A Pastor’s Reading List for 2019

Photo by Stanislav Kondratiev

By Joe LaGuardia

I have made it a habit, as other pastors have, of publishing an annual reading list. It is made up of books that we long to read, hope to read, want to read, need to read. I have fun reading the lists of others, and I hope that people have fun reading mine.

This year I want to do it differently. In years past, I viewed my list as a challenge–if it is listed, then I should read it. Here I am four years writing a list, and I still haven’t read Moby Dick. So, this year I am going to take the fun out of the list and only add books that I read. This serves my readers in two ways: First, it lets readers know what I am reading for real. Second, it holds a modicum of suspense. You’ll just need to wait and see what I am going to read next!

So here are the books I am reading–as I read them!–in 2019:

1. God Underneath, by Edward Brock. I found this memoir by a Catholic priest in the shadowy (not seedy!) corner of my local used book store. When I visit the store, I don’t spend much time in the religion section; just enough to see what Bibles are in stock. This one particular day, a worker a who knows me and is in charge of the religion section told me that a large donation of Catholic books came in. Brock’s moving book, of his upbringing to his discernment in the priesthood and eventual ministry, was among them. His contention is that whatever comes our way, we can find God underneath it all if we only have the spiritual awareness to see the Spirit at work! As one who loves memoirs, I really enjoyed this book.

2. A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, by Eugene Peterson. This book by the famed (and now late) Message Bible translator is said to be a classic. I thought it was a memoir. It is a classic to many pastors, but it certainly isn’t a memoir. It is, instead, a book on the Psalms of Ascent. Peterson’s writing is concise and spiritually uplifting; his exegesis and care in interpreting the text more so, but I would not call it a classic. I have to admit, I ran out of gas before I finished the book. Its not that it isn’t good; its just not what I expected.

3. Philosophy of History, by William Dray. This was yet another find at the used book store. I have gotten into the habit of picking up quirky books that are easy or slim reads, and Dray’s concise introduction to the philosophy of history is no different. This subject is not a first for me; I took a philosophy of history course in college as part of my history major (I remember well: the great, late Dr. Hembree was an amazing teacher, gone to be with the Lord at too young an age). The book was wordy and not very well-written, but helped me remember some of those hold history philosophy debates we had back in the day.

One thing I did learn: Arnold Toynbee, who wrote a mutlivolume work called A Study of History, concluded perhaps naively, that the one unifying factor in the downfall of civilizations was the eventual decline of creativity and an entrepreneurial spirit–kind of like the first step towards an “idiocracy.” Toynbee is on to something. Might there be something for the church to learn–that once a church ceases to be creative, missional, and entrepreneurial, death is imminent?

4. A Preface to Scripture, by Solomon Freehof. Yet another used-book store find, but a treasure if there ever was one. This is among one of my favorites so far in the past year (I started this book last year and have been slowly, deliciously making my way through it). It is an introduction to the Old Testament written from a Jewish, rabbinic point of view (Freeman is a reputable Reformed rabbi of rabbis), written specifically for Christians.

His historical portraits and commentary on all the books of the First Testament are traditionally rabbinic, but provide fresh and creative readings along the way. I am learning (1) where some of our own (Christian) interpretations of scripture come from and their Jewish roots; and (2) how rabbis have read scripture–and can contribute to our reading of scripture–before we, as a religious tradition, were even using the word “scripture” to begin with. Every page is a learning experience–and I’m learning things new about the Bible along the way, not something that can be said often from a bookish nerd like me.

5. I will Lift up Mine Eyes, by Glenn Clark. Our church inherited a small theological library from one of our missions-minded powerhouses. The deceased, Ms. Ouida, was an amazing person–one time school principal and active in the church. Her passing has created a vacuum in our congregation, and particularly my life– every Sunday Ouida and I would greet parishioners to our worship service at the front door. Everyone who passed Ouida received a warm handshake and an “I’m glad you’re here this morning!”

Her library included several books by Glenn Clark, also a teacher, who turned writer of all things prayer and spirituality. His book, I Will Lift up Mine Eyes, came on the heels of his bestselling book A Man’s Reach. It is a moving devotional on prayer, although I believe it to be a forerunner to the Prosperity Gospel movement of recent decades. Nevertheless, it is one of the best books on prayer because of its specificity in instructing readers on prayer and also admonishing us to remember that, as a believer, we are Christ’s very own, God’s children–and that truth should shape our courage and conviction in our conversations with God.

