Liberating Love (Sandhya Rani Jha) -- A Review
LIBERATING LOVE: A Daily Devotional: 365 Love Notes from. By Sandhya Rani Jha. St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2020. X + 374 pages.
There is a myriad of devotional books, which means there is a book for everyone. They come in all shapes, sizes, and theologies. Some are tendentious and some are provocative. The purpose of a daily devotional is that it will keep a person's focus on God. At its best, a devotional invites us to listen for God to speak to that particular day.
Liberating Love is a daily devotional that invites us to listen for the voice of God by reflecting on Scripture in ways that will challenge and provoke. It is the creation of Sandhya Rani Jha, a Disciples of Christ ministry colleague. She currently serves as the founding director of the Oakland Peace Center and is the author of several books that speak to issues of justice, race, and community. All of that is present in this book, and more. The title is appropriate. It offers a message of liberation that is rooted in love.
The book contains "365 Love Notes from God," one for each day of the year. Actually, the subtitle is slightly inaccurate as there is a devotion for use on February 29th. That reflection focuses on the opening lines of Jonah when the prophet runs away from God’s call. Each day’s devotion is rooted in a particular text of scripture, usually a couple of verses in length. The reflection picks up on that reading, offering an interpretation and application of the text. What makes this book somewhat unique is that Jha uses the first person and puts the message in the mouth of God. Thus, as we read, she wants us to hear it as a word from God. She asks that we not think of her being too presumptuous (audacious?) in doing this. While it may seem a bit audacious, it actually works very well. Jha writes that her use of I in the devotion is "my imagining how God might talk about the scripture and God's relationship to you." She continues by offering her hope that the reader will engage in a “relationship with God in some life-giving ways” (p. x).
As you read through the book, day by day, you will quickly notice a pattern. January 1 offers us a reading from Genesis 1:1-3 (Old Testament/Hebrew Bible). Then on January 2, we read Matthew 2:13-15 (the escape of the Holy Family to Egypt). Then, as we look across to the facing page, we find a reading from Exodus 1 designated for January 3. So, that’s the way it goes. Each day we alternate between Old and New. If you turn to the back of the book, you will find an index of Scriptures. As you scan the index, you will notice that there are five to eight readings from each book of the Bible. Thus, there are eight readings from the Psalms (150 chapters) and six from Philemon (1 chapter). By the end of the year, you will have encountered every book of the bible. I should note that she doesn’t follow a straight line, taking us from Genesis to Malachi, and from Matthew to Revelation. The various readings are scattered throughout the year. So, we encounter readings from Philemon on February 7, April 2, May 26, July 20, September 14, and November 8th.
To give an example of what a reading looks like, I'll offer up the reading from Philemon verses 17-18. The text of Scripture reads: “So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.” Then, speaking in the voice of God, she writes: "My child who wrote this letter modeled what it means to vouch for someone who might not be well received on their own. Because he believed in his new apostle, he staked his own resources on backing up that man. Who in your world could do their work better if you encouraged, mentored, and supported them and also lent them your credibility? Your voice matters and makes a difference" (p. 313). Or consider this reflection for September 25th, that takes up Ecclesiastes 9:13-18. She writes: “This world is so often seduced by loud and aggressive voices, but the world is saved by calm and patient wisdom. Today I invite you to look for the humble but wise people in your midst and listen to them. Let their quiet words drown out the shouting of a ruler, so that you may be served by wisdom and escape the cruel weapons of war and so you may save your people from the bungler who destroys a nation or even the world” (p. 269).
In a concluding note to the book, Jha speaks to the way she engaged the text, prayerfully (and humbly). She points out that because of the way she laid out the book, she found herself engaging with texts that made her uncomfortable. Thus, sometimes she had to argue with the text. This led her to taking certain liberties with her interpretation. She expresses her hope for the readers, that as they use the devotional, it will help the reader "reread familiar passages in new ways, particularly in relation to how the Bible is most of all a book on how to be community together as God intended." That leads her to conclude with her hope that as we use this book we "feel reinvigorated to be about the work of building God's Beloved Community here on earth by the end of this year's journey" (p. 369).
When you review a book such as this you have to be creative. It’s not the sort of book you read a day at a time, as intended. For my part, as a reviewer, I read through sections of the book as if each day’s reflection was a chapter or even subchapter. After all, the publisher would like to see my review before a year passes by. At the same time, I used the readings for September as a personal, daily devotion. Thus, I was able to experience it in its intended fashion. Having spent time with different portions of the devotion both as a reviewer and as a Christian seeking wisdom for the day, I found Jha’s devotional personally satisfying and inspiring. I even used a reflection in a sermon on the day it was designated for reading (yes, I had to read ahead!).
As I noted at the top there are many different kinds of devotional books. Some are sugary sweet and leave you wanting something more substantive. That’s what you will find here. The reflections are gracious and encouraging, but when necessary they can be pointed and prophetic. They are designed to liberate the reader to experience and live out the calling of God. For progressive Christians who can get so caught up in good causes, this devotional should prove useful in grounding that commitment in words from God as revealed in Scripture and in Sandhya Jha’s interpretation of them. Thus, in Liberating Love you will receive “365 Love Notes from God.”