The Pastor’s 2018 Reading List

By Joe LaGuardia

There seems to be something arrogant about entitling a blog “The Pastor’s Reading List.”  I don’t know if it sounds haughty or elitist or what, but something does not seem right.  Yet, in the spirit of years gone by, I feel compelled to publish my reading list for this upcoming year.

It is not that I think more highly of myself for reading; nor is it that I feel a need to publish the list.  Rather, the list is a result of what I like to read about others.  Like so many others who read “reading lists” around the New Year’s season, I love reading…reading lists…too.  Besides, instructors on writing tell us to write what we love, so here goes.

(This year, I will be placing checks and Xes on the books I either read or have abandoned–just for fun.)

1.  Revelations of Divine Love, by Julian of Norwich and translated by Fr. John-Julian, OJN.  As a spiritual formation doctoral student some years ago, I made it my life’s work to dabble in mystics and spiritual fathers and mothers of old.  But, as so many other doctoral candidates know, it is hard to read primary sources when so much tertiary research is needed to get through the slog of writing.

One such source lost to me included the writings of the fourteenth-century mystic, Julian of Norwich.  Julian’s Revelations (the first English book written by a woman) record her visions and experiences as she served God in her commune in Norwich, England.

More poetic than prose, this book requires a slow reading–more of a prayerful meandering through the mind and heart of one of the most beloved women in all church history.  I started reading this book when I purchased it on a recent trip to Georgia three weeks, and it is proving to be more devotional than anything else.  Nevertheless, the Abbess abides.

2.  Living at the Crossroads: An Introduction to Christian Worldview, by Michael Goheen and Craig Bartholomew.  There are books I want to read and books I have to read.  This falls in the “have to” column, but for a great reason: My alma mater, Palm Beach Atlantic University, finally picked me up as an adjunct instructor for an abbreviated Spring season. My class is Christian Values and Biblical Faith, a required course for all graduating students.  This is our primary textbook.  It does not look so bad, and I look forward to gleaning new things about worldviews since the book I used for the class over 15 years ago (which I did not assign to my upcoming class!) was terrible.

3.  Dragon Teeth, by Michael Crighton. People familiar with my reading habits know that I always throw in what I call “junk novels”– those escapist books that get me out of the religion bubble, ranging from horror to science fiction.  Last year it was Ghost Story by Peter Straub. This year, it is Michael Crighton’s posthumous published book from the Jurassic Park universe.

The truth is that I cut my teeth (no pun intended) on Crighton’s books in high school.  I watched Jurassic Park on the big screen, read the novel, loved the novel, and then checked out every Crighton book available through my high school library.  I thoroughly enjoy his books (I re-read Jurassic Park two years ago, and Boy! was it good!), and I am glad for this gift from Crighton’s file cabinets and family estate from whence the manuscript came.

4.  Men at Work, by George Will.  Yes, the George Will–conservative columnist, economist, and hero for Republicans who can’t stand Trump–wrote one of the classic books on the history and business of baseball.  Many who read Will (myself included) know not only of his politics, but of his genius related to the sport that he and I love.

I am looking forward to joining him on this “behind the scenes” journey of America’s national pastime.  I also hope that it will prepare me for my family vacation (and first visit) to Cooperstown, New York, and the baseball hall of fame this summer.  (Last year, to get started, I read Jackie Robinson: A Spiritual Biography, which was pretty good too.)

5.  Incarnational Ministry: Being With the Church, by Samuel Wells.  I enjoy the writings of Samuel Wells as I am an avid reader of his columns published in The Christian Century.  This book, advertised in said magazine, caught my attention because I have been praying about some annual goals for my ministry at First Baptist Church.

One goal is to help the church be the church to others–in the neighborhood, in the community, across the globe.  Many in the congregation do not have to do anything differently, as if being busier will do the trick, and there is a culture of service and missions in the church already.  It is just that we need to help the congregation see their work and service as a particularly sacred vocation in which service is more than lending a helping hand, but being the very face and presence of Christ for those who need the marriage of love and justice in their midst: disciples tasked with making disciples.  I hope this book will provide the grammar and biblical infrastructure for this goal in my ministry.

6.  Farewell to Arms, by Ernest Hemingway.  Another junk novel that I hope will provide some light “summer” reading.  A novel set during the First World War by one of my favorite authors, I hope this novel will bring me to new destinations that provide a backdrop of one of my favorite historical eras in American history.  Also, it is helpful to freshen up on my Hemingway-esque prose, since I have sought so very hard to model my writing style after his own.  (It is near impossible, mind you, but I try.)

