Recalibrating my reading


Back in November 2011 I published a list of books I wanted to read. Looking at that list now seven years later, I am dismayed at how few of those books I have actually completed reading since then. From a list of 85 books that I claimed I wanted to read, I have read a total of 8 of them seven years later:

  • Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
  • Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas
  • Can You Drink the Cup? by Henri Nouwen
  • Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
  • The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
  • Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
  • The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis
  • The Shan: Refugees Without a Camp by Bernice Koehler Johnson

That’s only 10%, why so few?
The problem is not that haven’t been reading much over the last seven years (I’ve read a total of 180 books over this period). I think the issue is that the sort of books I actually read is different to the books I think I should read.
When I analyse the list of what I thought I should read, it contained 30 literary classics, of which I have read two, though I’ve also read some other classics which were not on my list in 2011. There were also 43 books about Christian topics, many of these books are quite ‘serious’ and require concentration to read well. I’ve often felt guilty for not reading some of these books which I spent good money to buy and are by reputable authors. However, I have read plenty of books on Christian topics in the last seven years, what tends to determine exactly which books I choose to read is the issues I happen to be wrestling with at the time.
My choices of what to read are driven by multiple factors, here are some I can think of:

  • What I’m already part way through reading (I usually have 3 or 4 books on the go simultaneously)
  • How I am feeling (do I want something light, or am I in the mood to concentrate?)
  • Time available
  • Current ability to concentrate (do I have an hour alone or fifteen minutes with kids bouncing around)
  • Book availability (am I at home where the hardcopy is, do I only have my Kindle)
  • How public is my location (I’m not going to read The Mortification of Sin at work!)
  • What issues are currently on my mind
  • Am I trying to learn something in particular

For good or bad, those are the kinds of things which influence what I actually read. The results of such choices are reflected in the list of books I’ve read over recent years. What is immediately apparent is an abundance of lighter Christian reading, ‘business’ and ‘self-help’ books and fiction compared to the serious list of what I should read.
A factor in these differences is something I wrote back in the 2011 post:

In choosing books to read, I am trying to aim for literature that will enrich my soul – quality rather than quantity.

While that is a good aspiration, it doesn’t account for reality. In order to enrich my soul what I am reading has to meet some immediate need or I will discard the book and opt for something else. I do try to slowly plod through serious books even while I’m reading more interesting stuff, but if it is too hard I keep putting it aside and eventually forget the flow of the book so achieve nothing.
Moving forward I think I need to make use of libraries more where I can, it is easier to try a book and then discard it without guilt if it is borrowed rather then one I bought. I do want to finish reading all the books I have purchased myself though so will need to exert discipline to keep reading some of those harder ones on my bookshelves at home.
Something I did do this week is cull all the freebies from my Kindle library (over 150 of them!). My reasoning is that even if I only paid 99c for a kindle book on sale, the barrier of actually paying real money should have caused me to give the purchase decision more thought than if the book was free. Also, a lot of the freebies were in the ‘old and difficult to read’ category so had been sitting there un-read for years, better to be shot of them.
An encouraging trend is that over the last three years my reading rate has picked up sharply so it could be that if I revisit this topic in another seven years a lot more of the books already on my shelves will have found their way on to the lists of books I have read. I hope so, because they are good books and will enrich my soul if I put in the effort to read them. But I also want to see plenty of poetry and fiction on my reading lists in future years, also a bit more history and biography. The business and self-help categories can probably be dumped without any loss to my wellbeing.
To make my musings here more concrete, I’ve come up with some personal ‘book selection guidelines’:

  • Prioritise books I already own
  • Use libraries as much as possible
  • Try books but abandon the junk quickly
  • Classic novels are usually good reading
  • Read lots of poetry
  • Read what I enjoy, we all have our own tastes
  • Don’t feel guilty for reading fiction

Just an old garden rake

I was mowing our lawns today, and because the catcher doesn’t work very well on our lawn mower, was using an old bamboo leaf rake inherited from my grandfather to gather up the grass clippings. The irony is that this old rake, with many tines broken off, is still more effective than a newer metal one that I have in the shed. The thing is probably older than I am, yet still it gets the job done.

But effectiveness is only part of the reason I like using the old rake. I don’t recall actually seeing my grandfather use that particular tool, but when I use it I’m reminded of him. He could be a cantankerous old sod, but it is still good to remember him. He certainly took care of his tools and implements better than I do, his workshop was always orderly and he took great pains to mend things and keep them in good order. To the extent that his wheelbarrow had an improvised tyre made from an old bicycle tyre wrapped around the wheel several times and held in place with bits of wire.

