A Reading Life (prt. 18): Ditching Books

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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…

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

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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 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.