Every so often, I read a book that makes me think, “Every pastor should read this.” It’s almost never a religious book or a leadership book and in fact, many pastors read too many of those books and not enough of the kind of book that I’m talking about.
So far this year, I’ve read three of those books and I’ll share a few thoughts about them here. These aren’t book reviews, only a few thoughts, the kind of thing I would say if you sat down next to me at the airport and asked me what I was reading and whether I liked it.
Lila is literary fiction, one of those fictional books that is actually more true than real life while at the same time being nothing like real life. Like Marianne Williamson’s other award winning book Gilead, it’s a theological story. Gilead is the story of theology seen through the lens of grief; Lila is the story of theology seen through the lens of trauma. One practical suggestion: Read Gilead first if you haven’t already; then read Lila before you’ve forgotten it. Notice the difference in the voices, the difference between male and female, Reformed and unformed, secure and traumatized and then notice your visceral reaction to them. You’ll understand more about the people you serve and more about your self.
When Breath Becomes Air will break your heart. Paul Kalanithi becomes a neurosurgeon because he wants to confront the issues of life, death, meaning and morality and he wants to walk with others as they do the same. Later, he reflects that maybe he should have become a pastor instead, realizing as many pastors no longer do, that this is exactly the work of the pastor. With words more elegant and effective than the words you and I will ever have, he describes his own life and his own death as he struggles to understand these issues in his work with patients as well as in his experience with terminal cancer.
Being Mortal is a more practical book than either of these. Atul Gawande, also a physican, tells the story of aging and dying in America and wonders with us,
“Does it have to be this way?”
“How do I want to face my own aging and death?”
“What are the right questions to ask?”
“How do I measure quality of life?”
“How will I make the tough end-of-life decisions?”
“How will a support my parents and friends as they face these issues?”
I know, what a downer, right? But Gawande is a conversational storyteller and he draws us in, helping us think about the big existential issues as well as the practical considerations that pastors are asked to help with on a regular basis. He is very careful not to tell us what to decide but instead walks us through how to decide, which is exactly what we need.
There’s one more book that I’m debating adding to this list: A Man Called Ove by Frederik Backman. It’s not profound exactly but it’s a quick read, entertaining and a fun way to explore what it means to cross boundaries in our relationships which is, of course, the essence of missional living. Backman's book My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry is actually my favorite of his and, like all his books, is about grief and community. But you should probably start with Ove and see what you think.