A Reading Crisis

You can blame my friend John Duncan for this literary existential crisis. Recently he gifted me with a wonderful little book called The Reading Life. It is a compilation of some of C.S. Lewis’ written words about reading. The book is not very long. I started it Friday night and finished it this (Monday) morning all in the midst of a very hectic weekend. I recognized many of the passages from Surprised by Joy or any of the other numerous Lewis works in my library.

But there was a bit I’d never seen before, and it was titled “How To Know If You Are A True Reader”. Lewis lists four qualities of true readers.

  1. Loves to re-read books.
  2. Highly values reading as an activity (rather than as entertainment of last resort).
  3. Lists the reading of particular books as a life-changing experience.
  4. Continuously reflects and recalls what one has read.

I have always, since my earliest memories, loved to read. I love the feel of a book in my hand, the smell of pages — the older and moldier the better, and the discovery with each turn of the page. I would consider myself a true reader.

It breaks my heart into a million pieces that Lewis probably would not. Let me explain by working backward on his list. I recall very much what I have read, whether literature, novels, sci-fi, or dense theology. There are powerful life-changing books in my past, and hopefully in my future. Among these are novels, self-help books, professional development books, and short stories. I love to read and would rather do that than just about anything else.

But I don’t re-read books. Other than the Bible, which I have read continuously since I was seven years old, I have only read one other book more than once and that is Hamlet. I often read Hamlet during the Lenten season in preparation for Easter. But I’ve never re-read book just to re-read it. Mrs. Greenbean does — I believe she has read, for example, the Harry Potter series at least four times. Maybe more.

But not me. My philosophy has always been there are so many books I’ve never read before that I need to just move forward. In contrast, Lewis argues good books, great books, get better with subsequent readings as the mind picks up more. I see his point, because I have certainly re-watched movies and television shows over and over again, each time with fresh enjoyment. I’ve just never thought of books in the same way.

Maybe I need to evaluate this. As I think on it, were I to re-read — where would I start? I made a list of ten, but I cheat a little.

  1. The War of the Worlds — the first novel I ever read. Lewis talks about reading books you read as a child when you are an adult. This would be a great place to start. Speaking of that . . .
  2. Gentle Ben — I loved that book so much. As a boy it sent me into a legitimate frontier motif in my reading tastes.
  3. The Dark Tower series — Probably the best series ever compiled. I remember reading it and discovering how it changed the way I thought and spoke.
  4. The Lord of the Rings — Maybe the best written document in the English language other than the Authorized Bible and The Book of Common Prayer.
  5. Fathers and Sons — An somewhat obscure Russian novel by Ivan Turgenev. I read it in college and I remember it made me weep. I don’t really remember the plot, but I remember it made me weep. Russian literature does that.
  6. Quiet — This is one of my ‘life-changing’ books. I wish I’d read it when I was a kid. Now that I am full enmeshed in pastoral ministry again, maybe I need to revisit the wisdom about being an introvert in an extrovert world.
  7. The Bible Jesus Read — For my money this was the paradigm for writing a reflective book on the Jesus way of living.
  8. Assassination Vacation — I listened to this on audiobook once. I think I’d like to read it in print.
  9. A Canticle for Leibowitz — Texarkana. That is all that needs to be said.
  10. Celebration of Discipline — I remember how much this book altered me. Maybe reading it again would be a double-blessing.

I’m not saying I will re-read these books, but if I decided to engage in the practice, I would start with. these.


That is exactly what we did.

Every Tuesday I go to our local elementary school and help first graders with their reading.  It is amazing to me how much progress they have made already.  When I started this year, it was mostly me reading to them.  Now, they read to me and I only have to help them from time to time with the really hard words and those nefarious and questionable diphthongs.  I suspect by May we’ll be reading Dostoevsky and Asimov.

Where is Thumbkin?

Last Tuesday, the last one before Christmas break, we didn’t read, though.  Our teacher, the wonderful and awesome Joni, instead asked me to help make their art project.  I had so much fun.  My job was to help them dip their thumb in the paint, then make the Christmas tree shape on a piece of tile.  We did this with one thumb print on top, then a row of two below, a row of three below that, and then a row of four on the bottom.  Then we finished with a line of brown paint for the trunk.

Christmas trees with our thumbs.  How cool is that.

In the middle of the project we had a fire drill.  Do you know how long it has been since I’ve been in a fire drill?  It was very exciting.  The students and teachers did a great job.  It seemed like every last soul was out of the building in about 30 seconds or less.  They were super efficient.

Once everyone was accounted for, we went back in and finished our trees.

Teacher Joni with the Greenbean
Teacher Joni with the Greenbean

My Tuesday hour at the elementary school is a weekly reminder that I shouldn’t take myself so seriously, that everyone can make a difference, and that the future is in good hands.


I’ve written several blogs of late on “advice,” varying from money, marriage, children, and a few other things.  One thing I know a little something about is pastoring, so today’s blog is advice for pastors about pastoring.  So that probably makes for a smaller audience, but hey, it’s what I know so here we go.

