Our friend Karla is a part of our small band of ragtag missional outcasts, having come out of the same CLB as we did. We met them there when they hosted a small group that we led some 10 or so years back. A little while ago, I loaned her a book from my review pile, telling her that since I hadn’t read it yet, if she was going to read it before me, she’d have to give me a quick review. In fact, I had a strong suspicion she’d enjoy it, being the Ann Lamott fan that she is. A few days later, she informed me that she didn’t want to ever return the book and was going to start writing notes in it. It’s a “thing”… you see, I’m fairly particular about my books. You know, not bending the covers or dog-earring the pages, marking them up, or using them as drink coasters — normal book-care stuff — so she was taking a shot at me since she evidently has some inexplicably different views on the use and treatment of books. Ownership of the book may remain in dispute, but I’m hoping that possession isn’t necessarily “9/10 of the law.” Either way, fortunately, her review of Sara Miles’ Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion follows.
I love to hear and read stories of transformation. I think it is because of the obvious change and difference I can see revealed right in front of me — but perhaps it is because through reading and hearing the stories of the transformation of others, I too have hope in being transformed. And so with that mindset, how could I not have drooled with anticipation as a copy of take this bread was placed in my hands to read and review. Just read the first paragraph of the prologue, and you’ll understand why…
One early, cloudy morning when I was forty-six, I walked into a church, ate a piece of bread, took a sip of wine. A routine Sunday activity for tens of millions of Americans — except that up until that moment I’d led a thoroughly secular life, at best indifferent to religion, more often appalled by its fundamentalist crusades. This was my first communion. It changed everything.
Take This Bread is the autobiographical story of Sara Miles, who, as a homosexual, middle aged, left-winged journalist encountered Christ in the bread and the wine at an Episcopalian church in San Francisco. Miles was the daughter of two atheist parents whose grandparents had been evangelical missionaries. She was a mother and a long-term partner — but that day at the alter she became a follower of Jesus. What follows is Miles’ account of how encountering the person of Jesus transformed her heart and as a result spurred her on to passionately pursue establishing St. Gregory’s Food Pantry — what was to become one of the largest food pantries serving the city of San Francisco.
Miles chronicles her journey with a vulnerable authenticity. She invites the reader along to experience the liturgical richness she encounters at St. Gregory’s, to smell and taste the food she picks up and offers each week at the food pantry, to hear the voices of many nations cajoling and arguing about who will be first to receive their share. It is an offering I was quickly willing to accept and became more nourished for partaking in.
Intertwined within the story of the establishment of the food pantry is Miles’ personal journey to understand how faith can co-exist with an unbelieving partner, the U.S. war in Iraq, church politics, and disappointment. Within her story, Miles focuses on her belief that conversion is a process — ever changing and evolving — rather than a one-time event. At several points in the book, she steps back to remind the reader that another layer of her conversion had been added to her, and it’s at these times that I was able to stop and recognize the layers that are still being added to my messy and jagged conversion as well.
Conversion isn’t, after all, a moment: It’s a process, and it keeps happening, with cycles of acceptance and resistance, epiphany and doubt…. I began to understand why so many people chose to be “born-again” and follow strict rules that would tell them what to do, once and for all. It was tempting to rely on a formula — “accepting Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and saviour,” for example — that became itself a form of idolatry and kept you from experiencing God in your flesh, in the complicated flesh of others. It was tempting to proclaim yourself “saved” and go back to sleep. (p.97)
Above all, Take This Bread reminds readers that it is the simplicity and concreteness of the tasting of the bread and the wine which draws us to Christ. The book beautifully and vividly looks at the elements of the Eucharist in such a way that makes the reader hunger for their next opportunity to take communion. The significance of the consumption of the bread and the wine came alive for me in a new way.
I’d highly recommend take this bread to anyone who desires a greater understanding of the Eucharist, and who values personal stories of others to enrich their own. My copy of the book is dog-eared, underlined, written in and bent. It is the kind of book that envelopes such richness in only a sentence or two, that you feel you must occasionally stop so as not to lose the value of what you have just read. Miles writes in a style reminiscent of my beloved Anne Lamott (Lamott herself calls Take This Bread “the most amazing book”). It is filled with humour, some crude language, and brazen honesty — all of which fit perfectly within context of someone freshly converted and not yet privy to the “rules and regulations” to which some churches conform their converts.
I’ll conclude with a prayer Miles includes in the book which she wrote for the volunteers to sing at the food pantry each week:
O God of abundance, you feed us everyday.
Rise in us now, make us into your bread,
That we may share your gifts with a hungry world,
And join in love with all people, through
Jesus Christ our Lord. (p.163)
A review copy of this book was provided through The Ooze Select Blogger program.