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.

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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.

Three keys for writing a new story for a New Year

typewriterBy Joe LaGuardia

Every year I set out to keep some much-needed resolutions.  These resolutions have to do with change: I’d like to eat less, exercise more, pray without ceasing.  The usual New Year’s stuff.

Since I rarely keep these resolutions beyond the second or third week, however, I wonder if perhaps I’ve been going about this all wrong.  And, if you’ve had trouble keeping your resolutions in years past, maybe you’ve gotten it wrong too.

It’s not that we have to change our life so much as we may have to change the way we see our life.  Whenever I’ve changed how I see my life in the past, a change in my behavior, values, and habits followed.

One of the ways is to view life as a story that is slowly unfolding, one in which you can sense a series of beginnings, middles, and endings.

Call them chapters if you will.  Each chapter tells a different side of the main character–you!–and when one chapter ends, a new one begins.

So what if you had a bad habit in the past?  That chapter has ended, and a new chapter can begin.

Maybe you came out of an abusive relationship.  This is a good opportunity to write a new chapter beyond the abuse that has shaped your life all too often.

So, with that in mind, here are three keys to consider when writing your new 2015 story.

1.  Your story is what God says it is, not what others say it is.  God has created you in God’s own image and you are a child of God.  Don’t let others tell you how your story should either unfold or end.

If you were to write your story this year with your Heavenly Father in mind, how would it be different?  What authenticity and vulnerability might empower you to change for the better?

2.  God has a purpose for your life, so your story should have a purpose too.

Have you ever read a story or watched a movie that didn’t have a purpose?  A story with no purpose has no direction; it just stumbles along.

purposeI know that we stumble along in life sometimes.  We lose a job or our hearts get broken, and we can only go from day to day like a person meandering in the dark.

Some seasons in life are like that; and, overall, our story has a purpose because God has a purpose for us.

The Bible labels this purpose a “call” that God gives us.  We are all called to be a part of God’s story.

The second letter of Peter says, “Therefore, brothers and sisters, be all the more eager to confirm your call and election, for if you do this, you will never stumble” (2 Peter 1:10).

3.  Your story won’t be complete without recognizing how others play a part in it.

On the internet, you will find what are called “internet trolls.”  These are people who go from status update to status update. blog to blog, article to article, and post to post only to criticize, leave negative feedback, and simply publish bad advice or mean comments in general.

Trolls have encouraged more than one suicide, and they are ruthless in their backbiting and baiting.

These are not people that make up your story or should be a part of your story.

Characters that are a part of your story should be positive and help you fulfill God’s purpose in your life.

I recommend building a circle of friends made up of mentors, cheerleaders, teachers, and friends that make for an effective support system.  Do not neglect this part of your story, even if it means distancing yourself from the trolls in your life.

As you look forward to the new year ahead, I hope that you will put an imaginary pen to paper and write something new.  I hope that it will be God-inspired and that you will be the very person God has made you to be, for without God, your words will be fleeting and ever failing.