Randy Greenwald

Concerning Life as It Is Supposed to Be

Category: Books Page 1 of 19

Five Books Every Pastor Should Read

Of the four practices of pastoral self-care I recommended recently, the final one encouraged pastors to read good books. Of the naming of books, there may be no end, but here are five that I believe every pastor should read. I commend these with absolute seriousness. To practice ministry without the company of these books, to me, is to walk a tightrope without a net. It’s possible, but oh so risky.

1. The Contemplative Pastor by Eugene Peterson.

Everything about pastoral ministry drives the pastor to do more and to push harder. The culture of American efficiency is not shed upon ordination, and many pastors land in churches where leaders ask increasingly more of them. Peterson deftly subverts that uncompromising culture inviting pastors rather to a more biblical and bearable ministry of the Word and of prayer. It is one of the few books I’ve read more than twice because its lessons I too easily forget. I recently asked other pastors to weigh in on what books they believed should be read by every pastor. Nearly all mentioned this book. For good reason.

2. The Imperfect Pastor by Zach Eswine

Breathing a spirit similar to that of Peterson, Eswine challenges pastors to see the beauty, power, and value of the ordinary place and the ordinary people among whom they are privileged to serve. Wrong notions of who the pastor is, what his role is, and where his power lies poisons pastoral ministry beyond bearing for many. Eswine gently administers a welcome and Christ-centered antidote.

3. Surviving Ministry by Michael E. Osborne

The first two books shape pastors’ attitudes toward their calling. This (short!) book, expressing the same heart as these, zeroes in on the challenges of ministry when ministry grows hard, as it is prone to do. Mike, a personal friend, is a good pastor who cares deeply for pastors. There is power in his honesty. Born from his humble and gracious mining of the lessons of his own struggles and failure, he offers guidance to the unwary.

4. The Cross of Christ by John R. W. Stott

John Stott pastored an Anglican church in London for many years. One cannot measure the impact of that legacy or that of his worldwide speaking ministry. But perhaps his greatest gift to the church is this book on the central work of redemption. Pastors are called to preach “Christ and him crucified,” a calling from which we too easily are distracted. Our congregations have no greater need than to hear a clear and consistent preaching of the hope of the gospel which is rooted in Calvary. Too often we send people out with burdens of what they must do without a reminder of what God has done for them. Perhaps the reason for this is that we ourselves have lost sight of this great truth. Stott’s is a deep and stirring call to make what is most important, most important.

5. The Matares Circle by Robert Ludlum

This, like Ludlum’s better known The Bourne Identity, is a spy thriller. So what is it doing on a list of books geared toward pastoral health? Well, first, it’s here because it is really good. But primarily it is here as a placeholder into which pastors may pour all the books that they may want to read for fun, for relaxation, and for escape. Read for these reasons. It’s not just okay. It’s necessary. A pastor recently sent me a screen shot of his Kindle library which was full of mysteries and thrillers like this. The subject line of his email was “Pathetic, huh?” No, not pathetic. Wise. Those who have seen the movie The Shining are aware that all work and no play did not end well for Jack Nicholson. It rarely ends well for pastors either.

They Are People

Recently, tear gas canisters were launched at people near the U.S. border with Mexico. The targets were those fleeing Central American instability to seek asylum in the United States. They were and are people.

And some of them were children.

No decent person wants to gas children, of course. But I wonder to what degree the language of our arguments, to the degree that it dehumanizes others, allows some to take such action which leaves children in the crossfire. That is, ‘migrants’ or ‘refugees’ might be met with a degree of sympathy and compassion. ‘Criminals,’ ‘threats,’ ‘rapists,’ and ‘terrorists’ (all terms at one point used to reference those heading for the border), on the other hand, are more readily cannon (or tear gas) fodder. The more successfully our language moves a group from the category of ‘human’, the easier it becomes to justify violence against them.

To counter this tendency, we need to read more books.

