Tag Archives: writing

My Favorite Books of 2017

I still remember the first chapter book that I learned to read: Miss Suzy. I was so proud to  read all by myself this book that my parents had been reading to me forever. Later on, I spent summers wearing out the path between our home and the Bridgeport Public Library. One summer, it was to see if I could read all the Hardy Boys series in one summer. The next summer it was Nancy Drew. My parents bought the Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Civil War, and I read that one summer; we also had the Worldbook Encyclopedia in our home. I didn’t read it cover to cover, but I got my licks in.

Reading continues to be important to me as an adult — as a pastor, as a curious resident of this amazing world, and as a responsible citizen of this nation and the global community. Reading also goes hand in glove with my vocation as a writer. The aspiration to be a good writer requires reading good writing.

2017 has been a year of transition, leaving one call in the western suburbs of Chicago and taking a position as pastor of a church Door County, Wisconsin. Transitions require a tremendous amount of my physical, intellectual, and emotional resources. For me, that means I haven’t done as much writing this year as I had hoped.

Reading, however, has remained constant. And I have read some books this past year that I thought were pretty great. Below is a list of the ones that really stood out for me.

Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll post a short review of each, a new review posted every few days. They’re not listed in any order that would suggest that I liked one better than the other. They are from different genres and I liked them for different reasons. They appear here roughly in the order in which I read them, simply a random list of my favorites from the past year.  If there’s anything that looks intriguing, come back and take a look at the review.

The Age of Anger: A History of the Present, by Pankaj Mishra

Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders

Hope in the Dark, by Rebecca Solnit

The Day the Revolution Began, by N. T. Wright

Do I Make Myself Clear?, by Harold Evans

Tears We Cannot Stop, by Michael Eric Dyson

The Daughters, by Adrienne Celt

Original Blessing, by Danielle Shroyer

White Rage, by Carol Anderson

How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds, by Alan Jacobs

Faith Formation in a Secular Age, by Andrew Root

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, by Matthew Desmond

Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari

Why I Write This Blog

The turn of the calendar sometimes gets me thinking a little bit sentimentally. Last week, I went back and looked at my early blog posts; my first post was January 1, four years ago.

I was a blogging machine that first week, posting four times in 9 days. I didn’t continue at that pace.

I began writing this blog with the hope of building a following that would be useful for the novel that I was getting ready to publish. Everything I read told me to write a blog to that you’d have a following of folks who would be knocking down your door to to read what you wrote. It didn’t quite turn out that way.

I don’t say that with bitterness or regret. The blog has become for me a thing in itself, something that has brought me a great deal of satisfaction and if a few people read it along the way, even better.

Which brings me to the point of what I want to say today. What this platform has become for me is a way to contribute the the conversation that goes on between matters of faith and what’s going on out there in the big, wonderful world. Matters of faith are important to me — no, they are central to me. I also carry this insatiable curiosity about what’s going on in the world, a deep desire for things to work better than they do.  I write because I think I have something to share with the rest of the world that might be useful, something that might be pertinent to the larger conversation. I have no illusions that I have firm or definitive answers to any of the things I write about. But I do have opinions, and sometimes those opinions might be useful beyond my own head.

There is a lot out there in the world that is not right. For most of us, I think, the default position is that there’s nothing we can do. I don’t buy that. I think that when a lot of us care about those intractable problems and we do even little things collectively, we can get something done. I’ve seen it happen over and over in organizing work; some of that I’ve written on these pages. I think of the honeybees, the thousands  of them all going out finding even more thousands of flowers and each collecting their little bits of pollen and returning to they hive. Those communities of bees get done what they need to do to survive and thrive.

Part of what’s necessary for the human community to survive and thrive in the midst of the challenges of the 21st century is to have conversation about those challenges. Conversation is not the whole thing, but it’s a necessary thing. We are a species of language, information, and reflection. Our ability to reflect on our situation is one of the most powerful and magical things about being human. Our reflection and conversation will, I believe, lead to a measure of healing, reconciliation, or making things better.

