A Reading Life: Books that shaped me (part 1)

My room, lovingly called “the Cave,” in Havana, Cuba. Complete with vintage sewing machine-turned-writing desk.

By Joe LaGuardia

This is the first part in a multi-part article series on my “reading life”.  Enjoy!

On a recent mission trip to Cuba, I spent some time reading C. S. Lewis’ memoir Surprised by Joy.  Like other books by Lewis I’ve read, I found it hard to follow his line of argument, narration, British idioms, and the writing in general.  I am accustomed to reading dated literature–most of my favorite books come from the early 20th-century–but it is just that I have never been a fan of Lewis in the first place.  Don’t judge me.

The one thing I did enjoy about Surprised by Joy (and I’m glad there was one thing, since, in Cuba, I had nothing else to read) was how the rhythm of Lewis’s upbringing can be measured according to the books he read.  Every season of his life was marked by tragedy and triumph, as well as an exposure to literature that came his way.

Lewis speaks of his father’s personal book collection, his favorite reading in school, the tutor who introduced him to Homer, and his on-going love affair with mythology and poetry.  Every coming-of-age tale he tells accompanies a movement towards a new genre of literature.  When he eventually gets to his Christian conversion, it comes by way of the joy that literature brings to his life.

I am a reader too.  When I look back on my life — (again, something I had a lot of time to do while awaiting sleep in my room, lovingly called “the Cave”, in Cuba, sans television and internet) — I can easily see how literature also acted as a thread throughout my life.  From The Berenstain Bears and the Spooky Old Tree to everything written by Barbara Brown Taylor, I remember most of the books that have shaped my life and accompanied me through good times and bad.  Why not, like Lewis, try to record it for the ages?

So over the next few months, that’s precisely what I intend to do — narrate the seasons of my life through books, a “reading life,” as it were.  I love reading, and I love reading articles about reading, so I hope that these little chestnuts along the way will encourage you, bolster your love for books, and invoke some great conversations of the central place books play in the lives of bibliophiles across the globe.

 

 

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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.

Where I’m From…

By Emily Holladay

Many of you have likely read or created a “Where I’m From” poem like the one below. “Where I’m From” poems were made famous by Kentucky poet laureate, George Ella Lyon, and they serve to help take us all back to our roots.

I wrote the one you are about to read during our church’s women’s retreat. I hesitated to post it, because it is not perfect, but it turns out that neither am I. And, if you can’t go back to your roots right before Lent begins, when can you, right?

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I am from pen and paper, from composition notebooks and uniball gel rollers.

I am from the big tree beside the house. Full of wonder and hope. My person Narnia.

I am from the strands of ivy, the Easter lily, bringing peace in grief.

I am from horseback riding on the farm and raucous laughter, from Elmo and Frank and Jim.

I am from the stubborn and selfless.

From “this is the day the Lord has made” and “don’t make me look bad.”

I am from “God is good all the time.” And the comfort of a community that assured me, “All the time, God is good.”

I’m from the land of unbridled spirit, sour cream cookies, and Derby Pie.

From the minister’s sons who got drunk on communion wine, the uncle tossed out the bedroom window, and the May Queen, my grandmother.

I am from the attic on Kramer Street, where little Annie sits, protecting the memories, Eager to share the stories of Holladays gone by.

*This article originally ran on Rev on the Edge blog, and is reprinted with permission by the author.