Edwidge Danticat

At the 2018 Festival of Faith and Writing my wife discovered the books of Haitian writer Edwidge Danticat. With her encouragement I eventually read two of them, both set in Danicat’s native Haiti. I’ve never been to Haiti and I benefited from her rich and unsentimental portrait of a people shaped by their land and history to be so different from me and yet, by our shared humanity, to be so similar. Months later, the flavor of that land, its richness and earthiness, and of that people, their luminescence, joy, and sadness, is still with me.

The urge to leave such a place for greater opportunity or safety is developed in Danticat’s moving memoir of her father and uncle, Brother, I’m Dying. When Danticat was a child of two her father immigrated to the US, followed shortly thereafter by her mother, leaving Edwidge to be raised by her aunt and uncle. Such was the family-separating immigration policy of the time.

When at age twelve her parents were able to bring Edwidge to the U.S. to be with them, she was forced to leave the only land she had known and the uncle who, through disability and poverty, had cared for her. It was painful, as such things always are for people. People, and these are people, after all, like us, never make such decisions lightly.

In time, her uncle, then an old man suffering from a debilitating but treatable disease, fell under the disfavor of a violent gang. He was forced to flee Haiti seeking safety and asylum in the U.S. Danticat’s well-researched and well-documented account of her uncle’s experience with U.S. immigration authorities is agonizing to read and illustrative of a system that is and has long been broken and in need of repair.

It is a system that dehumanizes and eventually lofts tear gas across border walls.

Will reading Danticat, or authors like her, shape or change, a reader’s convictions regarding immigration policy? I can’t say. What I can say is that our convictions will be better formed when we form them around the fact that the subjects of these convictions are people. Not problems, not enemies, not threats, but people.

They are all people. And that matters.

Goodness and Greatness

When Ulysses S. Grant died in 1885 Mark Twain, had this to say:

“He was a very great man and superlatively good.” (Grant, page 954)

Twain was a cynic unimpressed with power and pretense. He skewered those presuming greatness and mocked those pretending to be good. In Grant Twain saw the greatness others saw, but he saw it rooted in a fundamental goodness of character. Grant was, as Twain noted and his biographer (Ron Chernow) reveals, a fundamentally decent, honest, and principled man. He was human and not perfect, but nevertheless he was superlatively good.

Few will find greatness thrust upon them like Grant. Fewer still will rise to the challenge. But decency is within reach of us all if we but honored it and sought it.

And in the long run, such goodness will be of much greater consequence.

The Exact Book

A popular eatery in town has fun asking customers to identify their orders by  answers to questions and not by name. One’s order may be identified by The Beatles if the month’s question is “What is your favorite band” or by “Main Street” if the question is “On what street did you grow up?” This month’s question is, “With whom would you most like to have lunch?” Being there with my wife, I knew the correct answer on that occasion. I have a hunch, though, that most people populated their answers with the names of famous people. Fame and celebrity dictate our interests.

And our reading choices. And that can be a shame.

Faced with a choice of what to read recently, my choices narrowed to three: Ron Chernow’s biography, Grant, Neil Gaiman’s retelling of Norse mythology titled, not surprisingly, Norse Mythology, and Margie Haack’s memoir, The Exact Place. Chernow wrote the biography that inspired Lin Manuel Miranda to create the Broadway hit Hamilton. Gaiman is the masterful storyteller both dark and delightful behind movies as diverse as Coraline and Stardust. And if we ask “Who is Margie Haack,” Wikipedia has no idea. Some know her as one of the key persons, with her husband Denis, behind a ministry called Ransom Fellowship. If fame was the deciding factor in my choice, Haack would not be in the race.

To help my choice, I read the first ten pages of each.

Fame be damned.

The Exact Place winsomely tells Haack’s story of being raised by her mother and stepfather on a farm in a piece of rural northern Minnesota that should be Canada. The family’s house gave up no floor space for bathroom facilities (those being conveniently located in a separate building) but it was still small for a family of eight. The neighbors were memorable, some for their primness, some for their libertine tendencies, some for the terror they would bring. All the delights and hardship of such a life are lovingly told. Life, death, love, and bringing the horse into the house. Lack was normal, family ties were tight, and life was mostly okay.


