A Reading Life (prt. 18): Ditching Books

Image result for used book store

I wish this was my library, but it is not. It is a generic picture of a used book store. I love books–but ditching them is sometimes the only necessary thing to do…

By Joe LaGuardia

This is the final article of an 18-part series exploring the life of reading, writing, and vocational ministry.

We Christians just finished the season of Lent. Although Lent means different things to different people, it boils down to practicing the spirituality of subtraction. We remove something from our life — either by abstaining or fasting — in order to free entanglements or idolatries that ensnare us.

I gave up sweets, but just before Lent I considered giving up reading (I hear that gasp!). Since I read all of the time (when I’m not with my family, that is), I thought, surely, this is an entanglement I could go without.

Thing is, I can’t go without it–its an important catalyst in my relationship with God, and it helps with sermon preparation. The only way I can give up reading for a time is to give up preaching for a time. The two “events” go hand in hand.

Instead, I decided to go through my library and clean out books that I no longer wanted…or, rather, no longer needed (I can’t say, “no longer wanted” because I want all of my books…).

This was harder than I thought because when I looked at individual books rather than the whole library, I realized that each book has meaning. It is difficult to let go, especially when books are, according to Groucho Marx, “man’s best friend” (…outside of a dog).

I read two articles pertaining to the hardships of getting rid of books this past winter. One, by Christian Century editor Peter Marty, had been lost to me since (can’t find it), but the other was by Martin Copenhaver when he was downsizing offices. In the article, entitled “Time to cull my library,” he wrote:

Deciding which books to keep and which to give away is not a simple task. It is not like giving away clothes that no longer fit or sports equipment you are sure you will never use again. My relationship with books is considerably more complex than with other objects, and so is the process of deciding which books will remain with me and which will be cut loose…every [book] you pick up requires a decision.”

When I went through my library ready to donate as many as possible to the used book store, I quickly resonated with Copenhaver’s words. I picked books off the shelves easy enough, but once I had to go through them to make sure I removed any personal notes, I found that getting rid of them resulted in a sort of grieving process.

I grieved that my time on this earth is running short, and therefore do not have all the time I need to read said books–even the good ones I want to re-read (I just had a birthday in March, so don’t blame me!). I grieved that the books would no longer equip me for the ministry in which I currently reside. I grieved that some of the books–gifts along the way–needed to go even when the person who gave me the book means a great deal to me.

But that’s how these things go sometimes, and my journey of sorting books was a microcosm of the spirituality of subtraction after all. We cannot replace books for the relationships they may conjure. They are mere tokens, not the experience and relationship itself. When Jesus fasted in the wilderness for forty days, he refused to turn stones into bread because he knew that the bread was an object of desire, not the Subject who created or gifted us with the object in the first place.

A part of the reason I started the “Reading Life” series was because I hoped that other people were as intimately bound with their books as I. We have a story to tell for all our paper treasures, but sometimes we have to let some of those stories go free.

By donating books, we gift someone else who may need those stories now more than ever. And letting go–and grieving–is part of the way that God takes our loss and weaves together something meaningful for the sake of others.

I will continue to weed out books I can give away as this year unfolds. It gets easier over time and contemplation; but, the reading life is like that–it is a journey of words for the sake of words. When you love words, it turns out that parting is that much harder, filled with sweet sorrow. But, as they say, better to love and have lost…

Advertisements

A Reading Life (prt. 17): Old Words with New Hope

Related image

By Joe LaGuardia

I started collecting vintage religious books some time ago. These books, primarily on preaching or prayer, have become treasures and sources of encouragement. They have also become a way to go “treasure hunting” in used book and thrift stores. (Its exciting to have a niche collection.)

There is something about the artistry of language and the writing in books of yore we don’t get today. Contemporary writing comes to us by concise, brief sentences. When I was writing my book on the Old Testament, I tried to mimic this style of writing–people claim its Hemingwayesque– and, besides, people want fast reads.

People don’t spend time on books anymore, they say, so if an author can’t move readers through the page fast enough, they will likely put the book down. If the language is too lofty or esoteric, you threaten to leave people behind. Few people remember their SAT words from high school, so its not wise to use words with too many syllables.

Concise writing is, I think, collateral damage created by our short-form world in which we publish 140-character Tweets or social media “posts”. Even blogs have to be short, sweet, and to the point. Yet I am reminded that good writing will always be good writing, regardless of the style, and I am deeply aware of that. However, venture into most Christian books stores–or peruse the Christian section of your local book store–and you will find that concise writing has translated into shallow content.

It’s regretful just how cliche our writing sounds these days, and even facts are scrutinized by readers. We teeter on the edge of becoming an idiocracy our comedians envisioned for us so long ago.

I went into a Lifeway book store three times in the past year–and I could not find anything that spoke to me. The books have captivating covers and catchy titles; but, get into the writing, and it comes off as grade-school reading. Even the “scholarly books” sound like amateur-hour Sunday school lessons.