Using his old rake also got me thinking of their house, with it’s funny outside toilet that had a golf ball on a chain to flush it with. There was always a box of neatly split kindling by the back door, and the old wooden building blocks that my father had as a child. The way Nana and Granddad always used cloth napkins and had the table properly set for every meal. Sunday roast dinners that my grandmother managed to cook in a tiny little kitchen which became swelteringly hot when the oven was on.

Which got me thinking of the tragedy of my grandmother ending her days in the confusion of Alzheimer’s disease, forgetting and forgotten. I now wish I had put more effort into visiting her in the nursing home during her final few years. It was hard to visit someone who had no idea who I was, and those were the years when my own children were babies and toddlers so life was already very full.

Recently I read an article about caring for elderly parents as they slowly died. Something which stood out to me was the following:

Around holidays and birthdays, rejection and abandonment surfaced, especially when the “family expectations balloon” popped because distance and responsibilities prevented other family members from gathering. (H. Curtis McDaniel How Long Till I Can Die? A 5-Year Journey in Hospice Caregiving)

There will always be conflicting responsibilities and demands on my time and resources, but this article reminded me that to someone who is facing the loss of everything, what they value most is being loved by those they have spent their own lives loving.

As lives are lived and years tick by, families generate their share of issues, disappointments and disagreements. Things are said or not said, done and not done. Choices are made by people we thought we knew that show how much we have grown apart. Our own lives and families are an immediate demand upon us. Yet I suspect that my parents and siblings still long for a phone call, letter or visit to reassure them that I’m still thinking of them and want to remain part of their lives.

In the end all we are left with is memories, regrets and odd items that remind us of those who went before us and in their own way loved and nurtured us as part of their family. So maybe it is just a beaten up old garden rake, but to me it means much more than being just a rake.

Repentance

Some choices result in a harder path than others, but the first step along those paths is often no more difficult than the first step down an easy path that leads to destruction.

The last couple of posts I’ve written have looked at some habits I am cultivating to help me live a better life. Self-improvement is fine and I have plenty of room for improvement, but my motivation is not primarily to attain to an improved self.

My motivation to change is based on repentance.

What is repentance?

Oddly, repentance is not commonly discussed on Christian blogs, or even in churches. This is weird because it is the foundation of Jesus’ message to us:

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 4:17 ESV)

Jesus consistently called everyone to repent, a concept that entails ‘a change of mind’ and both turning away from sin and toward God. Nobody is exempt, all of us sin and so all of us need to turn from that sin and re-orient our lives Godward. It is a deep change of heart which then results in changed behaviour as we live according to new priorities.

This is the demand of Jesus to every soul: Repent. Be changed deep within. Replace all God-dishonoring, Christ-belittling perceptions and dispositions and purposes with God-treasuring, Christ-exalting ones. (Thoughts on Jesus’ Demand to Repent by John Piper)

Is once enough?

Reading through the Gospels it can seem as if repentance is a single major life event in which a person makes a total break with their old sinful ways and from then on lives fully devoted to God. Life experience and a closer look at the New testament shows this to be an inaccurate idea. The Apostle John writes:

If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:8–9 ESV)

This clearly indicates that followers of Christ still sin and need to repent and confess their sin. For some church traditions repentance and confession can be a weekly occurrence, my own church does not have a formal confession tradition so this can easily be overlooked. Perhaps closer accountability might have pulled me up sooner, I’m not sure.

A Lenten journey

I suspect that I needed to hit rock bottom to force me to face a multitude of sins in my life. The Bible refers to the Israelites as being stiff-necked (Exodus 32:9), in other words ‘perversely obstinate’ and even resisting the Holy Spirit (see Acts 7:51) – a description which also fits me. While I may never know for sure, it could be that my annus horribilis was necessary to force me to either turn towards God or turn fully away from Him and so seal my fate.

So this Lent I am moving through an unplanned process of repentance and pruning. (I was going to use the word ‘refining’ but there is nothing refined about this process). The hardest parts of last year were due to depression, something I cannot control. The hardest parts now are seeing all the choice points at which I gave in to foolish, selfish and sinful decisions which I justified to myself because I felt too weak to choose better. That is a lie.

Some choices result in a harder path than others, but the first step along those paths is often no more difficult than the first step down an easy path that leads to destruction. Depression does impair decision making, yet I was still able to make the choice of asking my wife to help me get treatment rather than taking the overdose I had in my hands. I’m sure grace played a large part in that also, why did I not allow God’s grace and the strength of the Holy Spirit help me in other decisions?