There is an ache in these pages as she reveals her deep longing for the love of a father. She carefully unfolds this longing and weaves it through the story of her spiritual awakening, finding in God the love her heart was unable to find elsewhere. She lets her stories reveal this longing, its frustration and its satisfaction, without any tone of preachiness. Content with gentle nudges she helps us see the longing to be known and loved we all possess. I felt befriended and confided in, not lectured. There is power in that.

At times, fame is deserved. I’m now reading Grant and it is worth the praise it brings for Chernow. But lack of fame is not necessarily a reflection on quality. The Exact Place is s a wonderful book that was agented and rejected by thirty-five publishing houses before being given life by Kalos Press, a small independent publisher. I get that larger publishers must base their decisions on what will sell. They know that a book such as this by a relatively unknown, though profoundly gifted, author would not sell in the numbers they needed. And so they passed on giving it the kind of visibility they could give.

But this is our fault and not theirs. As readers we flock to the well known often over the well written. We prefer the Chernows and Gaimans and neglect the Haacks. And we are all the poorer for it.

🕰 Books Worthy of Your Time 🕰

I had occasion the other day to resurrect all the book reviews I’ve written and posted on this site. For ease of access I’m posting them all here and taking the opportunity to categorize them.

The first groups the books I have read or would be likely to read more than once. Being worth such time, I’ve awarded them four “clocks.” 🕰🕰🕰🕰

The second grouping, receiving three “clocks,” 🕰🕰🕰, is for those that I genuinely liked. They are quite worthy, but did not have the same impact on me as those in the first.

The third lists books for which I did not much care. 🕰🕰,

And the fourth are books which I would not encourage any to invest their time. 🕰

I don’t start to read books I’m not likely to like. So, for books to end up in the bottom two categories means that these were books that I entered hopefully and was subsequently greatly disappointed.

These are only the books I’ve taken the time to write about. I could populate each category with many more selections, as could you.

I’m interested in hearing from you, especially if you disagree with my rankings.

Cry, the Beloved Country

Knocking on Heaven’s Door

Moby Dick

Gilead and here

The Brothers K


The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane

At Large and at Small

Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War

The Jesus Storybook Bible

How Starbucks Saved My Life

The Elegance of the Hedgehog


Between the World and Me

Hillbilly Elegy

Strange Glory

Surviving Ministry

Being Mortal

The Name of the Wind

The Wright Brothers

George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father

In the Garden of Beasts

Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith

Just Do Something


The Bullpen Gospels

New Bible Commentary

Physics for Future Presidents

The History of the Ancient World


Mornings on Horseback

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much

Crazy Love

Counterfeit Gods

The Color of Water


Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God

The Pastor

The Silence of Adam


Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy and here.

With Reverence and Awe

A Resilient Life

Between the World and Me

An Education

How should a white Christian like me read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, a book written by a black atheist? With ears open and a heart willing to learn. That is, we should come first as students.

When first exposed to a subject, whether chemistry or theology or, in this case, the experience of being black in America, initial forays into that subject feel foreign to the student. It feels as if she has landed among an exotic people speaking a foreign tongue. The words are all new, and the questions being asked and explored are ones she has never before considered. A good student’s response will be to listen, to be quiet, to learn the language, and to hear how the questions are being answered.

In Between the World and Me Coates speaks to his son but aims his words to we who listen in. As he traces his own awakening self-awareness as a black man from the streets of Baltimore, to a student at Howard University, to a writer in New York City, he provides an engagingly written assessment of life as he has seen it and the world as he has struggled to understand it. His assessment seems at times harsh, at times unfair, at times insightful, and at all times challenging.

Those new to this literature and to this world need to listen. His observations seem foreign, but such is the nature of learning. Some will be tempted to condemn, to judge, or to say he’s overstated his case. Maybe he has. Or maybe he has to. But we must labor to understand before we condemn. And sometimes, too often, if something threatens us, we don’t take the time to understand. He wants to unsettle the comfort and challenge the assumptions of “those who see themselves as white.”