I want to be part of that larger conversation from the perspective of my Christian faith, and of my position as a leader in the Christian Church. I come to the conversation from my vocation as a Lutheran pastor. I come also fully aware that some lousy versions of Christianity have contributed to the mess the world is in right now. The Christianity that I know and attempt to practice is a faith that is inclusive, inviting, and gracious, a way of being that finds it’s transformative source in the death and resurrection of Jesus and attempts to live consistently and authentically according to the teachings of Jesus.  God has intentions for the world; God is at work moving things towards fullness and completion. My vocation is to be an agent of that reconciliation and healing.
If you’ve read this blog for very long, you know that it’s not about one thing. I suppose that violates a cardinal rule of blogging. I haven’t carved out a niche. I write about the things I’m interested in and I’m interested in a lot of different things. But if you look back at the nearly 120 pieces I have posted, what it looks like is that I’m mostly interested in the intersection of faith and life — in particlular, how the Christian faith gets lived out in the world — and what faith has to say about the gnarly messes that we come into contact every day. Reflecting and writing on that intersection calls on my training in theology, my twenty-seven years of experience as a parish pastor in Lutheran congregations, and my continuing interest in theology. It also calls on that curiosity about this big, wonderful world that I’ve already mentioned.

I write, certainly, because I want people to read what I write. And for those of you who are still with me, thanks. But I’ve also discovered that I write for myself. It’s good for me. I want to be a writer when I grow up, and the more I write, the more I practice, the better I get. This is my version of going in to the piano practice room and doing my scales. And, there’s even something b beyond that. When I write, it helps me to organize and clarify what I really think about something. I’m am prone to fogginess of thought, and laziness when it comes to the hard work of actually naming with clarity what I think. Writing forces clarity.

As we enter this new year, I’m looking forward to continuing this conversation. Thanks for being a part of it. And if it’s like many of the conversations I get to be a part of, it will take us to places that are beyond what I could have imagined.

Faith and Literature, a Vocational Intersection, Part 2

Jim bestIn October, 2014, I was invited to Luther College in Decorah, Iowa to participate in the festivities for Homecoming Weekend, and for the inauguration of their 10th President, Dr. Paula Carlson. It was such an honor to be there. I had the privilege of preaching for the morning chapel service, and then serving on a panel for a symposium that President Carlson had called dealing with the relationship of faith and literature, a particular interest in her own research and writing.  I shared the dais with three esteemed academic scholars, Dr. Jacqueline Bussie (Concordia College), Dr. Peter Hawkins (Yale University), and Dr. Robert Schultz (Roanoke College). Each of us were to give some remarks with respect to our vocation and the intersection of faith and literature. What follows is the completion of my remarks.

Some novels help us to get at the big questions, like “Who is God?” “Is there a God?” “What is the meaning of life?” I’m thankful for those books in modern literature. I think of Walker Percy and Iris Murdoch, to name a few. I love Percy’s novel, The Second Coming. The aging protagonist of the story sets up an experiment to try to prove God’s existence. I think it’s a pretty clever premise, and Percy has my admiration for coming up with it. The whole experiment goes awry, as you might expect; the main character ends up falling in love and what plays out is a most unlikely romance where we get a glimpse into true compassion and care. Isn’t that enough of a proof of God’s existence?

There are lots of great novels out there that through story help us to work out what it means to live faithfully. I could give you hundreds of examples, but let me tell you about just one.

I have a sister two years younger than me. We had a very different relationship with our father. Dad died three years ago; as he grew older, my sister seemed to me more and more to engage in ancestor worship, describing him as a loving, doting father, whose children were always at the center of his life, and for whom he always made time. I have much more mixed, even more negative memories of my dad. Shortly after he died and as I was trying to process some of this, I read Julian Barnes’s novel, The Sense of an Ending. In that story, Tony Webster, retired and living alone, tells a story of a pivotal event when he and a close circle of friends were undergraduate students. He tells the narrative with great confidence. In the second half of the book, a letter arrives which provides documentation that he has created an entirely different narrative from what actually happened.

Reading and reflecting on Barnes’s novel gave me a window into the tentative reliability of my own memory. The moment of grace came when I realized that my own memories are mostly likely a shadow of what really happened, and enabled me to embrace the positive along with the negative memories of my father.

I want to conclude by saying a few words about my vocation as a writer.  Pastors write. That’s what we do:  newsletters, correspondence, weekly bulletin blurbs, sermons; that’s what we do. Through the years, I have become fairly adept at stringing words together coherently.

