One Pastor’s Reading List for 2017

books_journalBy Joe LaGuardia

It is the “in” thing these days for pastors to publish their reading list for the New Year.  Since I am an avid reader, I can’t help myself.

The notion is that clerics were once the storehouses of knowledge, when churches were at the center of town and of political and cultural life for any given county.  Also, there is the thought that parishioners might be interested in what their pastor is reading.  That may or may not be true.

What is true, at least for me, is that my spiritual mentors instilled in me the abiding ethic that pastors should be continually growing in their field, in learning about what stands on the horizon of cultural movements, and how God is at work in our world today.

It was Karl Barth (or was it Deitrich Bonhoeffer?) who said that a pastor must go about his or her vocation with a Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.

Additionally, I consider myself a writer, and what writer do you know doesn’t boast of a formidable home library or reading list?  So there you go.

Here are a few books I am looking forward to reading as the new year is upon us.

1-  Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard.  I fell in love with Dillard’s writing a little over a year ago.  I started with The Writing Life, read Holy the Firm, and moved on to a book of her essays in Teaching a Stone to Talk. I read The Writing Life for a second time when I moved to Vero Beach–all my other books were packed away in storage!

When I learned of her classic, Pilgrim, which won a Pulitzer, I set out to buy a copy at our local Vero Beach bookstore.   It is, in classic Dillard style, a meandering reflection of life at Tinker Creek in the Appalachian mountains.   Part memoir, part spiritual narrative, her writing moves between poetic reflection and naturalist exploration.

Dillard once stated that her goal was to write the “impossible page.”  In Pilgrim she does not disappoint (I started reading it before Christmas).  Her writing is heavy, rich like a meaty stew in which every bite contains enough nourishment and protein to fill you for the rest of the day.

2- Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson.  In a recent issues of The Christian Century, pastors submitted short paragraphs about the best book they’ve read recently.  A majority cited Just Mercy.  I better get on the bandwagon.

As director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama, Stevenson mixes anecdotes and research to shed light on the underside of criminal (in)justice with the aim of bringing about real conversations on the need for criminal justice reform.

3-  The Everglades: River of Grass, by Marjorie Stoneman Douglas.  I heard about Douglas and her memoir of conservation when I went to high school at none other than Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Coral Springs, Florida.

There was a joke about the school: What better way to honor her than by building a school right in the middle of the environment she longed to save?  (The ghost of Douglas struck, however–when I graduated, there was an urban legend that the school was sinking in the swamp at nearly a foot every ten years.)

This is not the only Florida-specific book on this list.  Over the years, I have come to love reading local authors about local places.  I’ve read scores of Georgia authors; now its time to read classics every Florida resident hopes to read.

4-  The Yearling, by Marjorie Rawlings.  Another Florida classic, a coming of age novel in the heart of the Florida wilderness.  I am not all that sure what this book is about, specifically, but it was recommended by a fellow Florida naturalist, so I figured I better read it.

5-  Communication in the Church, by Thomas Kirkpatrick.  One of the things I need to shore up in my first year at First Baptist is communication.  So many have cited communication as an issue for the church, partly because there was no figurehead–senior pastor–to really head that up.

This book came across my desk in an advertisement from the book’s publisher, Romman and Littlefield, and it caught my eye.  When I received it in the mail, I was delighted to find that it appeared to be both easy to read and practical.

When I spotted a chapter on how to lead a committee meeting, for instance, I knew I had made the right decision (not that I don’t know how to lead a committee meeting, but there is always room for improvement!).

6-  The Emotional Intelligence of Jesus, by Roy Oswald.  In my previous church, we had an emotional intelligence guru in our associate pastor, the Reverend Karen Woods.  I was enthralled with the things she taught the staff and our church on this growing field in ministry, and I am still convinced its one of the most important things every church leader needs to understand.

I asked Pastor Karen what book would be best–give us the good stuff for people who want to read about EQ, but don’t have time to read every book on it.  She recommended Oswald’s book, and we purchased a half-dozen copies for staff and lay leaders.

I was grateful for her lessons, especially, since part of the interview process at First Baptist Church was to take an EQ test!

I began to read this book last month, and it is indeed still some of the most important material I’ve read of late.  What pastor does not want to learn more about empathy, self-awareness, and stress management.  Well, I am sure there are many–and this is the book to purchase for your stressed-out pastor!

7- The Hidden Life of Trees, by Peter Wohlleben.  I read about this book somewhere along the way, maybe in an editorial or column in The Christian Century, and I was enthralled with the premise: A German forest ranger, Wohlleben, explores the science and theory behind the social life of trees.