And this does unsettle me. Is the world in fact arrayed in a way of violence toward the black body as he contends? It seems a plausible position, as cursory familiarity with history and the news suggests. As he writes to his son,

“The price of error is higher for you than it is for your countrymen, and so that America might justify itself, the story of a black body’s destruction must always begin with his or her error, real or imagined.” (96)

It was Trayvon Martin’s ‘error’ of walking through a white neighborhood in a hoodie, for example, that got him shot. The price of error is higher for the black man. That sounds right.

I have read and thought too little about the subjects he raises to be able to offer an informed critique of the book. I leave that to others. But we who live lives in an aura of safety and comfort are in need of this education, foreign though it may seem and feel. Our job may be in this case to be quiet and to listen. We need to allow new questions to form in our minds and be considered. This could be the beginning of our education.

[Note: I would not draw attention to Coates’ religious convictions except for the fact that he himself makes a point of his atheism. He laments that he cannot find the sort of perspective that faith has brought to many like him. This explains to some degree his emphasis upon the black ‘body’ and not ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’. I respect his honesty.]

Hillbilly Elegy

At one point I had had three people ask me about whether I’d read J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. One thought it was great, one thought it awful, and the other was noncommittal. They’re all right.

Published in 2016, Hillbilly Elegy shot to the top of many bestseller lists propelled by the thought during the last election cycle that reading it could help the mystified understand the American subculture that was Donald Trump’s base. Director Ron Howard thinks so highly of it that he plans to make a movie of it and it is among the top five books (three of which, intriguingly, are memoir) that Bill Gates recommends in his Time Magazine interview we referenced earlier.

Vance tells the story of his life growing up in Middletown in southwestern Ohio, in a transplanted rural Appalachian (read: eastern Kentucky) culture. I myself grew up in southwestern Ohio well aware and somewhat disdainful of the Kentucky migrants of whom Vance writes. Many grow up in broken homes and many struggle to prosper against adversity, and so many stories like this can be told. The value of Vance’s book is the window it cracks on the fierce family loyalty and regional pride and sense of justice that belongs to his ‘hillbilly’ culture. That he uses the word ‘elegy’ (a lament for the dead) in the title suggests that the culture he inhabited, and which inhabits him, is in some sense dying or dead.

As a memoir, the book is good. Vance’s cast of characters, if truly drawn, are truly fascinating. They can be vicious, and viciously loving. They are complicated, loyal, broken, and real. If only he had been content to write a memoir. But he can’t contain it. It moves from memoir to fairy tale and then to political essay, In so doing Vance prostitutes his story for the sake of a didactic goal. Perhaps it is a good essay, perhaps it is an inspiring fairy tale, but after his grandmother dies, the only characters left on stage are Vance himself and the America about which he wishes to make social commentary. What began as memoir morphs into an essay on the American white middle class, and his stories and characters become merely the platform for his commentary.

And that is sad. Stereotyping and ridicule, of the type I too often embraced as a child toward those we derided as ‘hillbillies’, dehumanizes. As memoir Vance honors his characters, his family, and his culture by humanizing them. He then turns the newly humanized into objects, making them merely the representatives of societal trends, illustrations of his own social commentary.

Bill Gates recommends the book, yes, but he does so with this telling sentence:

“While the book offers insights into some of the complex cultural and family issues behind poverty, the real magic lies in the story itself and Vance’s bravery in telling it.”

That’s it. The real magic is the story. The shame is that Vance and his editors could not let the story be.

Bookish Habits #7: Bill Gates

[For an explanation of this series, see the post The (Book) Lives of the (Not So) Rich and (Marginally) Famous. I will be asking the same questions of all I interview, with a few followup questions as needed.]

This series has sought to encourage wide reading by pulling the curtain back on the reading habits of a few readers of varying ‘celebrity.’ I’ve wanted to interview the genuinely famous and have approached a couple, but, to date, none have found sufficient time or whimsy to respond.

Image from Time Magazine

Until now.

