What I look for in a book

I love books.  At this moment, there are 12 beside my bed.  A western novel is on the table, and the others–dealing with Churchill, the Civil War, the presidential election of 1940, and a novel or two which I started but will probably not finish–await my further attention.

Over the past 15 years, as I moved from pastoring to denominational service, and then into retirement, I have given away thousands of books.  Most went to other pastors and friends, some to family, and a great many were donated to local libraries.

But I keep buying books.

My wife understands my need for books and never mentions it. For which I am grateful.

I bought two books yesterday at the store on the campus of Reformed Theological Seminary, here in Jackson, MS.

Among the many books throughout the store, “The Leadership Dynamic” by Harry Reeder III and “ReSet” by David Murray caught my attention and survived the first few pages of my browsing.

The subtitle for the first is “A biblical model for raising effective leaders” and for the second “Living a grace-paced life in a burnout culture.”  Both are subjects dear to my heart.

The book I buy must deal with a subject I’m interested in.

There are no cookbooks on my shelves.  I’m lost in the kitchen, and have no desire to remedy that situation.  You’ll find no volumes dealing with Renaissance art or the inner workings of the Trump White House, and none on the Russian economic system.  Someone needs to write such books and I hope the right persons read them.  But that’s not for me.

I’m interested in leadership.  My website has perhaps a hundred articles on the subject, penned (okay, typed!) over a full decade.  I have numerous books on leadership, and have given away several times that many as I keep trying to downsize my library. (The problem, as my wife would attest, is that people keep writing great books and I have a hard time passing them up!)

On our website, I write for pastors and other church leaders.  That’s why Murray’s book “ReSet” appealed to me.  So many ministers have found themselves in mid-career needing a complete retooling and refocusing.  So, perhaps I’ll find something here to help, I thought, as I paid for the books.

Reeder is listed as pastor of Birmingham’s Briarwood Presbyterian Church while Murray is a seminary professor and Reformed pastor in Grand Rapids.  I recall Harry Reeder serving a church in Charlotte during the 1980s when I pastored there.  Both men are veteran warriors writing about what they know best.

Both authors write well.

If I’m going to shell out my hard-earned money and spend several hours attempting to absorb their thoughts, I need the authors to know their craft.

This morning, a Facebook friend reposted something from a pastor she admires for his courage and forthrightness.  I labored through the several paragraphs, and tried hard not to notice that in several places his plural nouns were given singular verbs.  To illustrate: The plants on my back porch, the pond just beyond my yard, and the flowers throughout the area is what makes me love this place so much.  By the way, for those would-be writers who were absent in the ninth grade English class the day they taught this, there is a solution: Get help with the editing of your piece.  (I notice that Reeder has a co-author for his book.  Rod Gragg is a college professor with a history in journalism, according to the back cover.)

If the writer is a good writer and can express himself well, I’ll often read something that otherwise I might have passed on.  In my library there are a few volumes recommended to me for this very reason:  The authors write well, I was told, and it would be good to study what they do.

The pastor who thinks, “Anyone can write; I’ve been writing since I was in the third grade,” is fooling himself.  Writing is work, and effective writing is hard work.  After quickly writing down one’s thoughts, the hard work begins.  You go back over it and edit it.  You delete redundancies, correct typos, find ways to shorten run-on sentences, and look for ways to simplify your thoughts. Then, you let it “set” for a few days and go over it again.  Finally, you ask your spouse or a friend who knows the craft and will level with you to read it and suggest ways to strengthen the piece.

Good writing.  And what else?  Both Reeder’s and Murray’s books connected with their audiences by the use of stories placed strategically along the way.  Not too many, for a book of stories soon becomes boring and without a form or direction.  And not too few, because without a few good illustrations and examples the constant promoting of concepts and philosophies becomes burdensome.

I need a story or two along the way.

Here’s one from Harry Reeder’s book on leadership.