1.  Make certain your children live in as normal a home as possible.  A pastor has a special responsibility to safeguard his or her children and spouse from the crazy, erratic, and emotionally depleting world they have to work in every day.

2.  Take a sabbath day once a week.  Sunday and Saturday do not count because you work very hard on those days.  I always took Friday, most people take Monday.  Monday never worked for me because I always felt so drained on Monday that when I took that day off I didn’t feel like enjoying anything.  That is when I decided to go on into work on Monday.  If I was going to feel bad I might as well not do it on my own time.  On your sabbath refuse to answer the phone, and train your spouse not to answer her’s/his either because they will call her/him to get to you.  I wish I’d had the strength to hang up the phone immediately whenever I answered and they said, “I know it is your day off but . . . ”   It always ruined my day.

3.  Read books, but don’t read so many churchy books.  I regret spending so much of my time reading one ‘how to do church book’ right after the other.  Maybe pick about five of them that others recommend and then stop, perhaps then reading one more every other year.  Instead read literature (Dickens, Poe, Dostoevsky, Wilde, Shakespeare) and current best sellers.  I also wish I’d read more history and thrillers and less about church.

4.  Accept the fact that church is a broken institution and live in the midst of that brokenness.  People are messed up (including you) and that makes it impossible to have the perfect church system, so stop trying to make it perfect.  You are only wasting your time.

5.  Work hard at pastoring on two fronts.  The most important front is learning to pastor the system(s) of your church.  I know that is counter-intuitive, but trust me it is the most important aspect of what you do regardless of your church’s size.  You have to learn to think systemically and then fix, repair, change, grow and adapt the systems of the church you lead.  The second front is learn to pastor people in their crisis moments.  It is faddish today, especially among those untucked goateed Calvinist pastors to neglect classic pastoral ministry but it is vital for the long term health, credibility, and integrity of people of faith.  Learn how to do a funeral the right way.  Go to the hospital.  Visit the nursing home.  Show up unannounced at a home in crisis.  Dedicate babies.  Learn some liturgy.  Conduct marriage counseling.  Be a pastor, not just a CEO.

6.  Watch your back, at all times and really, I mean this, trust no one.  If you want an example, just read the Bible.  My small group right now is learning about Moses.  Yeah, you see how the people he led treated him.  They will do no better by you.  Love them, but don’t trust them.  Jesus didn’t trust the people around him either (John 2:24).

7.  Learn to say no.

8.  Don’t be afraid to say yes.

9.  You’re not the solution to every problem.

10.  Make decisions and stick with them.  One of the greatest defects I saw in pastors and in churches was their inability to make a decision about most anything.

11.  Never use shame, guilt, or manipulation to get people to do things.  That is not how the Kingdom of God works.

12.  One more–enjoy what you do, this divine calling that is also our daily work, or else it will become a bitter pill.  I decided a long time ago that I would have fun, always, because I couldn’t control other people’s enjoyment level anyway.  Therefore, I might as well have a good time.  Yeah, there will be hard times and difficult moments but there must be a level of satisfaction, deep in your soul, that the work you are doing matters.


So right now I am reading two different books, which is not that unusual for me.  Sometimes I read up to four different books concurrently.  One of the books I am about to finish is Pascal’s Pensees.  I’ve been working on this treatise for a long time.  My joy that I am nearing completion is great; although I will be a bit sad.  My morning 5-6 pages of Pascal have served as a daily ‘rebuke’ from the great thinker.  The other book I am reading is one I started last night and will probably finish today.  It is a book of quotations from Ernest Hemingway about writing.

My problem is, these two people, both whom I hope to learn from, could not be more opposite.  I was wondering what a conversation between the two might look like.

            Hemingway:  You have to know the real world in order to write the real world.  Everything else is just fakery

            Pascal:  But the world is filled with such darkness.  How can you trust your eyes to truly know the real world? 

            Hemingway:  That is symbolic garbage.  There is no symbolism, there are only real things.  

            Pascal:  Yes, real things like mathematics, God, Christ, and science but; beyond that we find we cannot trust ourselves to truly accept the known things.

            Hemingway:  What do you mean?  If I kill a bull in the ring, I know what happened.  I felt the emotion, saw the blood, smelled the dust, heard the cheers.  I know that is the world.  That is real.

            Pascal:  But is it?  I hear you say that you saw, smelled, and heard and that the bull died—but what of your death?  Will that be real?  Killing the bull is only a faint act of superiority in which you attempt to forget by way of amusement, your own mortality.  It is sin that is hunting you down seeking to kill you and drag you away from life.

            Hemingway:  I understand all about sin, brother.  There is pain and injustice in the world and if there were a God he would take care of it and I wouldn’t have to write about it.

            Pascal:  Would you bet on the fact that there is no God? 

            Hemingway:  Oh bother—I’m going fishing.

Pascal amazes me because his mind is so logical and knowledgeable of both the Scriptures and the natural world.  He and Hemingway would agree that the world around us tells us things.  Hemingway, however, rejects God and Christ as significant in the life of people in understanding the world.  Pascal argues that without the Lord, the world only draws us further away from God.

Hemingway was a great writer—I love his terse style; but his philosophy of life I find, wanting.