7.  Plain Speaking: An Oral Biography of Harry S. Truman, by Merle Miller.  My mother purchased this book for me at a yard sale some years back, and it has been sitting on the bottom of my “to read” pile for far too long.  Since I take on a lengthy history, often surrounding presidents, every year (last year it was Florida history with The Everglades by Marjorie Stoneman Douglas), I figured, “Hey, its 2018, why not?”  I figure that it will be good to get back to some good ole’ days when presidents presided and the nation worked a little more harmoniously than now anyway.

8.  Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, by John Dominic Crossan.  I remember the first time I saw Dr. Crossan speak in person. I was with my beloved New Testament professor, the late Dr. Daniel Goodman, at a Society for Biblical Literature conference.  Dr. Crossan came out of some back room and walked towards the dais when Dr. Goodman, like a giddy child, slapped me on the shoulder, smiled that huge smile of his, and said, “Hot dog, LaGuardia!  Look at that! It’s John Dominic Crossan!” (And, yes, he did say, “Hot dog, LaGuardia!”)

Although I don’t agree with all of Crossan’s assessments on the historical Jesus, his writing and lectures have provided endless, fresh insights into the cultural world of Christ.  His acute attention to the literary aspects of Jesus’ ministry mirrors my own, and his knowledge of primitive sociology highlights context that other scholars fail to engage.

Jesus is actually a classic, published some years ago, but I never got around to reading it– I was too busy reading his In Parables over and over again.  But now I finally have the book in hand thanks to a local used book store and, I hope, the time.

9.  To Dance with the White Dog, by Terry Kay.  Terry Kay was an author that a parishioner from my last church recommended.  Kay, a local Georgia author, lectured throughout the state and was a common visitor to the writer’s guild thereabouts in east Atlanta.

My parishioner let me borrow one of his books, The Year the Lights Came On, and I was sold.  The book was amazing, and Kay’s whimsical writing and southern humor captivated my imagination and my heart.  To Dance with the White Dog is actually the book for which Kay is best known, and I look forward to reading it with delight and anticipation.

10.  Forebearance: A Theological Ethic for a Disagreeable Church, by James Calvin Davis.  To be honest, I am not quite sure what this book is about other than what the title and the summary on the back says.  Davis argues that his contribution is a “theological ethic” whereby churches and Christians from various backgrounds are called to “bear with each other” as a way to build community.  It is an “antidote to the pervasive divisiveness present in contemporary culture.”  That’s a high and lofty calling; we will see if Davis can match those expectations.

11.  Holy Envy, by Barbara Brown Taylor.  I learned of this forthcoming book only this evening when I stumbled upon a colleague’s 2018 reading list.  I am usually up on all and anything that Brown writes, as she is my favorite author. Of. All. Time.  So when I learned of this book hitting bookshelves in August of 2018, I knew that I have to get it.

I can’t wait, but perhaps the book’s release date is divine timing: God knows that if it were to be published now, I would neglect my preparation for that adjunct class at PBAU.  God knows how to handle these things in God’s time, so I plan to keep my entire month of August free from all reading commitments until I obtain and read through Brown’s next treasure.

12. and 13.  Rounding out my list are two memoirs that I picked up along the way, one old and one new.  The first is Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now, by Maya Angelou and the second is Still Christian: Following Jesus out of American Evangelicalism, by David Gushee.  Maya Angelou is among my favorite authors, and her words–very much like Barbara Brown Taylor’s– drips with intimacy and elegance.  This memoir is a collection of wisdom that she passes down to readers, complete with her unique whit and ability to weave words into deep wells of insight.

Still Christian is a memoir not for the faint of heart.  This book, which recalls Gushee’s long journey from Southern Baptist pastor to marginalized ethicist, rings true for far too many of us who are in the throes of ministry and Baptist life.  Reading his early conversion experience and call to ministry (I’m up to page 26 already) is like reading my own, and I feel that Gushee is writing for many of us who fear losing our voice in a fractured, partisan society.

Yet, there is a relationship here.  I had David Gushee for several doctoral classes, and I have come to admire and respect him as author, ethicist, and deeply committed Christian father and husband.  His book on marriage helped me save my own, and his humble and penetrating openness to the Spirit of God has inspired so many students and ministers who work in the public square.  I feel as if reading this book is not so much reading a book as it is reading a personal letter from a friend.  Along with Angelou’s writing, its good stuff, ya’ll.