My foray into writing fiction came almost accidentally. I had come through a very painful conflict situation in my parish in which I was at the center of some parish convulsions. We came out of it and began a very positive and fruitful time of ministry at that congregation. One of the things I learned was that my whole identity had gotten too wrapped up in my role as pastor. I needed to have something to engage my time, my energy, and my creativity apart from work and even apart from my family. About that time the Naples Daily News advertised a class that was being offered at the Naples Philharmonic Center the Arts. A novelist and former film critic for the New York Daily News was offering a class in short story writing. I took a couple of classes from Hollis Alpert. More importantly, he became an informal mentor, encouraging me to keep writing, and even encouraging me to work on something larger. My first novel was a way for me to practice that craft, and also to tell some truth about the church and life in the church as a pastor, and of the complexities of human relationships.

I continue to work on my fiction writing.  I also blog. As Christians — or, really, any people of faith — we have to be actively engaged in the world. We have to let our faith speak about what’s going on around us, about life and about how we act and react. My blog is one more way that I can do that.

Thank you for the opportunity to share with you a few reflections on important things.

Faith and Literature — A Vocational Intersection

Jim bestIn October, 2014, I was invited to Luther College in Decorah, Iowa to participate in the festivities for Homecoming Weekend, and for the inauguration of their 10th President, Dr. Paula Carlson. It was such an honor to be there. I had the privilege of preaching for the morning chapel service, and then serving on a panel for a symposium that President Carlson had called dealing with the relationship of faith and literature, a particular interest in her own research and writing.  I shared the dais with three esteemed academic scholars, Dr. Jacqueline Bussie (Concordia College), Dr. Peter Hawkins (Yale University), and Dr. Robert Schultz (Roanoke College). Each of us were to give some remarks with respect to our vocation and the intersection of faith and literature. Today I offer the first section of my remarks. I’ll follow with the second installment on Thursday.

I suppose we all have a variety of ways we could frame our vocational journeys. Here’s one for me:  my vocational journey has been one of seeking the truth, seeking after The Truth, trying to understand the truth, and how we can live truly before God, with each other and in the world.

Having lobbed that opening salvo, let me step back for a minute and tell a little about myself. I grew up as the oldest child of Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod (LCMS) parents; my grandfather was an LCMS pastor. I came to this institution (Luther College) at age 18 intending to be a musician. I discovered that music was much more an avocation for me than a vocation. In other words, I didn’t want to work that hard or practice that much. I felt like I had to figure out quickly what I wanted to do with my life — a misplaced notion, to say the least. I determined pretty quickly to pursue a vocation as a pastor in the church. Because I had been raised to observe a sharp distinction between denominations, I transferred to an LCMS college, eventually attended an LCMS seminary and entered pastoral ministry. I was very much steeped in the notion that theology was a set of propositional truths. My job as a pastor was to make sure people knew the truths necessary for their salvation.

The first 15 years of pastoral ministry was a long journey of discovery towards authentically engaging the scriptures, the church, people, and what it means to be a pastor. I discovered through experience that story is fundamental, basic, and essential to human existence. We eat, sleep, poop, have sex — but mostly we tell stories. When we talk to each other, that’s what we do. Some of us tell stories exceptionally well. Those stories help reveal the truth — about life, about God, about being human, about how we relate to each other.

Wallace Stegner is one of my favorite novelists. For years, he was the chair of the Creative Writing program at Stanford University.  He used to tell his students, “We have no agenda but to tell the truth.  Of course, what I’m getting at is the deep truth about human life that is not always accessible through mere facts.”

Jesus told stories.  His parables are known far and wide both inside and outside the church.  When we try to understand Jesus’ parables, we have to know that they tell the truth slant, to use a phrase of Emily Dickinson. They evoke rather than prescribe. That’s true also of literature and the way it speaks to matters of faith and life.

An important discovery and a really life-changing vocational moment was when I came to see that the Christian faith is fundamentally relational; it is not propositional, it is relational. The mystery of the Trinity is a relational mystery, not a propositional truth. Throughout history, God has interacted with people relationally, not propositionally. God bids us to live with one another relationally. Relationships don’t rest very well on propositional truth. It just may be that the only way to even begin understanding anything true about God is to tell stories about how God is and what God does, which is exactly what the Hebrew and Christian scriptures do.