Published in 1937, its language is beautifully written and anecdotes timeless. I really do enjoy reading these older books; there is something about their syntax and wealth of words that moves the spirit. A great read!

6. The Gentleman in the Parlor, by W. Somerset Maugham. I am half-way through this memoir of prolific author Maugham’s travels through Thailand and Burma. His story is not as detailed as most travel narratives, but rather embodies short collections of his experiences along the way. Nor is the writing born of research into local lore and history, but a tale told from the position of one who “sits idly” with time to let the mind wander.

I found this book in the classics section of our used book store. I don’t know what attracted me to it other than the back cover mentioned it was a travel memoir, and the picture on the front looked captivating. The year of publication was in that window I adore so much–around 1930–and the language was rich upon first glance.

I have come to enjoy Maugham’s writing, although it is a bit arrogant at times and wistful at others (I read somewhere along the way that he wasn’t the most pleasant man, quite infamous in fact– his self-identification of a “gentleman” not withstanding). But you can’t blame him–his parents passed when he was 10 years old and he had several rocky romances along the way. I discovered too that he wrote a memoir on his writing, A Writer’s Notebook, which I hope to purchase and read sometime over the summer.

7. The Prophets, by Abraham Heschel. I am on a roll this past season with the First (Old) Testament. I have published my own book of essays on it, and I have read two textbooks–one by James West and another by Solomon Freehof (see above). Now, not three months into the new year, I picked up a classic by Jewish mystic and scholar Abraham Heschel, The Prophets.

This would not have been my first choice as my first Heschel book, but I made a commitment to get whatever I find at the local used book store. The edition is a good one, from 1969, a revision about 7 years after its original publication date; but the writing and notes are remarkably timeless.

This is an introduction, however, so it is not as spiritually intuitive as I would have hoped; but it does not disappoint, for Heschel stands as a forefather to contemporary First Testament studies, not just for Jewish folks but for us Protestants too. Have doubts? Just ask Walter Brueggemann!

8. A Long Retreat: In Search of a Religious Life, by Andrew Krivak. I’m getting used to writing, “I found this treasure in our used bookstore,” so just assume that if there is a book on this list not published in the last year, it is from the used bookstore.  Recently, however, I discovered some gems in the Catholic section of the store, including this book signed by the author, Krivak’s memoir of his discernment process for entering the Society of Jesus (AKA the Jesuits).

The set of values for which Jesuits are known — poverty, chastity, and obedience — (and of Krivak’s spiritual wrestling match with each), plays an interesting subtext throughout the memoir.  It is not so much a spiritual memoir, therefore, as a secular memoir with sacred themes.

What is the difference?  A spiritual memoir, I would argue, is one in which the author searches for God and writes with the Holy Spirit in mind–a sort of extended prayer to which readers are privy.  This memoir, on the other hand, focuses on Krivak’s movement through his vocation and career not so much in search of God as it is a search for the true self — a self torn ultimately between the priesthood and the challenges of wanting a family.

Anyone with a family knows that poverty, chastity, and obedience shifts in these two poles — so this makes the drama of Krivak’s story, and the writing which is excellent, all the more…dramatic.  I am finding that I have to pray after reading so many pages because while these values confront Krivak, so too do they confront readers.  I am not called the priesthood, but how are poverty (the need of letting go of things that gets in God’s way), chastity (moral purity and single-minded devotion to Christ), and obedience (following Christ even when it costs something) playing out in my own life as a Christ-follower?  That’s the question to ponder in this fascinating read.

9. The Age of Reform, by Richard Hofstadter.  What I thought would be a comprehensive sweep of political and cultural history of the Progressive Era turned out to be a too-deep-in-the-weeds critique of the economic patterns associated with the Populist and Progressive movement roughly at the turn of the century.  Although the subtitle states its a history (and a Pulitzer prize winner at that!) from W. J. Bryan to F.D.R., only the last part of the last chapter covered the New Deal.