There you have it: the lucky thirteen books I hope to tackle this year. Based on my efforts in the last two years, however, I will probably get through seven or eight before I buy and read a dozen more.  Then there are the books–as yet unknown–that will be assigned to me by my Baptist peer learning group each month.  But that’s how these things work. There is the hope; then there is the reality.

Nevertheless, what do you hope to read this year?  And what “reading list” catches your attention?

Other Books I hope to read or have Managed to Read this Year: (Just doing this for my own amusement and record-keeping.)

  • Gleams of Glory, by Gwynn McLendon Day- a peach of a book published in 1964 by a school teacher.  The book was gifted to me by the widow of the man who was chair of the search committee at First Baptist Church (he passed away before my coming on board as pastor).  The book is amazing–every sentence a jewel.  That it once belonged to a man I met briefly but admired greatly is even more significant.
  • Church in Ordinary Time: A Wisdom Ecclesiology, by Amy Plantinga Pauw.  This book looks really interesting, and Ordinary Time has always fascinated me as a season.  I’ll hopefully get to this during the summer!
  • The Pilgrimage Way of the Cross, by Edward Hays.  This is the book that I was assigned by a retreat leader with whom I will be doing a Lenten journey.  We are a part of a group that is to do a 30 minute self-directed retreat during Lent, and this book is filled with devotions and prayers for each day of the season.
  • Gift of a Letter, by Alexandra Stoddard. Another book on letters because I enjoyed The Art of Thank You so much.  This one I read a little at a time, but enjoy its aged and nuanced take on the significance of writing in general and of writing letters specifically.
  • Letters and Papers from Prison, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. An eerie look inside of the mind of a genius theologian who does not know that his days are numbered.  As I read this book now, I am mindful that he died at age 39.  I just turned 40, so Bonhoeffer’s writing hits close to home.
  • Struggling with Scripture, by W. Brueggemann, W. Placher, and Brian Blount.  Picked this up at the used book store primarily because of its authors: Progressive Presbyterians take a closer look at the Bible, what it means to them personally, and how they negotiate Bible interpretation as ministers and scholars.  William Sloane Coffin provides a whimsical introduction.
  • Now and Then, by Frederick Buechner. Memoirist and pastor who speaks of his early time in seminary.  A book about the celebration and mystery of faith as well as the affirmation of Christian calling.
  • Be Known for Something, by Mark MacDonald. A book for a pastor’s peer learning group on the importance of congregational identity and leadership.  The author contends that church’s thrive when they are known for something unique in their local communities.  Although I agree with this book because I’ve been preaching this church ethic for my entire ministry, I would not recommend the book.  It is boring–and the concepts could cover a brochure, not a book.
  • For We Have This Treasure, by Paul Sherer. The Yale Lectures on Preaching from 1943 from Union Theological Seminary homiletics professor and Lutheran Pastor, Sherer, who taught at a time in which spiritual giants ruled Union (the Neihbur brothers, etc.).  The book is just as relevant today for clergy as it was back then, as it is a powerful testimony of the methodology and biblical foundations of progressive preaching for which northern pastors were know.  It is one of those books where I read a few sentences before having to stop and reflect–the Holy Spirit grabs a hold of my heart and prayer ensues!  The writing is thick, the conviction it evokes overwhelming, and the Spirit captivating in its every word.  A powerful book!
  • An American Childhood, by Annie Dillard.  In recent years, Dillard has proven to be one of my favorite authors.  She moves from personal memoir of growing up in Pittsburgh to providing historical and naturalist background of her hometown with spiritual and poetic insight.  Of her greatest contributions is her acute exploration of a child’s coming-of-age as that of awakening as “if brought back to life from cardiac arrest or drowning.”
  • Gilead, by Marilyn Robinson.  I once owned this prize-winning novel and got rid of it.  I’m not sure why, but perhaps I was not ready for it yet.  This novel that reads like a letter from a retired pastor to his son is captivating and honest, a reflection for those of us in ministry and parents.  So far so good.
  • An Introduction to the Old Testament, by James King West.  A more historical-critical take on the Old Testament published in the 1970s and revised in 1980 takes a broad view of the First Testament.  West’s ability to marry historical and anthropological insight with a close reading of scripture has been both entertaining and informative.  Its take on the politics of the Davidic and Solomonic monarchies have been exceptional.
  • Upstream, by Mary Oliver.  A collection of essays by author, poet, and naturalist Mary Oliver.  The book looks good, and its been a while since I’ve delved into some hearty naturalist writing, so I’m looking forward to this read once I finish Gilead.
  • Love, Then Listen, by Daphne Reiley.  The long awaited memoir of a good friend (and co-author of my book on caregiving, A Tapestry of Love) who walks with her son’s gender transition.  The book recalls the roller-coaster ride of emotions that echo the journey of so many families who wrestle with transgenderism, suicide, depression, and–with God’s grace and a supportive network of friends and colleagues–eventual liberation and joy.  I give it a more thorough review on Amazon here.
  • Speaking of Sin, by Barbara Brown Taylor.  A short book based on Taylor’s lectures at the Preaching College in Washington, DC.  It is an examination of our language surrounding sin and our redemption from sin, with an emphasis on a “third way” that moves past conservative “full-fault” theology and liberal “no-fault” theology.  For me, the greatest insight was her insistence is that we sin not only by the things we do, but by what we do not do.  We sin when we under-estimate our salvation in Christ and fail to take our place as a redeemed–and redeeming–people.  In that, we are saved, yes, but–as Jewish theology encourages us–we must participate in the ongoing repair of the world.
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A Grandmother’s Legacy

