A Reading Life (prt 14): Own your Writing


two books on wood plankBy 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.

I got more copies of my book A Whispering Call to sell around town.  I haven’t been in possession of the final draft in a while, so, upon receipt, I started to read it.

There is something about reading your work months after you wrote it that makes you pause–there is a great deal of self-doubt, and you wonder whether the final copy is any good.

I read the first page of the introduction, and I was stuck.  The transition from the first two paragraphs to the third was awkward.  I read it again, and I tried to get into where my head was months ago:  What was I thinking when I segued from one paragraph to the other?

A long time ago, someone told me it was hard for her to follow my sermons.  I lost her, she said, when I was transitioning from one subject to the next.  She said that my transitions left people behind or confused.   Although I dealt with that issue over time (it was a valid critique), it seems that some of my writing still carries that burden.

But I am also a big believer that a new paragraph begins a new topic.  That’s what I learned in grade school, at least.  Its not my fault that our digital, short-form world breaks everything into paragraphs after only a few sentences just because readers lose interest if a paragraph is too long.  (I learned this the hard way as a syndicated columnist–paragraphs are only two or three sentences long not because of the topic, but because of how it appears on the page; the internet is no different.)

I decided that my writing was just fine, and it hit me: I have to own my writing.  I have to take responsibility for my idiosyncrasies and trust in the work.

Ernest Hemingway inspired me in this.  I am currently reading A Farewell to Arms, and its been a while since I’ve read Hemingway.  His writing is unique–its short, brisk, and choppy.  At times he is repetitive.  He doesn’t fill in all the gaps, and his dialogue communicates basic information.

On the back of the book’s dustcover, it boasts that Hemingway “did more to change the style of English prose than any other writer in the twentieth century.”  He was, of course, a Pultizer winner for The Old Man and the Sea.

I wonder if Hemingway doubted his writing.  I wonder if he thought, “I hope people don’t think I write like a fifth-grader.”  But fans of his work will quickly note that, as concise as he may be, he communicates an entire vista within just a short economy of words.  He is amazing, and I like to think that he was unapologetic for his unique writing style.  He owned his writing.

My reflections on writing conjured the works of other off-beat authors.  Annie Dillard comes to mind–she is downright difficult to read, but oh! how she makes for majestic reading!

The first time I picked up Frank McCourt, with his long run-on sentences and lack of quotation marks, it was almost the last time I picked it up–not because it wasn’t good, but because I couldn’t put it down!

Preachers also tend to have their own style–the good ones, at least.  The late Fred Craddock is probably the most famous idiosyncratic preacher.  When he preached you forget that he is preaching, and by the time he finished (and he finishes whenever he wants), you think you’ve had a conversation with a best friend.

Brett Younger, pastor of Plymouth Church in Brooklyn (and one of my old professors), is also unique.  He weaves together comedy and tragedy and sacred text in ways that few can emulate.

Then there is Joel Osteen.  I don’t care what you think of his theology, but the man is an amazing storyteller.  Whenever I listen to him on XM radio, I feel better, like all is well with the world.

So take ownership of your writing.  No one is going to express what you need to say for you, and your silence may disenfranchise the world.  It may need another point of light in the darkness, so shine brightly for others to see.  Don’t mimic voices of others, come up with your own.  Take responsibility for your writing.  As long as you follow the basics in grammar, you should be fine–and empowered to keep on keeping on.

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A Reading Life (prt 13): Being a Steward of Stories

 

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.

You may recall the post in which I said I read voraciously in high school, primarily those books in the school library that intrigued me the most.  Because I read so much of what I wanted, I failed to read books assigned to me by teachers. I went for years without touching those classics that most students read: Hawthorne, Lee, Hemingway, or Twain; but it was not a total loss.

My favorite teachers were eleventh- and twelfth-grade English teachers.

My eleventh grade teacher, Mr. Mitchell, taught American literature. He introduced us to Joseph Campbell’s hero myth and drew out all of his lessons on that premise. We watched movies from Star Wars Episode 5 (the best of all Star Wars movies) to The Crucible and The Witness. We read Native American literature and the poems of Dickinson. He introduced us to the plays of Arthur Miller. Death of a Salesman was memorable.

My British lit teacher, Ms. Brunnel, introduced us to Beowulf and Shakespeare in a way I’ve never read them before. We also read The Canterbury Tales, which played into my religious imagination and expanded my idea of the church as a pilgrim community made up of storytellers and stewards of stories.  She also snuck in Greek mythology, which fascinated me to no end–especially her feminist take on Medea.

What these teachers did differently than the rest was assume that we weren’t going to read outside of class. They made time in class so that we can read the books together. This was brilliant because (1) they assumed correctly–I never read assigned texts at home; and (2) reading together taught me the power of being part of a reading and interpreting community.

Little did I know how this practice of corporate reading would shape my understanding of the Bible and of church.  Church is, after all, a reading and interpreting community, and many books in scripture are meant to be acted out, if not in the reading of it, then in the living of it.  We need to remember that ancient Greek practices of playwright and of rhetoric shaped and informed the writing of the New Testament, which is written in Greek.

Reading literature also payed the bills.  When I graduated seminary, I landed a high-school history teaching position at a local Christian academy. I taught history, so it was an easy fit.  By the third year, however, the school needed a literature teacher and asked me if I was interested. I said yes and put Joseph Campbell, community interpretation, and storytelling to work once again. It was a fun and joyful year; and teaching grammar made me a better, more precise writer.

It was the year I caught up on my reading. I picked up books such as The Old Man and the Sea; The Great Gatsby, and Night. I studied the technical and aesthetic aspects of poetry.  I fell in love all over again with the concise art of short stories.  I read To Kill a Mockingbird, which inspired courage in ministry as it related to race reconciliation; and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by the amazingly moving Maya Angelou.  Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt expressed an immigrant’s point of view of poverty, not to mention McCourt’s unique run-on sentence writing style.

I realize now that both my teachers and my teaching of literature ignited a fondness for reading the Bible and of reading in general.  I believe that people who thrive are those who have mentors who shape their worldview and then, in turn, mentor others.

This is what it means to steward stories– to be a caretaker of those narratives that frame and shape our lives, and to encourage others to articulate the deepest notions of what it means to be human, individually and together.

A reading life is a life in community. It is one in which we learn how to read and interpret the words that build worlds. It is a life that leans upon and into others who have taken great pains to be stewards of stories themselves, for in this, the words we have are those in earthen treasures ready to be explored anew.

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.