We can treat relationships clinically; when this happens do this; when that happens, do that. There’s some value to such exercises. We learn a lot and we learn differently through story. In the Wendell Berry story, Jayber Crow, Jayber, an introverted, balding bachelor-barber, has a deep affection for Mattie Keith Chatham, an attractive neighbor-girl. Mattie grows up, marries the local all-American boy,  bears, rears, and begins burying their children. When he realizes that Mattie’s philandering husband Troy will never be faithful to her, Jayber breaks off with his own girlfriend, and vows to be the husband Mattie deserves, even though his relationship with her will always be one-sided.  As Jayber’s one-sided passion for Mattie grows, so does his compassion, and he is able share in the sufferings of all his neighbors. In this story, romantic longing becomes the seed not only of a deep and broad human love but also for salvation itself.

(In the next installment, I offer more examples from a few of my own favorite authors, and reflect briefly on my vocation as a writer.)

Thank You for Reading. No, Really. Thank You.

Screen Shot 2014-12-31 at 11.27.52 AMThank you, dear reader. Whoever you are, wherever you are, thank you for reading what I write.

If you’re short on time, that’s the punchline, and you can stop right here. That’s where this whole essay is headed. If you’re curious how I got there, read on.

One of the things that separates the human specie from the rest of the animal world is the consciousness of more than the present moment. We look back on the past, we make plans for the future, even as we experience the present moment. My dogs don’t do that. Maybe it’s what makes them seem so happy all the time. They are simply experiencing the joy of the moment.

I suppose our human sense of time is such an obvious piece of information that it hardly bears stating. I read about it recently in a book I’m reading on brain science, and I find myself on this New Year’s Eve reflecting about the past year and so, today, it is for me a valuable insight.

Comments I’ve read and heard from a variety of media sources are labeling 2014 as an awful year. Last Saturday on “Wait Wait. . .” Peter Segal suggested that 2014 should be the year about which we say, “Good-bye and good riddance.”  According to the AP, some of the top news stories of 2014 included the police shootings and the ramping up of racial tensions, the emergence of ISIS and the continuing violence in the Middle East, the loss of the Malaysian airliner (and now another plan crash in that part of the world), the NFL controversy around domestic violence, the ebola outbreak in west Africa, the extraordinarily contentious election cycle, and the tensions in The Ukraine, including the shooting down of the passenger plane last summer. Maybe it has been a year that we simply want to put in our rearview mirror.

For me, it’s been a good year. At the church I serve, a couple of losses of staff — one due to taking an assignment elsewhere, and the other a sudden death — led to a prominent sense of loss and grief. Yet, as we emerge from the grief, I find that the losses have given us a renewed sense of our ministry as a congregation. We have been given a golden opportunity to spend some time in discernment about what God is calling us to be as a congregation, and about how we do our work in the world. In the past 3 months, I’m feeling more energized and engaged in pastoral ministry than maybe I ever have.

With regard to my writing, it’s been a year of contrasts. I got the report from WordPress, the platform that hosts by blog, that I posted 28 times in 2014. That’s just over 2 times a month, far less than I had hoped for when I entered the year. Part of that is due, I suppose to the events that I described above. The losses of staff members required much more of my time and attention in the short-term than I planned for. And, of course, I don’t regret making that investment. As much as writing is necessary for me to do, my primary calling is still “pastor.” I’ve also been much more disciplined in working on my fiction which leaves less time for other writing.

As those of you who read this blog regularly already know, the subject matter for my blogging is all over the landscape, and has to do, I suppose with what I’m interested in in the moment. Blogging experts say find your niche and stick to it. But that’s not how I am. I’m not interested in one thing. I’m interested in the world and how I am in the world and how we are in the world. That inevitably leads to my reflections going all over the place. One of my most read blog posts of the year happened to be a review of a bed and breakfast I stayed at in Nebraska; someone from the bed and breakfast world read it and soon B&B proprietors from all over the place were reading it. I doubt they will be regular readers, but I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to say a kind and supportive word to them.

As I look back, it looks like what I am most interested in is how people of faith — Christians, in particular — take concrete action to work with God to accomplish God’s healing and redemptive intentions for the good world that God has created and still cares about.