The most compelling part of this book was Hofstadter’s insistence on busting the myths surrounding the Progressive Era.  While we look at the Era ideally, (and certainly have inherited that high-minded view from our forebears because this book was published in 1955), Hofstadter proves that much of the politics of the time were merely pragmatic.  Even the New Deal was a “legislation of experimentation”, and much of the reforms that took place between 1890 and 1948 were the result of people trying to muddle through industrialism, conflicting theories of economics, and vastly shifting currency rates.  Sounds boring?  It was.

I am grateful, regardless of the content, of having a better view of Progressivism, my own particular heritage of choice.  I would have preferred more time on T. Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, but–as mentioned–this was more economic portrait than political history.

10. St. Patrick: His Confessio and Other Writings.  For a guy who prides himself on knowing the saints, I sure fall short when it comes to having read primary sources of the saints.  I knew that St. Patrick had prayers out there–his shield prayer and several others–but I had no idea that he wrote of his history and theology in a confession.  Certainly, St. Patrick is not one of the more prolific of saints; in fact, at least one of his letters is questionable as to its source, but the language and theology are just as meaningful.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of St. Patrick’s writing was his heart for the lost “pagans” of Ireland.  Many of us Protestants think that Catholics do not emphasize evangelism.  Read St. Patrick, and you will be proven wrong!  He was concerned for souls as well as justice, as many of his writings advocated for those who were enslaved or exploited at the hands of growing Roman conquest in the British isles.

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A Reader’s Life (prt. 16): Words that Defy

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By Joe LaGuardia

A Reading Life is a blog series focused on the literature that has shaped my life and call to ministry. Find the introduction here.

The greatness of writing–and the power of a word–is measured by how well that word (and, when I say “word,” I mean it metaphorically as a body of work or writing) defies other words.  A meaningful word lingers and lasts; it pierces or inspires.  A powerful word bears fruit, sometimes violently or without regard to our sensibilities.  The Bible says that God’s word, which has the power to create and destroy and shape, does not come back void.  It defies competing narratives.

My favorite writers have accomplished this feat in their writing.  Among them is Barbara Brown Taylor, the Episcopal priest turned writer and spiritual guide.  Her books, namely Leaving Church and An Altar in the World, have impacted me with a word that lasts, that refuses to come back void.   Her writing resonates.  It spelunks in the heart.  It is like a sonar that sends signals to map an unknown landscape, that penetrates the soul to lay out a geography of the spiritual life.

Other authors have had this powerful sway over me–Annie Dillard and Henri Nouwen stand out.  They write in a way in which the writing itself is a spiritual exercise.  They do not write about something so much as write from within that experience of the thing itself.  Like mystics of old, their writing–that slow, often time painful process of putting one word in front of another, and one sentence upon the other– is the spiritual experience itself.

I have reflected on my preaching as a result of this lesson.  When I preach, do I merely talk about God, or do I express my experience of God?

Some say you can do both, but I am not so sure.  I hear many sermons about God; but few have the courage or prophetic power to preach from within the experience.  This morning I read Ezekiel 4.  God asked Ezekiel to act out a prophetic word of judgment against Israel and Judah by making a clay tablet picture of the city under siege.  God told him to lie on his side every day for over a year.

When God told Ezekiel to eat a scroll the chapter before, it wasn’t just to regurgitate it, it was to feast on it, find nourishment, embody it, and take on its physical presence.  No wonder that John says that when God visited us in the person of Jesus, it was God’s creative Word taking on flesh.

I think this is why Taylor’s writing is so poignant.  It comes from two avenues of experience–the author as artist, and the preacher as homiletician.  Taylor has taught both subjects — from her full-time work at Piedmont College in the north Georgia foothills, to her adjunct work teaching preaching at Emory University and elsewhere in the urban milieu of Atlanta.  I am going to a conference next week to see her give a presentation on “How I Have Changed my Mind About Preaching” at Mercer University.  I am bringing her latest book, Learning to Walk in the Dark to get her signature.  I look forward to receiving God’s word from her yet again.

