I have been reading books by or about Howard Thurman for about six years. I started with Jesus and the Disinherited, which I have read twice. I have also read three collections of sermons as well as an audiobook collection of recordings of Thurman, his memoir, and two biographies. I have much more to read because we are in a renaissance of interest in Thurman, like James Baldwin, Thurman is more relevant today than ever. I went to a book launch event with Lerita Coleman Brown hosted by Chanequa Walker-Barnes when What Makes You Come Alive first came out. But other things came up, and I never started the book until about a year later, when I saw that the Ignatius House (a local Catholic retreat center) was hosting a weekly book club discussing What Makes You Come Alive, and I joined.
This was the first in-person book club that I have ever joined. About 20 different people were involved, with about 15 on any given week. Because the book club met on Tuesday mornings at 10:15 AM, I was unsurprised that the group was mostly retirement-age women (one other man). I was the only new member of the group. Most had been meeting together for years, but I was very much welcomed to the group. I coincidentally knew two members because they used to work as teachers for my mother-in-law. Only a handful of people in the group had previously read anything by Howard Thurman. Most who did know of Thurman, were introduced to him by Richard Rohr’s writing. Because most were cradle Catholics, I was not surprised that there was not a deep familiarity with the Black Church.
The book opens with an anecdote about the author going to speak at the Wild Goose Festival (a progressive Christian conference) about Howard Thurman. Lerita Coleman Brown is a spiritual director and a retired psychology professor. Her grappling with Thurman as a Black woman, often in predominately white spaces (such as the Wild Goose Festival), matters clearly to the book’s thrust. As an all-white book group (most of whom grew up in still legally segregated South), I was somewhat skeptical of the group’s ability to discuss the book well. There were times when the background of the group left it a bit ignorant of areas that I would have liked it to discuss. On the other hand, first-hand knowledge of segregation made it more aware of other issues the book brought up.
While you need not be deeply familiar with Thurman to read and profit from What Makes You Come Alive, I was glad I had a good background. There were places where I got more from the references because I had some background on Thurman. After the first week, I sent links to Emory’s digital archive of Thurman’s lectures and sermons. Thurman is not a traditional “Whooping” preacher of his era. I think the slow cadence and academic tone of much of his preaching matters to understanding who Thurman was as a Black Church leader. (If you are new to Thurman and want to watch a one-hour documentary, this one is free to watch on YouTube.)
Because this book generated a lot of discussion (in a good way) and I had a paper copy (unusual for me), I wrote a ton in this book. Mostly because I noted connections or additional details that might be worth discussing. But there were places that I really disagreed with as well. For example, in chapter eight, about responsibility and the inner authority of holy activism, I largely disagreed with how that chapter was framed and focused. My orientation is such that I want to rely on the Holy Spirit for prompting and direction. In contrast, Brown focused on Thurman’s internal motivations and consciousness. Part of my concern is that Thurman was starting from a position of discrimination and oppression. But as a highly educated, middle-class white male, I am not discriminated against or oppressed. I do not trust my internal motivations to direct my activism accurately. Positionally, within culture, I overtly seek to be directed by the Holy Spirit and not through my internal motivations. But I also acknowledge that both Brown’s and Thurman’s internal consciousness have been developed in different ways than mine has, and so what she frames as learning to trust herself may just be different from my own work, where I distrust my default assumptions.
The chapter on Sacred Synchronicity similarly has truths that I know are real, but because I have a history of people around me misusing coincidence as a divine mandate, I am reluctant to allow for what I know is a way that God does act. She addresses this on page 94, “…just because the concept of divine intervention can be misused doesn’t mean we should stop seeing and naming God’s work in the world.” The internal arguing of that chapter largely died away with that acknowledgment on the last page of the chapter.
Part of what I appreciate about Thurman is his focus on the need for silence as a preparation to hear from God. We cannot control God, but we can prepare ourselves to hear from God. Thurman’s book Meditations of the Heart, which I have been slowly reading for almost a year, is made up of short one to three-page reflections (mostly just a page or so.) These were originally written as meditations for his congregation during or before the service. Thurman often takes normal life events and looks at them differently, which is exactly what Jesus did in the parables. The second part of what I really like about Thurman is his focus on loving all because they are made in the image of God. Those two points and Thurman’s significant writing on the study and practice of mysticism are present throughout the book.
I cannot separate my reading of the book from the group that I read the book with, but I did very much enjoy both the book and the group. And I looked forward to it each week. I hope to continue participating in the group next year when it starts again.