Rachel G. Hackenberg and Martha Spong
Church Publishing, 144 pages
Reviewed by Jennifer Burns Lewis
In her book, “The Gift of Imperfection,” sociologist and TED Talk star Brené Brown wrote: “Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy — the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”
There is little denial in “Denial is My Spiritual Practice,” but the authors confess their capacity to deny themselves their human tendencies to doubt, despair and grace. In so doing, Rachel Hackenberg and Martha Spong offer a window into their vulnerability as women of faith, daughters, mothers, spouses, members of religious communities and as children of God — and invite us to identify our own capacities to put space between ourselves and grace. Like Brown, the authors model authenticity born of struggle and pain and the risks they have taken in love.
“Denial is My Spiritual Practice” is an invitation. As a book for individual readers, it encourages us to consider dropping our masks and embracing who we are even as we put to rest any suggestion that anything we put between ourselves and God (or anything that others impose upon us) can separate us from God. As a book for group study and reflection, I imagine rich conversation that would come from the authors’ very different and very recognizable journeys that could well be our own.
Utilizing personal experience and memoir to explore what it means to lean into faith versus using faith as a crutch, a platitude or, in some cases, a weapon, Spong and Hackenburg offer poignant, focused and oftentimes very funny reflections on the intersection of life and faith, particularly when life presents particular challenges. Whether the topic is navigating chronic illness, physical assault, corporal punishment, marital infidelity or a late-night phone call that rocks one’s world, the authors do a beautiful job of weaving their own deep faith perspectives, whether rejected, adapted or embraced in the living of their days. This is precisely the place where the “denial” comes in. One may try to deny the pain of an abiding physical challenge, the emotional and physical dimensions of rape, a personal relationship with God, one’s sexual orientation and, as the authors eloquently express, the “shoulds” of faith (“I don’t understand the point of labyrinths” and “I discovered that what I believed for other people I needed to apply to me, too”), but when we set aside all of the denial, we invite God to meet us with grace. Easy to say, hard to do, but Hackenburg and Spong offer us great models of why the doing is so worthwhile.
The authors’ facility in providing a biblical frame for their doubts and denials and dance with God is a striking feature of this book. With strong and graceful articulation, they connect their own journeys of faith with the biblical narrative, informing the reader’s understanding of their lives and of Scripture as well. I’m so glad that the authors chose to present their lives with such candor and honest reflection. The essays in “Denial is My Spiritual Practice” are a breath of fresh air and good for the church.
This is a wonderful book. My only suggestion for improvement is in the subtitle, for there is no failure in their faith or in the writing of this witty and real reflection. There’s no way that it’s an epic fail, but rather an epic success, and one in which many readers will find humor and hope.
Jennifer Burns Lewis is a Minister of Word and Sacrament and serves as the visioning and connecting leader for the Presbytery of Wabash Valley in Indiana.