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.

“His Majesty’s Palette”: A Sermon on Faith and Art


By Jackson Thomas

Jackson Thomas preached this sermon, based on Isaiah 64 and Jeremiah 18, during Christival at Trinity Baptist Church, October 25, 2015.  An audio version of the sermon may also be found online at Trinity’s website.  Jackson Thomas serves as Youth Events Coordinator and Resident Artist at Trinity Baptist Church.

We have a multi-faceted God who has many titles.  Among these titles the Holy Trinity: God the Spirit who lives within us, God the Son who came and died for us and God the Father who sired all of creation.

Still, perhaps one of the most relatable facets of God is God the Creator who carefully and artistically crafted all of creation.  We acknowledge Him from time to time, but it seems we too often fail to fully appreciate and experience this facet of God.  And it seems such a shame since we could so easily feel connected to this God, even more so, perhaps, than any other facet of God.

In a mission trip to France I took recently, we were surrounded by the Alps.  Everywhere we were in France, we saw them – brilliant and magnificent.  It sounds like a cliché, but there is no way to capture the majesty that the mountains impress.  That majesty is something man has been trying to reproduce for ages.

Back in eras past, it was done through the mixture of art and architecture.   The architecture of many buildings was meant to impress and inspire in the same way as the natural wonders of the world.  We have an innate desire to connect with our Creator God and bring about the same wonder He did in the creation of the world.  When I look at the beauty of the Alps or Niagara Falls, or look out over the ocean I see a level of beauty that would not be possible without a God with a sense of art and we, being made in His image, have been gifted with that same sense and a desire to express ourselves through that art.

Despite these things, art is no longer in our everyday architecture.  Christival gives us a month to recognize the art in worship, where it used to be an everyday part of worship.  It seems such a shame because art is such a universal language. Art is appreciated across the globe, even if what different cultures see as art changes.

This is true for all art though. Let’s take music for example. While traveling in France and Italy we had a number of these experiences, but the best I remember was in Belley.  After the concert so many people came up and would – as best they could – express their gratitude and that, even though they didn’t know English – even though they couldn’t even understand the words of the message – the music really touched them.  The message was clear to them even though the language barrier existed and, in that moment of truth, the barrier was broken.  It was an amazing experience to see how the music could be used as a conduit for the universal message of Christ’s love.

Isaiah 64:8 says “. . . we are the clay, you are the Potter”; and Jeremiah’s prophecy states that Israel is like clay in God’s hand:  “Can I not shape you how I please?” God asks.

I love this imagery.   Working with clay is not an easy task.  Many things can go wrong almost to the point where it seems a more apt analogy could have been made with almost any other form of art.  However, these prophecies choose to use pottery to illustrate the love and care God must put into making each single person.  This image implies care and painstaking amounts of work to make a piece of art exactly as we are to be made.  It paints a picture of God not only as a father, siring man and then guiding us towards our destiny, but also as a careful constructor controlling every aspect of our creation – designing us to reach our potential way before we were even born.

So, in a way, by being an artist is a way of participating in the glorious act of creation.  It is perhaps the purest form of worship.  True art is inspired by the spirit of God. It is imbedded in our soul.  Every Sunday we utilize art for worship in the form of song, but all art should be utilized. Drawings, paintings, sculptures, writing stories, every type of art we can produce is a reflection of God within us.  Every bit of art can be a testament of God’s glory, and this is true even of so-called “secular” art.

To say that art cannot be used for Christ if it is created by someone who did not feel led by the Christian spirit is to undermine the power of God’s love and the relevance of art in Christian ministry.  Art itself is a conduit of God’s presence in us, whether it is recognized as such or not.  True art has underlying spirituality to it regardless of the artist.  We can call the moving of the Holy Spirit anything we wish and can even explain it in such a way that it seems to take the godhood out of it. But inspiration was once thought to come from the muse.  Now it is simply inspiration or maybe divine intervention or some other longing from within.  All of these movements are movements of the Spirit, regardless of whether we, as humans who have very little understanding of the spiritual, classify it as such.