grannyBy Joe LaGuardia

My wife’s grandmother–Granny, as she was known–passed away last month after complications from hip surgery.  We went back to Georgia to mourn with the family and begin preparing her condo for sale.

We all had a job to do.  Some cleaned, others packed clothing.  My children went through her pictures and puzzles.

My wife and I had the long task of going through hundreds of books and prayer journals, all while making a “Goodwill” pile and “keep” pile.  We also had to thumb through every book because she commented one time that she stuffed money in her books.

After two days of going through her library, we didn’t find money, but we did find the DNA that made up her prayer life and legacy.

Granny was an avid reader and journal keeper.  She read and wrote about current events, sports and automobiles, aging and medicine, art, biblical studies, theology, and spirituality.  She wrote extensively in margins of her books, highlighted parts that she found compelling or interesting, and wrote questions–about her faith and theology–on little scraps of paper.  She put little bookmark tabs on pages that she found inspiring or transformative (or formative).

She also kept three-ring binders of hand-written prayer journals.  There were prayers for every occasion, but mostly intercessory prayers for her family–all of the grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren yet to be born.   We found one prayer for the baby that my wife held in her womb for nine months.  Granny didn’t know the name or the gender, but she knew that even that little life needed her prayers and intercessions.

When we looked through that library, it was as if we were looking through Granny’s soul.  I came across many books that I recognized, some that we both read together through the years as we both had a love of spiritual authors contemporary and ancient.  Books, like Henri Nouwen’s Wounded Healer, to those authored by desert mothers and fathers of the faith, the Celts, or local monks at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit who wrote on centering prayer and lectio divina and the like.

It reminded me of the lengthy conversations Granny and I used to have about theology.  One time, back in 2003, I was struggling with my walk with Jesus.  I was going through seminary and didn’t have the love for the Lord that I once did.  I faced bouts of depression at the time, and–knowing Granny’s spiritual gift of discernment–shared my struggles with her during a trip to Florida, where she lived at the time.

She told me about this Catholic priest and author that really made a profound impact on her: Henri Nouwen.  She was reading The Way of the Heart, and she thought it might help me with my spiritual malaise.  We took a trip to the bookstore and she graciously bought me a copy.

I read it–a small book, no more than 110 pages or so–about one man’s journey through the arid expanse of the soul, an exploration of the spiritual journey through wilderness and silence that led to sacred solitude and a life of prayer, meaning, and trust in the Lord.

The Way of the Heart changed my life; it inspired me a few years later to focus on spiritual formation for my doctoral dissertation in my work with caregivers.  I taught on that book at least three times in the church I had served for over a dozen years.  It changed other peoples’ lives too.

The books were one thing, Granny’s notes were another.  She had a habit of sticking Post-It notes in her books and journals with names of people from her family for whom she prayed.  That, and the pages of prayer journals she kept, mapped out a legacy that Granny built with conviction, purpose, and a sense of divine vocation.

She didn’t pray because it was expected of her; she prayed because that was her life’s calling.  If every day counted, to be lived out with utter abandon and sacrifice to the Lord, then every prayer counted as well.

My wife spent a few hours one day leafing through those old prayer journals.  In one, she noted that Granny wrote of her prayer life: “Who will pray for my family when I’m gone?”  It inspired tears in us, as well as a time of reflection of our own need to pray for our families.