In the deadly trench warfare of World War I, Colonel Douglas MacArthur–who as General Douglas MacArthur would drive Imperial Japanese forces across the Pacific in World War II–was ordered to cross ‘no-man’s land’ and assault a German-fortified position.  All previous efforts to take the post had failed.  MacArthur knew that success–and survival–depended on his leadership. He assigned his second-in-command, an Army major, the task of leading the charge against the left flank of the enemy position.  “Sir, I place you on the left side,” MacArthur explained.  “I will lead from the center.” Then having been a model for leadership and having mentored this young leader to follow him as he led from the center, MacArthur moved from modeling and mentoring to being a motivator.  “I know that you are capable of leading the men on to victory,” he told the major.  Then MacArthur pointed to a medal awarded for courage that was pinned to his uniform. “When this battle is over,” he said, “I’ll see to it that you get one of these.”  He turned and walked away–then spun around and strode back to the young officer. He quickly removed his medal and pinned it on the surprised major. “I know what kind of man you are,” MacArthur told him.  “I’m not going to wait for the end of this battle to give you this medal.  Here, I’ll give you mine now.  I’ll see you at the top.”

Reeder asks, “What  do you think that man accomplished?  He took the enemy position–in part because MacArthur had influenced him through embodiment, education, and empowerment.”

Reeder’s book “ReSet” is filled with stories from pastors who found themselves ground down, used up, and burned out, and who took extraordinary measures to examine their lives and make needed changes.

They are honest.  

David Murray tells of the doctors finding multiple blood clots in his body and the emergency measures taken to save his life.  He says, “I told you my own story…to show you I’m not writing this from the new-car showroom. I’m writing as someone who has crashed, burned, and ended up in the wrecker’s yard.  I understand and I sympathize, as do the other men whose stories appear in these pages….  I’m writing this as a fellow struggler.”

That’s important to all of us, methinks.

I once attended a meeting of “wounded warriors,” ministers who had been chewed-up and spit-out in the work of the local church.  Hundreds of men and women filled the huge hall.  The meeting had been called by a department of our denomination which dealt with these matters.  To my immense disappointment, the speaker was a pastor of a mega-church who had never known failure in his life.  He had gone from success to success.  Everything he touched seemed to flourish.  His message that day missed his audience completely.  They needed to hear from a fellow soldier who had been wounded, had dealt with his issues, and had recovered and re-entered the service of the Lord—and not from one who had no idea how they felt.

That’s why we treasure the words of Hebrews 4. “We do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are–yet without sin.”  Jesus knows. He has been where  you are.  So, we trust Him and obey.

Finally, a word to would-be writers of books…

Tell us what you know. Take us where you have been and show us how you got there, what it was like, and what you learned.  In particular, tell us about your failures and heartaches, your betrayals and bankruptcies. No new-car showroom stuff, please.  Then tell us how it worked out and how God used the setbacks to make you a better person.

I’ll buy such a book.



2 thoughts on “What I look for in a book

  1. Dear Pastor Joe,
    This article I think is one of your best. I love books too, immensely. However, leadership is not my thing. Supposedly, my seminary education was to catapult me to a leadership position, but my professional journey steered me away from becoming one. Along the way, I discovered, I dont have it takes to be a leader. Hopping from one career to another, my illusion about myself of being a leader has been shattered. Perhaps, this is what one ancient writer dubbed “the awful grace of God.”

    The books, I read are about American history, some philosophy, a few psychology and a large number on the Christian faith. I know that millions of Christians from the opposite side of theological spectrum adore C.S. Lewis. I’ve read and re-read his books. Am I being sacrilegious if I say his arguments are not that persuasive and compelling? I begun to be skeptical about Max Lucado’s books when I see a different title every week being displayed at a bookstore. The same goes with a Joel Osteen optimistic declarations. Well, I find great affinity with Phillip Yancey’s depressing reflections and musings. Can you recommend an author who is not too pollyannish but does not feel like I’m reading a Flannery O’Connor’s gothic novel.

    Danilo Reyes

    • Danilo, you have completely lost me, friend, by your easy dismissal of C. S. Lewis. The man’s intellect and training are light years beyond mine, which makes me question whether I could recommend anything that would satisfy you. I’ll give it some thought, and if anything comes to mind, will be back. Thank you.

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