We writers have a bad habit of trying to mimic our favorite authors.  Rarely does this work out; it comes off as phony or insincere.  I did this once.  I wanted to write like Taylor–pen and paper in hand, I wanted to hand-write my next book like she does her own.  And I wanted to write like Dillard–not merely talk about something, but write poetic prose that penetrates the very thing in my experiences of it.

I tried this (spiritual) practice–mainly at the beach.  I brought my spiral notebook and my mechanical pencil.  I sat for long periods of time watching the waves and my children looking for seashells, trying to craft each sentence with love, care, and wonder.  I paused, watched the hasty activity and listened to the conversation of the sandpipers so ubiquitous on our coast.  And I wrote.

I wrote for about a dozen or so pages on different topics over the course of a month– on fatherhood, spirituality, vocation, ministry.   Then, I fizzled out.  It didn’t sound right, it didn’t feel right, and it was not even worth transferring the material into my journal.  I buried the notebook in one of my desk drawers at home.  I pull it out sometimes if I need paper to write a sermon, otherwise it remains hidden.

Powerful words are such because they do defy other words.  Writers know the hardships of having so many words–too many, in fact–fall to the ground, shrivel and die.  Yet, there are those beautiful moments–in an article or a sermon that sounds just right, when the word goes out and never returns.  It spreads its wings and leaves the nest, and finds its way into someone else’s heart to build a nest there and give birth to something new.  It is beautiful, like Taylor’s and Dillard’s writing; but it is a rare word indeed.  Most of the time, our words remain hidden in our desk.

A Reading Life (prt. 15): Memiors Among Us

By Joe LaGuardia

A Reading Life is a blog series focused on the literature that has shaped my life and call to ministry. Find the introduction here.

In the afterword of my recent book, A Whispering Call, I outline the waning market for first-person narration.  Jonathon Franzen, guest editor for the Best American Essays anthology of 2016, states that we stand in the Golden Age of memoirs; while Jia Tolentino of the New Yorker lamented that the “personal essay boom” has come to an end.

Regardless of various naysayers, I personally love memoirs.  Memoirs record the inner journey of the soul while affirming the resiliency of lives who carry the burdens born of both tragedy and comedy.

I just finished reading, God Underneath, by Catholic priest, Edward Beck.  In his own afterword, he wrote that his memoir aims to help people see the priesthood differently, past the clergy collar.  He wanted to humanize his position while helping his readers realize that God is in all the details of life.

Only the memoir genre allowed him to tell his story and express all of the settings in which a priest may find himself.

Perhaps I like memoirs because I have spent decades reflecting on my own journey of faith and vocation.  Hearing God’s call, fashioning a community that knows how to discern God’s call, and responding to God’s call have to be the best parts of my ministry.  Heck, vocation is the undercurrent of my newest book and of this blog series!

Memoir makes for great sermons too.  In reading Beck, I was reminded of my own struggle with pastoral presence and image, and how I have incorporated that into my preaching.  I am familiar with the feeling he expresses about needing to lose the frock to deepen friendships.  I resonated with his efforts of encouraging others to relate to him as a normal individual, pushing towards a more “confessional” style that connects with congregations.

I agreed that when people put us ministers on pedestals, it is easier for that kind of idol to fall and break into a million pieces like Dagon before the ark of the covenant.  Memoir can turn tragic real fast when people place unrealistic expectations upon you.

And memoirs remind us that we are all made in God’s image and called to be priests in one form or fashion.  My Baptist tradition specifically grants us the mantle of the priesthood of believers.  Dismantling unrealistic images of the ministry does not lessen how people see me, but lifts people up and persuades them to seize God’s destiny in their lives.

Recently, one of our youngest children at church asked whether our music minister was Jesus.  One Sunday, when the minister came off of the stage during worship, the little girl reached over to my wife, bright-eyed, and whispered, “That’s Jesus!”

My wife tried to tell her who Jesus is (and who he isn’t), but it got a great belly laugh out of all of us.  My music minister now has a lot to live up to!

Edward Beck mentions that people ask him about his calling: “When did you receive your call, Father?” And every time, he responds, “I am still receiving it!”  God’s call continually provides opportunities for us to bear witness to Christ’s love.

Are we willing to move beyond our own self-image and see ourselves through Christ’s eyes, then see others as Christ sees them?  What memoir might we write, and how does God show up in it?