The lesson Granny still teaches is important:  It is significant to leave behind the fingerprints of intercessory prayer for others to read.  It is a comfort to see that choppy, aged hand-written script in books left behind by a lady who sought the Lord in both scripture and the many books she considered sacred.  It is profoundly moving to know that even when we were too busy to see her often because we were getting on in our careers, having babies, and trying to pay bills, she had spent all those days rocking in that old glider in the corner of her bedroom, praying for us in her own silent way.

Its a legacy that inspires, that still draws us towards that longing to be with the Lord as intensely as she had known Him.  One that still begs the question: Who will pray now that Granny is gone, and how will God’s Word shape us to become the type of angels–the type of angel she became for us in her 85-year sojourn on this earth?

And if you do end up sticking a stash of cash in a book, make sure someone in your family knows the books to which you refer.  It will save your children and grandchildren a heap of time.

The Pastor’s Study: Building blocks for effective ministry

writers-blockBy Joe LaGuardia

The other day, my six-year old son visited the church office and asked, “Daddy, why do you have so many books?”

My first answer was practical: “Because I like to read.”

My second answer was theological: “And pastors have to learn in order to serve a church.”

It was another way of saying that we pastors (most are avid readers anyway) require some old-fashioned odds and ends that many professions no longer need.  In this case, books.  Good, hardy paper-and-glue bound books.

A pastor’s library needs to be robust and diverse because it contributes to a minister’s professional development in ministry.  Without some basic building blocks in that library, a pastor will not be able to “gain in learning” and “discern wisdom with acquired skill” (Proverbs 1:5).

There are about four building blocks in a pastor’s study.  The first block includes a variety of study Bibles and translations.  Without God’s Word, all else is entertainment.

I know that some pastors are adamant about a translation, but I’ve come to learn that no, single English translation is perfect.  Nor are any study Bibles.

Last Sunday, for example, we discussed 2 Kings 2:23-25, about the prophet Elisha divinely influencing two bears to maul over 40 boys because they dishonored him.

All of us in the class were stumped by this unsettling story, so we turned to various translations and study Bibles for help.

Some study Bibles said some things, while some said another.  All agreed, however, that the story emphasized Elisha’s power in bringing about God’s judgment as an heir to Elijah’s power.

The study Bibles didn’t provide us with any concrete answers, but it inspired lively discussion.

A second building block includes books that encourage deeper faith, primarily devotional literature.  Since many of us received our call to ministry after our salvation experience, there is a good chance our oldest books are related to the Christian life and prayer.

I still have copies of The Imitation of Christ by Thomas A’Kempis and My Utmost for His Highest by Oswald Chambers that I’ve used since high school.  These books continue to challenge my faith and bring great conviction.

The next part of a pastor’s library involves a good set of Bible commentaries.  It doesn’t matter how many books a pastor reads, nothing can replace commentaries in preparing for the preaching of God’s Word.  Every pastor has a favorite series.

I always enjoy William Barclay’s The Daily Bible Study series and the older, regal Interpreter’s Bible Commentary.  There are some new commentaries series from a diverse set of authors also, such as the Catholic-leaning Sacra Pagina New Testament series.

For novice pupils of the Bible who want to build a good home library, one-volume commentaries work just as well.  I have found The Bible Reader’s Companion by Lawrence Richards and Our Daily Homily by F. B. Meyer to be particularly useful.  A one-commentary volume on the New Testament by Eugene Boring and Fred Craddock, The People’s Commentary is insightful and fun to read.

Rounding out the pastor’s library are two types of books: One type helps interpret the Bible more deeply; and a second helps the pastor interpret culture more deeply.

The first type range from homiletics (the study of the art of preaching) to hermeneutics (the art of Bible interpretation).

The second type is broad, with books related to current events, culture or ethics, church history, and theology.  Two books I read recently are The Urban Pulpit by Matthew Bowman, a history of mainline churches in Manhattan; and The Social Media Gospel by Meredith Gould, which discusses the necessity and uses of social media for evangelism and outreach.

I’m currently reading God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, by Phyllis Tribble, a classical work in feminist theology pertaining to the Old Testament.  I’m finding the book’s insights on Genesis 1-2 invaluable.

Aside from all of the visits, crises, events, committee meetings, and errands to which pastors attend, there must still be time to read, study, and prepare each week for that next presentation, sermon, or Bible study.  It never ends, and without a study to call home, such struggles would be all the more difficult.