Doug McHardie writes: Stick with Love is an Advent devotional book by Arun Arora. Arun was born in Birmingham to a Hindu mother and Sikh father, and studied and practiced law before being ordained. He was for some time Director of Communications in Church House, and is now bishop of Kirkstall in the Diocese of Leeds.
I was in a quandry about whether to buy this book based on circumstantial evidence. It is the Archbishop of York’s Advent Book for 2023. It has a cover that appears to be a Gilbert Baker Pride flag cut into triangles. The primary endorsement was from Bishop Michael Curry. I had expected it therefore to approach Advent from a theological perspective that I would find hard to recommend to the rest of my church.
But while we look on the outside, God looks at the heart. And the heart of this book is accurately captured by the endorsements it carries. It is indeed a “wonderful series of short reflections…easy to read but packed with depth and insight” (Paula Gooder). It is also “like spending an afternoon with Bishop Arun at the pub” (Jayne Manfredi).
It is a remarkable book that is both easily accessible and carries a challenging punch, not least in the trio of questions at the end of each chapter. The subtitle, Rejoicing in every tongue, every tribe, every nation runs through the book as a thread, perhaps the only one. This was what prompted me to buy it to try it out despite my initial concerns. For this book is certainly about race and about justice and about hope. And for that I can happily recommend it to others.
But is it an Advent devotional?
The premise is that the book recalls in each chapter the life of a remarkable person, perhaps linked to some other event or person, and attempts to apply the lessons of that persons life by setting three questions at the end. It is laid out as three weeks of Advent with each day carrying the date for 2023, which should not invalidate its longevity other than for the most pedantic of reader. Where there is a saint remembered on any day in the Lectionary during this period then they feature for that day (eg in the first week St John of Damascus, St Nicholas , Bishop of Myrna, St Ambrose of Milan). Otherwise either another person of note is chosen or, only twice, a Bible verse (not from the lectionary).
The first chapter focuses on Saint Francis Xavier, a sixteenth century missionary to India allied to a recounting of the belief that the apostle Thomas, reached India. This is predicated on a very personal story of Bishop Arun’s own baptism and some of the difficulties of giving his life to Christ from a non-Christian background. And that personal journey shines a light through many if not all of the reflections. This makes it a conversational book that draws the reader in.
The chapter on St Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, is fascinating in its detail but bewildering in its scope. We are introduced of course to the saint upon which the idea of Santa Clause is (inaccurately) built. We are introduced to the measure of the man, that he would walk across the floor of the Council of Nicaea, temper aflame, and slap Arius across the cheek. Ho, ho, ho it isn’t! But then the author uses this as a springboard from Nicaea to Phillip Pullman and Richard Dawkins settling on the witness of an Iraqi Christian on the Sat 7 TV channel. It feels a bit like trying to do too much in a short reflection.
The Second Week selection gets more into a swing of interspersing the saints of the day with others that the author wishes to highlight. Leah Sharibu reads alongside Helen Berhane from week 1, both imprisoned for their faith, but Leah still in captivity in Nigeria. Asia Bibi too in Pakistan. Danger and sacrifice continues with the story of St Lucy who was martyred in the third century for giving her money away, against her new husbands wishes. The dark night of the soul characterised by St John of the Cross stands beside the largely untold or misunderstood Christian conversion and transformation of George Floyd who at the time of his death had put his criminal past behind him. The week ends with Archbishop Sentamu, the first black Archbishop in the Church of England whose public support for causes in the face of opposition is the focus of this chapter.
The Third and final week takes us to Vietnam (Cardinal Thuan), Shropshire (Eglantyne Jebb), South Sudan (Francis Loyo), Glastonbury (Stormzy), India (Charlie Andrews), Villa Park (Billy Graham), Hong Kong (Florence Li Tim-Oi) and finally Memphis (Martin Luther King) – from whom the quotation that gave rise to the title of the book is taken. These final chapters explore dedication under oppression, activism on social action, cultural relevance, supportive leadership and evangelism.
Overall I would say that it is an eclectic book with a fascinating array of characters and insights. Its is a very warm book, reflecting the personality of the author, but with chilling challenges about how to put this sort of faith into practice. “How do you measure love?” “Is it ever right to use money to change people’s beliefs?” “Can we be profane and a Christian role model to young people?”
Will I be recommending it to my church as a devotional?
This question got me thinking about what are the features of a good seasonal devotional read for Advent?
I concluded that I look for the following features:
- An advent theme that is explored through the readings;
- A scripture reading for each day;
- A reflection that ties in to the reading for the day;
- Some guidance about application;
- A challenge tied to the theme;
- A prayer to finish.
Stick with Love fails almost all these other than the engaging reflection. Scripture references are few and random with most chapters not referring to the Bible at all. The challenging questions at the end are sometimes very pertinent but often feel contrived, as if the rule was three questions for every chapter come what may. There is no coherent theme other than the global nature of Christian faith—and that not all saints have that title before their names!
A devotee will not have a sense of what Advent is about reading this as a devotional but will know more about some remarkable people. But little more about the nature of God—for this is a very people focused book.
If any of the outer layers put you off I would encourage you to dip in, you will be rewarded. But my advice would be, don’t use it as a devotional for Advent. It was not really written as one.
It is a book, however, that is full of rich human story for any time of the year.
Doug McHardie has been Vicar of Christ Church Purley in South London since 2019. An accidental Anglican, Doug came to faith through several Alpha courses, learned how to be Vicar at St John’s Nottingham after a career as accountant and professional trainer and has always served in Southwark Diocese. Doug once thought that two Labradors would be a good idea….