Perhaps the ancient Greeks were more correct that the science we currently “understand”.  Perhaps there are some messengers of God coming down and filling us with inspiration. Maybe there are still angels among us every day and we simply no longer recognize them.  Without a spiritual movement, how do we actually explain what causes inspiration?  Why does Chaucer’s use of words – English words that we hear every day – inspire us any more than everyday conversation?  Why are we inspired by grand mountains when we stand on a much larger piece of land?  Why do certain frequencies that we probably hear over and over again, arranged in a particular pattern become music to us?

There is an aesthetic aspect to art that should not be overlooked because we have an instinctive desire to make that aesthetic please us and yet there is no apparent reason why it should unless we are created with an artistic mindset.  And adults are not the only ones who understand and appreciate art. In fact, it often seems children grasp the concepts of art much more quickly than adults.  Perhaps it is the gift of a still in-tact imagination.  Regardless what this means is that artistry must be instilled at birth. and it gives us a mindset with which to approach worship.  Art is a glorious link that God gave us to bind us with the spiritual realm, since art cannot exist without a spiritual movement within the artist.  Art is a glorious way to glorify our Creator, and any art that is made with that spiritual movement – whether it is recognized or not – is spiritual in nature and is glorifying to God.

So what does this mean for us as Christians?  Better yet, what does it mean for us as artists?  Surely we can’t be expected to draw only crosses or paint only pictures of the acts of the apostles.  Our music must be more than hymns.  Diversity is the spice of life after all.  The only thing, really, we can be expected to do is create.  Create not what we think is glorifying to God, but instead letting that spiritual movement happen within us.

Take a quiet moment to reflect on life and let that image take form.  Listen to the silence and hear the symphony moving within you.  Then put that image to paper or sculpture or whatever other form it must take.  Take the message that has been forming within you and write it down.  Take an instrument and play that melody, or even put it on paper.  I truly believe that every person is an artist, because we are created as artistic beings by an artistic God.

We understand art because it was instilled in us.  Not everyone is a painter or an illustrator.  Not everyone is a singer or a songwriter. Your art may not even fall under a classic definition of what art is.  But Sir Isaac Newton was inspired to make his discoveries on momentum.  Albert Einstein advanced our understanding of Physics.  By looking just so, you can realize that all things are art, because all of creation is a magnificent piece of art. And art as we understand is our invitation to take part in Creation. It is God allowing us to see a bit of His perspective – allowing us to understand that we are perfect creations he hand-crafted just as we craft all of our artistic endeavors.  And just as an artist works diligently and tirelessly making every corner just so and every part of the painting the exact image he expects it to be, God has diligently and tirelessly made each and every person with all of our unique eccentricities. Each quirk was hand-designed by God to tell some story.  Because as God’s artwork, we are more than just a sculpture, or a painting; we are characters in the story of the universe.

God is the epitome of what it is to be an artist.  He is more than just a sculptor, He is a writer, writing the story of each and every person.  He is a musician.  If you never have, listen some time to the sound of nature.  The birds are obvious, but the sound of wind blowing through channels made my trees and the rustles of their leaves and the chatters of small animals and the percussion of falling acorns – all of these are part of a great orchestra created by God, singing His praises. It is the rocks crying out to worship their Creator in the moments where we are silent.  It is the muse desperately calling out to the artist on all of us. God created the science we study to work in the way it does so that each new discovery can be just as exciting as the one before.

All of creation reaches out to man to make us want to learn more about this universe in which we live. The grandiosity of creation brings out a longing in all mankind to understand it in some small way, be it through images or words or science; that is the grand design behind creation. That is the Creator God beckoning us.  It is, after all, His Majesty’s palette.

Report from the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly

CBF Commissioning Service/Dallas 2015-Courtesy CBF

CBF Commissioning Service/Dallas 2015-Courtesy CBF

By Matt Sapp

Julie and I along with several other members of our congregation spent three days last week in Dallas for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF) General Assembly. If you’re not sure what CBF is, Heritage was founded as a CBF church, meaning that we — and many other churches across the nation — pool our resources through CBF to support missions and ministry around the world.