Well, not really.

No doubt Bill Gates would have jumped at the opportunity to be profiled in this space had I asked him. Instead, Time Magazine, with questions oddly similar to my own, published an interview with him in the May 22, 2017 issue. It’s a fun interview to which I cannot resist adding my annotations. The quotes are all Gates’.

Warren Buffett loaned me his copy of Business Adventures by John Brooks many years ago.

A man who could probably buy Amazon borrows, instead of buys, a book. Maybe that’s why he’s rich and I’m not.

Melinda and I both love the book [The Great Gatsby], and it’s the novel that I reread the most.

Reading is best as a communal activity. To share what one reads, to discuss it, to savor it with another, is part of its joy. If one can do that with his partner, so much the better. Good for Bill and Melinda!

And some books are so rich that they bear re-reading. The experience of reading them does something to us. Returning renews and deepens that experience.

I read the whole set of World Book encyclopedias when I was a kid.

What was I doing when I was a kid? Not that.

My elementary school librarian, Mrs. Blanche Caffiere at Seattle’s View Ridge Elementary School, introduced me to biographies of famous figures throughout history.

Each of our lives is littered with people who simply in doing what they love and being who God made them to be touch us in profound ways, ways they never could imagine in the moment. This librarian no doubt knew she had a bright kid. She never could have imagined that he’d be talking about her in Time Magazine 60 years later.

The biggest problem I have is that I refuse to stop reading a book in the middle, even if I don’t like it.

I get that, and it is a problem. Right now I’m 490 pages into George Elliot’s Middlemarch still waiting to meet a character I care about.

I love the way good fiction can take you out of your own thoughts and into someone else’s.

This is the primary reason I urge those who preach or teach to read widely and wildly. Otherwise, we get stuck with singular perspectives.

I was lucky to have parents who encouraged me to read.

So did I. I wish I could thank them for it.

Great Scott! Gadzooks! Television and Reading Books!

Life has been busy for me recently, with little reading, less writing, and no posting. As I make the necessary in flight adjustments to my life’s trajectory I am lifting a post from 9 years ago and pasting it here. It seems appropriate to reprint this post, given we have spoken much about reading recently in these pages (and given that I’ve just finished binge watching my favorite detective show, Amazon’s Bosch.)

So, enjoy the wisdom of Roald Dahl, appearing here first on August 29, 2008. And then go pick up a book.

The simplest explanation for the lost passion for reading is to blame the television. My favorite presentation of this charge comes from Willie Wonka’s Oompa Loompas as they sing regarding the demise of poor Mike Teevee. This is especially fun to read to children. But there are plenty of us adults who might need to pay attention to it as well.


