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.

Love bears all things

cats“Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.  Love never ends” (1 Corinthians 13:7, 8a)

Pastor Robert Raines writes about a time when a group of narcotics detectives raided a loft apartment in a run-down section of New York on word that the apartment, much less the building, was filled with drug activity and prostitution.*

In the loft, they found over a dozen men huddled around trying to get warm, some sleeping on old, torn couches, yet others sprawled out on the floor likely recovering from a night of boozing and roaming the streets below.  Dimly visible from the ceiling hung dusty, reflective ornaments bearing witness to the fact that the loft was once a dance studio in a long-lost, happier day.

The detectives arrested six men who had drugs on their person.  They also arrested the host, a small, unassuming man, for harboring drug addicts in his apartment.

At police headquarters, things turned interesting as the host told his story.  He was a wealthy man, he argued, and did not know that it was a crime to clothe and feed homeless men.  His door, he said, was open to all, even the narcotic addicts who tended to gather in that part of town.

The police corroborated the story.  The man, John Sargent Cram, was a Princeton-educated millionaire who found it a bit of a nuisance to do charity work through the top-heavy organizations in his part of town.  He chose instead to simply purchase the loft and spend time with the homeless on their terms.  He counseled some, and he saved more than one–but he felt called simply to be sure that the men he befriended had somewhere to lay their head and get a decent night’s rest.

Later, when Cram went before a judge, witnesses came out of the neighborhood to testify.  The smell in the courtroom was unmistakable that this was no ordinary crowd.  Mr. Cram’s altruism was so well-known, the Spanish population knew Cram as “Papa Dio,” or “Father God.”  It’s a high title, probably a bit sacrilegious if you ask me, but it gets at something.  It tells us something of the man, and of God.  It tells us that when we live according to God’s love, we do so more deeply, minister more effectively, and live life more passionately.

Paul was right: Love hopes all things, and love never ends.

*Source: Robert Raines, Creative Brooding (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1966), p. 30-31.

Love keeps no records of wrongs

candles“Love does not insist on its own way, it keeps no records of wrongs.  It does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in truth” (1 Corinthians 13:5-6)

Are you able to forgive and keep no records of wrongs?

Not a week after bombs filled Boston with smoke and tears, a group of 28 Israeli and Palestinian women, mostly Christian with a handful of Muslims, took a pilgrimage together from Bethlehem to Acco in northern Israel, about 113-mile trek.  It was a part of an ongoing program sponsored by the Golda Meir Mount Carmel International Training Center that seeks to cultivate, among other things, dialogue, “soul-searching and friendship forging.”

In Acco, they spend four days with a facilitator, Dr. Janan Faraj-Falah, a Druze women and professor of gender studies at Haifa College, who encourages the women to be honest but also seek out new ground in building peace initiatives and relationships between their two communities.

In one deeply moving meeting, for instance, a Palestinian women expressed the idea that many of her friends still have their keys to homes that their families once owned before being kicked out of Israel in 1948.  She like to help them, she said, get back to their original homes and make their way on their land.

A Jewish woman countered with a similar sympathy, noting that those very homes were the ones that the Jews now cherish since they can’t go back to their original homes in Egypt.

Heaviness hung in the air, and silence filled the room.  Obviously, emotions were high, but the two found common ground in the fact that women in the Middle East are largely displaced one way or another.  Displacement takes shape in others ways: domestic abuse and the lack of civil rights continue to plague women’s initiatives throughout Middle Eastern culture.

Discussion like this goes on for a few days, and before long, life-long enemies become friends, and people who are used to demonizing one another find things in common that let them deepen their bonds of history and heritage.

There is animosity at times in the meetings, sometimes they need to take a coffee or lunch break from one another, but it’s a start.  Forgiveness does not always come quickly, nor does letting go of the score-card of who hurt who fade so easily; yet, if Israel and Palestinian women can help change the idea that two people world’s apart can’t live together in peace (because they can), then so can we.

Love keeps no records of wrongs.