I’m not sure what I will get out of this book, maybe that if trees are social, we humans can be too?  And, since moving to Florida, my family and I have made it a habit to hug a palm tree every now and then.  (We named the one palm tree on our property “Fred.”  We love Fred, but he gets grouchy sometimes if you get too close to him.)  This brings joy.  Maybe this book will explain why. Who knows?

8-  The Givenness of Things, by Marilynne Robinson.  A book of essays by the author of Pulitzer Prize-winner Gilead (one of President Barak Obama’s favorite books, by the way).  Robinson is known for her conversational tone and religious sensitivity.

Since I am a sucker for essays, hoping to publish two new books of essays in the next two years, I figure I better read Robinson’s.

9-  Women Deacons and Deaconesses: 400 Years of Baptist Service, by Charles Deweese.  My personal history with this book is an interesting one.  Soon after I purchase it, about seven years ago, I lent it to my father-in-law, who was interested in how in the world Trinity Baptist made women deacons.

For some reason, he misplaced the book and it had been lost since then.  He and my mother-in-law just sold their house and moved here to Vero Beach.  In the packing and unpacking, the book turned up.  I hope to get a chance to read it, finally!

10-  Moby Dick, by Herman Mellville.  At the beginning of last year, friends and I joined an informal movement called “Sixteen books in 2016.”  We even devoted a Facebook group page to it.

This book was on my list, and, with the move to Vero and all, I never got around to it.  Maybe this year I will.  Until then, poor Ahab will continue his fateful search for the great White Whale.  I don’t want to leave the guy hanging, so I’ll try to make it my summer beach reading fare.  Beach + whale.  Sounds like a winning combination.

11-  Something about Henry Flagler.  I went to a college on Flagler Drive, which was across the bridge from the Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach.  Kristina and I went to St. Augustine for our honeymoon, and have visited many times since, including touring Flagler College.   What does all of this have in common?  Henry Flagler, the industrialist tycoon who founded Standard Oil and connected Florida by rail.  I’m sure there is a biography on him that I’ll pick up along the way.

In light of gun violence, the time of silence has passed

NOTE: Since I started writing this, one of our church members was held up at gunpoint at the bank she works for, another black man was killed by a police officer in St. Paul, MN, and 12 police officers have been shot (5 killed) in Dallas, TX. Lord, have mercy.

By Matt Sapp


By Matt Sapp


Yesterday was my thirty-seventh birthday. I’m getting old.  As old as thirty-seven sounds to me now, I have every reason to expect that I’ll be able to celebrate my thirty-eighth birthday and many more.

Another thirty-seven year old isn’t able to say that.  His name is Alton Sterling.  He was pinned to the ground, shot in the back and killed by Baton Rouge police officers earlier this week. He was the 560th American killed by police officers in the United States this year.  In the same time period more than fifty police officers have been killed in the line of duty, too.

We are in the midst of an epidemic of violence in America.

We used to be able to name the places of violence or the names of the victims—to rattle them off in a list to prove that they were mounting up.  Now, though, the instances of violence have become too many and too frequent to keep a running list.

We can no longer say Baton Rouge and Cleveland and Baltimore and Charleston, or Tamir and Freddie and Sandra and Alton as if these incidences can somehow be categorized as localized or isolated.

It’s no longer enough to say that Staten Island was a dangerous place for Eric Garner or that North Charleston, SC was a dangerous place for Walter Scott. We must now speak in the broader terms that have always been true; America is a dangerous place for black Americans. Or maybe just, America is a dangerous place.

Here’s what makes these cases so hard. The victims are rarely completely innocent. It’s never 100% clear that the police were motivated by race and rarely clear that there was intent to use lethal force inappropriately. What is clear is that violence, in all its forms, is a real and growing threat to our way of life and peace of mind in America.

And what’s becoming even clearer to me is that we are to blame. The officers who are overly aggressive and physical with black citizens and who fire weapons out of fear for their own safety aren’t to blame.  The black men who struggle and flee from encounters with police for the same reasons aren’t to blame.

A larger culture of fear and suspicion is to blame, and it isn’t created by the black community or the police community.   It’s created by us.

When we mindlessly watch partisan anger spewed on cable news and just sit there like zombies soaking it in, we create it.  When we stand silently while whole groups of people—immigrants, Mexicans, Muslims, gays, African-Americans—are smeared with the brush of bigotry, we create it.

When we fail to demand accountability of our elected leaders, we create it.  When we fail to expect more from and for our impoverished communities, we create it.

When we fetishize violence and celebrate weaponry even as we stoke fear, we create a culture of rising tension and distrust—and ultimately a climate of violence and death.