The meeting, as always, was uplifting and hopeful, so I came away from the Assembly as I usually do, encouraged by the progress and energy of the Fellowship.  So let me share some of those good feelings with you.

Here are three observations from this year’s assembly that give me hope for our future together:

The Fellowship is moving forward.  We’ve upped our game in the last several years, and there’s no reason to think that trend won’t continue.  A most noticeable difference is in our public image. For a few years our branding was clearly dated, and we fell behind the curve in our graphic design and live production capabilities.

This year at the General Assembly our live production work was flawless. The lighting and sound worked perfectly. Our video production (both live and recorded pieces) was top notch. In short, we looked like we knew what we were doing.

More importantly, the new color scheme and logo were showcased in fantastic ways, giving new energy and attractiveness to our printed materials, video segments, and online presence.

This might sound superficial, but image matters.  It matters a lot.  We live in a world that won’t look beyond our dated facade to hear our message.  If we believe we have a message worth sharing, what we look like and how we share that message matters.  A 2015 image is a REQUIREMENT to reach a 2015 audience, and the CBF nailed it this year.

Second, we’ve almost completely transitioned from our founding generation to a new generation of leadership. That in and of itself isn’t a good thing.  It’s just true.  Next year we’ll celebrate 25 years of CBF, and the Fellowship is going to miss the active, every day leadership of people who could say, “I was there from day one.”

We’ll miss their leadership for a number of reasons.  We’ll miss them for their courage, their conviction, and their moral clarity.  We’ll miss their personal history with theological controversy.  They understand the stakes of denominational leadership in ways that those who weren’t there never will.  And we’ll miss their integrity—integrity proved by the willingness to stand on principle even when the costs were high.

Our founding generation understands what’s required organizationally and spiritually to create something new on a national scale.  Think about it: They created seminaries, missions infrastructures, publishing houses and Sunday School literature, youth and children’s programs, state agencies and organizational partnerships.  And they did it all from scratch—or nearly scratch.

Even more, they led churches — big churches and small churches, urban churches and rural churches, progressive churches and conservative churches — to let go of past affiliations in favor of a new dream. Did I mention their courage?

But the good news is that there’s another generation behind them. Not an “up and coming” generation anymore, but a generation that is leading right now.  And there’s a third generation of leaders behind them!

The test of any dream is whether it can survive beyond the lives of those who birthed it.  The good news — the GREAT news — is that CBF will.  That’s not new news, but it is good news, and it was re-affirmed for me at this year’s meeting.

Finally, there are A LOT of creative people doing creative things to grow the Kingdom of God who are proud to be a part of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.   That makes me proud to be a part of CBF, too.  As part of the Fellowship, we partner with creative and talented missionaries and church planters and chaplains; with leading theologians and ethicists and creative thinkers; with gifted artists and musicians; with inspiring preachers and teachers; and with dedicated deacons and choir directors and Sunday School teachers.

We partner with leaders who start new churches and renew old ones, with some who find new ways to proclaim the gospel in well-tilled soil, and others who blaze new trails to share Jesus with people who have never heard that name before.

Through CBF we support people who are dreaming new dreams, trying new things for Christ, and finding new ways to put their faith into action.  The collective newness of what they’re doing, the creativity they bring to their tasks, and the risk-taking involved in stepping into the unknown bring much needed energy to our fellowship.

As the world around us changes and as churches change, CBF Christians are finding more ways to use their talents for their churches and God’s kingdom — as writers, photographers, graphic designers, video producers and technology gurus — and as pastors, worship leaders, scholars and missionaries who are willing to re-imagine the church for the 21st century.

We are excited about much and proud to be a Fellowship church. We should never overlook the enormity of our accomplishments or the hope of our futures together.  There’s never been a better time to be a CBF church than now.

This article first appeared on the Heritage Baptist Fellowship blog.  Used with permission.