What I’ve been trying to get to in this long end-of-year reflection is a word of thanks to those of you who take the time to read what I write. I’m grateful and humbled that of all the things clamoring for your attention, you would choose to invest a precious bit of that attention to some thoughts to which I have attempted to give cogent expression. I write because I need to. I need to put on paper some of the many things that rumble around in my mind; I need also to put them on paper because it forces me to clarify and remove the fuzziness of some of those thoughts. Knowing that someone else is going to read them forces me to be accountable for those thoughts. While I write for myself, I also write because I want others to read. I guess it’s an ego thing, but I like knowing that someone else is reading it. Even as I say I like that, I am sometimes amazed by it. As much as I try to tame them, I still face the demons that tell me I have nothing to say, that no one will be interested in what I’m thinking about, and that I haven’t had an original thought in years, if ever. On my better days, I can shout the demons down and live in gratitude for the miracle of language and expression and that by simply placing some characters on a page others can have some reasonable facsimile of what I am thinking and that together, the dialogue might move us all a little further along on the journey.

So, as I said before, thank you, dear reader. Whoever you are, wherever you are, thank you for reading what I write.

Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending

I’m a reader. Some books I enjoy, some I don’t, and lots are in-between. Occasionally, I read a book that has a deep impact.

A few weeks ago, finished a book like that: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. This 2011 Booker Prize winner appeared in my office around Christmas time as a gift from a member of Faith. I say that because I’m not sure it’s a book I would have picked up based on the dustcover description.

Barnes has written several novels and it’s clear that he is a master of his craft. The book is well-written and the plot wonderfully inventive. As a writer myself, I’m interested in the writing process and I kept asking myself, “How did Barnes think of that?”

The story opens by recounting a friendship between four English boarding school students. The narrator remembers events that happen after they finish boarding school and go off to university, including a romance that ends badly. In a happening pivotal to the story, she ends up with one of his friends.

The second half or so of the book jumps decades forward to the narrator as an older man, retired and now unexpectedly in contact with the woman he once lost to his friend. Who remembers what, how accurate are the memories, and what path has led them to where they now are in their lives — these are the questions that drive this part of the story.

And these are the questions that have driven me to some significant reflection on my own life. There’s no such thing as being in control of our lives. There are too many things that happen that simply happen — we are recipients or victims as the case may be. On the other hand, there is also the possibility of guiding the trajectory of our lives by the decisions we make, the work that we do, the values and priorities we set. So, the question is, to what extent will I simply be reactive to what happens around me? Or will I use some of my energy, determination and persistence to push my life in a certain direction? And if there are changes that I need to make for that to happen, am I willing to shake up the status quo ante with which I have become comfortable?

Here’s another big one that I’ve been thinking about: to what extent do we remember with any accuracy at all what has happened in our distant past. My father died last September. I’ve said publicly that my father’s life was in some ways tragic. I feel like he never quite found his calling and was always dissatisfied and restless. The most he ever stayed with any employer was 5 years, and usually it was more like 3 years. That, of course, meant lots of instability and change for our family.

After dad’s death, I began a writing project to go back and record what I remember of my father from my earliest memories up to the past few years as his health declined and  he died suddenly in the fall. I found that memories of certain events jogged my memory to other contiguous events, things that I hadn’t thought about for years and years. So I wrote much more than I expected. And the narrative became not just a narrative of my memories about my father, but of my own childhood and our whole family. I tried to recount with joy and appreciation when I could, and to be honest about the whole thing, not trying to gloss over the struggles. As a result, my memories were not always complimentary.

So, now I’m wondering. How much of what I remember and what I’ve written really happened? How far off have I wandered into my own interpretations of those events?  I’ve been around long enough to know that our memories never reflect exactly what happened. They are always conditioned by so much subjectivity. As I was I reading The Sense of an Ending, I realized that I’ve lived with the arrogance of convincing myself that I had written an accurate and definitive description of what my father was like as I grew up. But that’s wrong. The best I can say is that I’ve recorded what I remember; and it’s heavily influenced by the trajectory and events of my own life, and indeed, the very things I’m experiencing in my life in the present.

At the very least, I’ve determined that I’m going to shy away from language of certainty about what has happened in the past, and I’m going to seek to live with a little more grace, not only in my memories of others, but also as I hear others tell their own stories.

One of the signs of a good story is the reflection it prompts on the part of the reader. On that score, The Sense of and Ending gets two thumbs up.