I’m pretty sure these two books are going to turn out to be my favourite of Lent this year, and one or both of them may be on the top ten list for the whole year. They both took my breath away, even though there’s really nothing strange or unfamiliar in what Sara Miles has to say.
Miles was a left-wing, lesbian journalist, with no particular connection to or interest in Christianity, when she wandered into St. Gregory of Nyssa church in San Francisco one day and more out of curiosity than anything, took part in the Eucharist (St. Gregory is an Anglican church but practices an open Communion so that the bread and wine is offered to anyone who wants it). The experience created a transformation in Sara Miles that she didn’t understand herself and started her on a path that ended up with her becoming an active church member and running a free food kitchen for the needy in her area that feeds hundreds of people each week.
As I said, nothing so shocking — a person is converted to Christianity, and is compelled to serve others as a result. It’s what Sara Miles makes of this material, how fresh and energetic both her voice and her theology are, that made me constantly stop while reading to stare at phrases and sentences and paragraphs that leapt off the page for me.
There are some similarities here to Nora Gallagher’s Things Seen and Unseen — smart, liberal woman experiences a midlife conversion that centres around the Eucharist and leads her to become actively involved in a liberal Christian church, with a ministry to feed the hungry and a deeply sacramental theology. That said (and I love Nora Gallagher) this in no way comes across as something you’ve heard before or another version of the same story. Individuals are individuals, and Sara Miles’ voice and her experience are as quirky and original as Gallagher’s or Anne Lamott’s. She is just herself, her cranky, sometimes difficult, passionate self, telling her own story.
Take This Bread is a memoir of Miles’ background, her conversion, and the beginnings of the food pantry she runs. Jesus Freak, the sequel (which I downloaded immediately after reading Take this Break; that’s how anxious I was to hear more of the story) is less narrative and sequential. Rather, Miles explores key themes — the Christian imperatives to feed the hungry, heal the sick, and raise the dead — through stories of her own experiences with the food pantry, with doctors and nurses and social workers who work with the desperately poor and with drug addicts in an inner-city hospital, and with a dying woman in Miles’ own neighbourhood who reaches out for help. The stories and Miles’ reflections — on faith, on food, on politics, on gay marriage, on Jesus, on a myriad of topics — are deftly interwoven. My only critique of both books is that they were over too quickly.
Reading Sara Miles stirs up my own passion, makes me want to take on huge and audacious projects for Jesus too. After a sober second thought, what is inspires me to really do is to be more present and active in the places God has already called me to serve those in need — at my work, in my church, in my neighbourhood.