today need so deeply to restore.

Why I Love My Country

Margaret M Stewart / Shutterstock.com
Constitution with American flag and Statue of Liberty, Margaret M Stewart / Shutterstock.com

What do I love about America? I love the land, one of the most spectacularly beautiful countries in the world (and I’ve visited many of them). I love walking our long stretches of beaches, hiking our majestic mountains, seeing the desert skies, walking beside the rivers, sailing along the coasts, and visiting hundreds of lakes in my home state of Michigan, where I camped as a kid. I even love some of our big cities! “O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain, for purple mountain majesties, above the fruited plains.” I love our many diverse cultures, including their music, their food, their art, their sports, and their particular stories and histories.

I especially love our best national values: freedom, opportunity, community, justice, human rights, and equality under the law for all of our citizens of every race, creed, culture, and gender, not just for the rich and powerful. In particular, I love our tradition and history of democracy, its steady expansion here, and how it has inspired the same all over the world. We take legitimate pride in seeing how our founding documents have been the models for many new nations.

The Post-Cynical Christian

Woman with cynical and happy emotion, Fotovika / Shutterstock.com
Woman with cynical and happy emotion, Fotovika / Shutterstock.com

Skepticism is a good and healthy thing, I told every audience. Be skeptical and ask the hard, tough questions about our institutions — especially Washington and Wall Street. But cynicism is a spiritually dangerous thing because it is a buffer against personal commitment. Becoming so cynical that we don’t believe any change is possible allows us to step back, protect ourselves, grab for more security, and avoid taking any risks. If things can’t change, why should I be the one to show courage, take chances, and make strong personal commitments? I see people asking that question all the time.

But personal commitment is all that has ever changed the world, transformed human lives, and altered history. And if our cynicism prevents us from making courageous and committed personal choices and decisions, the hope for change will fade. Along the way, I got to thinking how the powers that be are the ones causing us to be so cynical. Maybe that is part of their plan — to actually cause and create more cynicism in order to prevent the kind of personal commitments that would threaten them with change.

And this is where faith comes in.

We Interrupt This Family for Baseball Season

Jim Wallis with the Tigers Little League team. Photo courtesy Jim Wallis
Jim Wallis with the Tigers Little League team. Photo courtesy Jim Wallis

On Memorial Day weekend, our family of four participated in six baseball games! Having just returned from a six-week book tour, it was such a refreshing change from discussing our nation’s politics, which is all the media wants to talk about and is more and more well, disgusting.  

A sign outside our home’s front door says, “This family has been interrupted by the baseball season.” Both of our boys play, I coach, and my wife Joy Carroll is the Little League Baseball Commissioner — cool job for a Church of England priest!

On Saturday, we played in the Northwest Little League All Star game, which I got to coach with my son Jack on one of the teams. Our team came out on top, and Joy made 100 hotdogs for a celebration after the game. Our last victory cheer was “1, 2, 3, HOTDOGS!” The picture here shows the enthusiasm of the 9- and 10-year-olds I get to coach every single week. It’s what keeps me grounded in real life — amid the politics of this dysfunctional capital city — and it’s what gives me joy. Coaching baseball has also kept me deeply connected to my two sons, as I write about in my new book.

We had just helped save an immigration reform bill in the Senate Judiciary Committee — advocating for 11 million undocumented people who Jesus calls the “strangers” against the special interest politics of both left and right — when I entered the field for our Little League Tigers game on Friday night. It was just what I needed.

Here is a great baseball story that explains why I love Little League Baseball.

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