Sitting in my office in Canton, GA—even in 2016—I know it’s dangerous to write about race or guns. I know how hard it is to ask questions that tend toward the political. And that, more than anything, is what I mourn this morning.

I mourn how difficult it is to even talk about what’s going on right now. I mourn that fear, distrust and anger—even hatred—have gripped our hearts and stilled God’s spirit within us.

I mourn because I know that Christians were not created to live this way.  When fear, anger and hatred rise up in us, they are not of God. They come from somewhere else.

But my hope lies in the knowledge that there’s at least one other thing Christians weren’t created to be—timid.  Instead, God gives us spirits of power, love and self-discipline (2 Timothy 1:7).

We are not powerless in the face of violence if we have the courage and self-discipline to respond with loving words of truth.

So here’s a word of truth. These things don’t happen in other places. This is a uniquely American problem. Encounters with police don’t end in death—for citizens or police officers—anywhere else in the world. It doesn’t have to be this way.

The answer is not more violence or the militarization of police forces.  Every time we resort to violence to solve a problem, we make America weaker, not stronger.

The only way to fix the problem is not to demand better of the police or the black community. We must demand better of ourselves. We are the stagnant water in which these problems fester.

God’s Spirit needs to come and stir our waters.  And, today, God’s Spirit stirs waters most often when God speaks through you. Fear has stifled God’s voice in us for too long. It’s time for our country to hear Christians speak God’s truth of peace, love, reconciliation and forgiveness with a clear and united voice.

God, free our hearts and voices. Give all of us the courage to speak your truth to a troubled nation.

The time for silence has passed.

The Meaning of True Love: Beyond the Rose


By Joe LaGuardia

In the next few weeks, the season finale of The Bachelor will air without little drama.

If you’ve never watched the show, I’ll fill you in on the plot: Basically, a bachelor spends two months with a few dozen women to find the love of his life.  During the show, he eliminates a woman until one lucky lady is left to marry.

Ever since I heard about The Bachelor, I thought it preposterous.  Who would sign up for a show like this?

Now, some 15 seasons later, we see that there are many people who are eager to find the love of their life by flaunting their passion on prime-time television.

I have watched only a few minutes of this past season, and it seemed to have changed very little from previous years:  Women go around telling the cameras how much they love the Bachelor.   She loves him, and she loves him, and she so completely loves him. (There’s a lot of love on that show.)

Then there’s the bachelor:  He doesn’t want to hurt this one’s feelings or break that one’s heart, but its inevitable.  It’s always a wonder, he says, how a person can love two women at the same time.  That’s how affairs begin, dummy.

Our favorite moments of the show happen when a contestant just loves the bachelor–she wants to spend the rest of her life with him, she wants to have his babies.  Then, as soon as she is eliminated and is driving home in the limousine, she changes her tune:  The Bachelor is the biggest jerk in the world.

I think the real mockery in all of this is that the show confuses what true love is really all about.

Have we as a society become so shallow as to think that love is something you can just find on a reality show, something that is entirely driven by emotional responses to what amounts to nothing more than sensual desire?

Striving for love is something that has been around a long time.  We even see it as far back as the Old Testament:  God is indeed a God of love more than God is something of the myth that claims the Old Testament God is a God of wrath, but Israel fails to realize that.

God tries to convince Israel over and over again that God’s first commitment is to His people is a posture not of fleeting, emotional love, but of “steadfast love.”  The Hebrew word is hesed, and it implies the same kind of compassionate, self-giving love as the Greek word, agape.

Yet, we find people in the Old Testament about as anxious as our lovely contestants on that reality show.  They know they want love.  They strive, and they long, and they reach for love, but find it in all the wrong places.

It begins in the Garden of Eden. God “walked with Adam and Eve,” and spoke to them in the cool of the evening breeze.  There is an intimacy there.

But then sin happened and humans get eliminated—no roses for them.  They get into a limousine, and they tell the camera, “Oh, who does God think he is?  That God isn’t about love after all!”

Since the very beginning of the New Testament, however, something happens.  God confounds our notions of love by becoming a person, Jesus Christ, who lives among us.

In Jesus, God heals the brokenhearted, interacts with the lonely and left-out, cooks breakfast on the shores of the Galilean sea and gathers disciples around the table.

And it is Lent that reminds us of true love: God’s love doesn’t come in the form of a rose, but a cross.   God suffers and experiences death in one of the most humiliating ways ever in order to express three simple words to us: “I love you.”

There was something that God had to do, and that was to experience suffering and testing and temptation on our terms.  It is not love built on lust, but sacrifice, for as scripture tells us: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13).