The most important thing we’ve learned,
So far as children are concerned,
Is never, NEVER, NEVER let
Them near your television set —
Or better still, just don’t install
The idiotic thing at all.
In almost every house we’ve been,
We’ve watched them gaping at the screen.
They loll and slop and lounge about,
And stare until their eyes pop out.
(Last week in someone’s place we saw
A dozen eyeballs on the floor.)
They sit and stare and stare and sit
Until they’re hypnotised by it,
Until they’re absolutely drunk
With all that shocking ghastly junk.
Oh yes, we know it keeps them still,
They don’t climb out the window sill,
They never fight or kick or punch,
They leave you free to cook the lunch
And wash the dishes in the sink —
But did you ever stop to think,
To wonder just exactly what
This does to your beloved tot?
‘All right!’ you’ll cry. ‘All right!’ you’ll say,
‘But if we take the set away,
What shall we do to entertain
Our darling children? Please explain!’
We’ll answer this by asking you,
‘What used the darling ones to do?
‘How used they keep themselves contented
Before this monster was invented?’
Have you forgotten? Don’t you know?
We’ll say it very loud and slow:
AND READ and READ, and then proceed
To READ some more. Great Scott! Gadzooks!
One half their lives was reading books!
The nursery shelves held books galore!
Books cluttered up the nursery floor!
And in the bedroom, by the bed,
More books were waiting to be read!
Such wondrous, fine, fantastic tales
Of dragons, gypsies, queens, and whales
And treasure isles, and distant shores
Where smugglers rowed with muffled oars,
And pirates wearing purple pants,
And sailing ships and elephants,
And cannibals crouching ’round the pot,
Stirring away at something hot.
(It smells so good, what can it be?
Good gracious, it’s Penelope.)
The younger ones had Beatrix Potter
With Mr. Tod, the dirty rotter,
And Squirrel Nutkin, Pigling Bland,
And Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle and-
Just How The Camel Got His Hump,
And How the Monkey Lost His Rump,
And Mr. Toad, and bless my soul,
There’s Mr. Rat and Mr. Mole-
Oh, books, what books they used to know,
Those children living long ago!
So please, oh please, we beg, we pray,
Go throw your TV set away,
And in its place you can install
A lovely bookshelf on the wall.
Then fill the shelves with lots of books,
Ignoring all the dirty looks,
The screams and yells, the bites and kicks,
And children hitting you with sticks-
Fear not, because we promise you
That, in about a week or two
Of having nothing else to do,
They’ll now begin to feel the need
Of having something to read.
And once they start — oh boy, oh boy!
You watch the slowly growing joy
That fills their hearts. They’ll grow so keen
They’ll wonder what they’d ever seen
In that ridiculous machine,
That nauseating, foul, unclean,
Repulsive television screen!
And later, each and every kid
Will love you more for what you did.

(With gratitude to Roald Dahl.)

Time to Read

I was speaking with a woman after church a couple of Sundays ago about a book she had read and which I was reading. In that conversation I started a sentence, “The book you really should read…” and she stopped me protesting, “Don’t give me another book! My list is already too long! I don’t have time!”

I gave her the recommendation anyway, and she dutifully wrote it down.

But time is an issue, isn’t it? The question I most often hear in discussions about reading is, “When?” We are busy people. When in the midst of our busy-ness can we pause to read? I get that. So when I received the answers to my survey questions from Staci Thomas I followed up with a question along those lines. Her answer deserves a post all its own.

When, Staci, do you find time to do all the reading you do in the midst of a life that would by itself exhaust most of us?

Staci: I don’t have to force myself to read. I love reading. I only read books that I will love, I enjoy the process, and it’s not an activity like, say, doing the dishes, that I have to make an effort to do. Now, making the time to do so is another story. To make the time to read, this is what I do:

– I only pick books I like so it’s not drudgery to read.

– I always listen to a book when I am exercising (so, a minimum of six hours of book listening happens each week).

– I always turn my current Audible book on in the car when I’m not driving kids places.

– I turn the Audible book on when I’m getting ready for the morning or cleaning or making dinner.

– I’ll pick up the hard copy of the book I’m reading and read while I’m blow drying my hair.

– If I am stirring something while cooking, I have a book in my hand.

– I never leave the house without a book so when I am waiting somewhere (there is a lot of waiting when living in the city and raising four kids here) I pull it out and read.

– I read aloud to my kids for at least 30 minutes every night (kids are 17, 14, 13, 11). (Some parents bond while hiking or playing video games, but we read.)

– I read every night before I go to sleep…sometimes it’s only a page, sometimes it’s 30 minutes.

– I read when I’m waiting for a file to save that I’m uploading for work.

– I read when I’m on a plane for work, which is happening more frequently lately.

– I HEAVILY limit time on social media in favor of reading a book.

The before bed reading is the time of day when I am the most free to read. I try not to get in bed to read, as that lends itself to falling asleep quickly. I try to read in the family room before bed so that I can get a few more pages in before sleep. I read so many articles about reading in the early morning before the day starts, but I save that time for devotional/Bible reading so that is not free-type time for me. And – I’ll add this – there was a time when I slept about four hours a night. I cannot do that anymore. I sleep about six hours each night now, and I’m reading more than ever using the above techniques.

Thanks, Staci. I have only this to add:

©Stephen Pastis http://www.gocomics.com/pearlsbeforeswine


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