Joy in repentance

Repentance is hard to walk through, it involves brokenness and humiliation in recalling past sins, but it is not a bad thing. To turn from sinful ways and run to Jesus is actually the best thing. To acknowledge sin is painful, yet it is the pain of having a cancer cut away – it leads to healing. Best of all, it leads to acceptance with God and this is a joyful experience even while wounds may sting.

I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (Luke 15:10 ESV)


What others have to say on this topic:

Scripture references:

Exodus 32:9 And the LORD said to Moses, “I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people. (ESV)
Acts 7:51 “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. (ESV)

Image: ‘Forgiven Much’ by Keith Johnson (see Luke 7:47: “Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.”)

Opportunities

Rickshaw driver in Madagascar

As I have learned more about displaced people and refugees, a common attribute of those who survive the terrible circumstances of their lives is that they make the most of even very small opportunities. This contrasts with my own life in which there are myriad of opportunities and I avail myself of very few of them.

No Choice

One way to describe poverty is a lack of choices. Poor people cannot choose what to eat or even when they will eat. They don’t get the choice of what to wear. There is no ability to choose where to live, what job to do, what school to send their children to – in poverty all these choices are torn away.

In poverty people simply exist, struggling daily to survive. If an opportunity presents itself they latch on to it and make all they can out of it because this is their only hope for a better future.

In a land of opportunity

My situation is very different, I have so many opportunities that I have to consider thoughtfully which will be the best ones to pursue. Unfortunately, when we have an abundance of anything we can become complacent. I have done this, especially in the past, but even now I am guilty of allowing opportunities to drift by out of inertia – I cannot be bothered moving out of my comfort zone.

As we near the end of one year and start thinking about what 2012 might bring, I already know it will carry opportunities. There will be chances to do things that will make a positive difference. Will I recognize them and make good use of such opportunities or will complacency cause me to lazily waste such gifts?

A focus for 2012

Something I did this year was to choose a focus for the year. In 2011 it was essentials, paying attention to what is essential and trimming away some of what is not necessary. For 2012 I am going to turn my focus onto opportunities and make an effort to use them well.

Still, there is a need for wisdom because not all opportunities are good to pursue:

If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one.
(Hebrews 11:15–16 ESV)

The end goal is what counts:

… whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.
(Galatians 6:7–10 ESV)

Fears

So far this post has been like a celebration of all the choices available to me, and it is, but with opportunity can also come fear. There are some obvious fears such as being worried about failing, making wrong choices, change, what others might think and closing doors on other options. But the anxiety which got me thinking about this topic initially is what if God is inviting me to step into an opportunity so huge that the very roots of who I am would be challenged?


Some of the opportunities God has given me:

735) Opportunity to give, even a little, to others.
736) Opportunity to learn music.
737) Opportunity to get fit.
738) Opportunity to grow my relationships with my children.
739) Opportunity to write.
740) Opportunity to grow my prayer life.
741) Opportunity to know the Bible better.
742) Opportunity to grow vegetables.
743) Opportunity to fix my house up a bit.
744) Opportunity to do my job better.
745) Opportunity to serve my church.
746) Opportunity to love my neighbour.
747) Opportunity to memorize parts of the Bible.
748) Opportunity to speak up for those who are suffering.

Photo of Rickshaw driver: Simone van den Berg

Netted Recently, May 5

Netted recently (and not so recently):
  • During the month of May christianaudio are giving away a free download of the book The Next Story by Tim Challies. I have begun listening to it and if you have any interactions with technology (this means you, blog reader!) I think you will find it an interesting audiobook to listen to.
  • From the Bible Gateway Blog, a Holy Week Timeline: examine the “who,” “what,” and “where” of events leading up to and through Easter. Follow the lines in the chart to see at a glance what people were doing, where they were, and whom they were with at any point during the week.
  • “The measure of faith isn’t pain, it’s choice.” For those of us living comfortable, safe lives, this is a thoughtful and encouraging consideration of what is required to be great in the Kingdom of Heaven. Xtreme Blog 64-The Greatest (Link broken)
  • An old post but I only read it this week and really agree with this comment:

These technologies should be peripheral to our lives, not central. God still loves people and desires our lives to be invested into real, healthy, and growing relationships. May God enable us to be in balance—to use technology for His glory and the edification of people He loves. Blogs and Twitters—Is There a Point? (By Cary Schmidt | November 14, 2008)

  • So, the man who masterminded the attacks on the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001 has been located and killed. I find myself relieved that they ‘got him’, saddened at the militant jubilation from some, and somewhat apprehensive regarding possible backlash from Bin Laden’s supporters. Here is a good responses from the Desiring God blog: Is God Glad Osama Bin Laden’s Dead?