Pick up a book from the mid to early 20th century, however–say, those by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Paul Scherer, or Glenn Clark– and they sparkle with jewels of writing and content. My friend, who gained the same sentiment over a year ago, reads Leslie Weatherhead and Norval Pease, writers of several devotionals from that era. I have read Old Testament textbooks from the 1960s, including one by Rabbi Solomon Freehof. Last week I finished a memoir from Somerset Maugham on his travels through southeast Asia published around 1935. It wasn’t religious, but it certainly didn’t insult the intelligence!

Commentaries, though dated, also contain writing that is rich and moving. I regularly refer to the original Interpreter’s Bible set for sermon prep, especially if I lack inspiration on any given week. The Broadman Bible Commentary still stands as a Baptist classic. I have used F. B. Meyer’s Our Daily Homily, published in 1966, as my devotional of choice on a daily basis and occasional reference for sermons.

Just this morning, I read this moving insight by Meyer:

“When Jesus subjects us to a trial, it is only because, amid all our dross, his keen eye detects the precious gold which cost Him Calvary, and is capable of becoming his ornament of beauty forever.”

Books on prayer also ring true with warmth and majesty. Although not the most theologically acute of religious authors, Glenn Clark has been a writer I’ve read recently, thanks to a trove of Clark books bequeathed to us from one of our beloved “church mothers”.

Check out this whopper of a paragraph by Glenn Clark on prayer:

“As all the seven seas are stirred to fill the little well that the child has dug in the seashore sand, so all heaven is stirred from its heights to its depths to fill the heart that truly hungers after God. Christ, whose great heart seeks and hungers for us, even more than our hearts hunger for Him, permits neither principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other creature, to separate us from the most tender, the most virile, the most irresistible expression of the love of God, that man has ever known” (I Will lift Up Mine Eyes).

Who writes like that anymore?

I can only think of a handful of writers who can get close, and I’m sure you have your contemporary favorites as well. But I don’t think its solely the strength of the content that moves us. It is the writing, and in our sound-byte world in which children no longer learn penmanship and long-hand, and where we don’t have the patience or persistence to demand better writing, something has been lost along the way.

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.

11. Trauma-Sensitive Theology, by Jennifer Baldwin. A recently published book by an old seminary colleague on the significance of trauma in the lives of Christians, churches, and community.  Although Baldwin’s prescription for trauma-sensitive theology is better suited for clinicians and pastoral counselors, her call to put it on the radar of every church is a breath of fresh air.

Consider our current culture, which is often shaped by fear, agitation, and grief.  We fear losing our identity (political or otherwise); we fear of the other, and we grieve that things in our society will never be the same.  When we go to church, we expect a normalcy that reminds us of yesteryear; but, even in church, times are a’changin’.  New models of leadership, reduced budgets and attendance, and a shift in church ministry hasn’t helped in our current milieu.

Baldwin’s call to a new theological paradigm is a response to the trauma that these changes bring, and it would do well for clergy to pay attention to how trauma, including PTSD, shapes community and church.  We are called to recognize it, and also to bring about healing and reconciliation that embodies shalom (wholeness, holiness, and peace).  Her take on the work of ministry is clear:

The role of religious care…is not to adjudicate the ‘facts’ of trauma; it is to advocate for safety, to support and facilitate the repair of traumatic injury, and to promote recovery and resiliency” (p. 9).

Christ sits squarely in this realm of trauma and grief, a Risen Savior who knows the suffering of the cross, who confronts change in the future, and comes to his people not as a strong lion but as a “lamb as though slaughtered” (Rev. 5)–one who prizes empathy in a world in which empathy is becoming a limited resource.  Baldwin’s work on trauma is a wake-up call to churches in the throes of monumental change.

12.  The Nature and Mission of the Church, by Donald Miller. There is nothing better to read while you’re in bed with strep throat for a week than something simple, encouraging, and thoughtful.  Miller’s short treatise on the church, published in 1957, is just that.  It is a good reminder what the church is, as well as what the church is not.  The church, of course, can be a building or an institution.  But, ultimately, it is a people of God, commissioned by Christ, and empowered by the Spirit.

Each chapter moves to a different aspect of church, beginning with a theology of humanity in which Miller places people in direct relationship with God: We are created for fellowship, and God’s call to be a people is about fellowshipping with God and neighbor, of joining God at work in the world, and fulfilling the mission and ministry of the Body of Christ.

I particularly like how Miller examines the Bible’s emphasis on ministry in the Body–we have created a hierarchy with the pastor or priest on top; but in the New Testament, everyone is a part of the ministry, and not such hierarchy exists.  Rather,

The office of priesthood, therefore, is shared by all Christians.  Consequently, the official ministry of the church has no different status from that of the layman.  The difference is one of function only” (p. 89).

As we seek to do church, we need to remember that Christ is head and we are family.  There is no such thing as “just a layman” or “just a Christian,” according to Miller (p. 89).