2013 in Books

I’ve decided to judge 2013 based on books. Maybe by doing so I can avoid those sappy reminiscences that people not named Eric Van Meter would find so boring, while at the same time holding back the gory details of this past year that others may find interesting, but I have no desire to relive. So away with personal reflections! And on with the best books I’ve read in 2013.

David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell. I reviewed Gladwell’s latest one for MinistryMatters, and I have to say it’s become one of my most cherished non-fiction books. Gladwell debunks the cherished biblical story, and then builds a brilliant argument for why underdogs have not only a reason to hope, but the power to win.

Carry Me Home by Diane McWhorter. This Pulitzer-Prize winner from 2002 is one of the most compelling histories I have ever read. The subject (the civil rights movement of the 1950s-60s in Birmingham) is dramatic enough, but McWhorter strikes just the right tone with it, combining careful research with narrative mastery.

The Book of the Dun Cow by Walter Wangerin, Jr. The plot summary kept me away from this spiritual classic for years. A talking rooster presiding over a barnyard under siege? It turns out to be a near perfect way to depict how God uses the meek and powerless to hold back overwhelming evil.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra. Best novel I read this year. A story of beauty amid destruction in Chechnya, the former Soviet Republic ravaged by civil wars in the last decade. And a reminder of how deeply and desperately we need to love one another.

The End of Night by Paul Bogard. Gives me a new appreciation for the beauty of darkness.

Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow. The blundering, philosophical protagonist

seems to be the anti-Midas, able to ruin whatever he touches. But his frantic search for meaning continues to ring in my head. Those of us who constantly feel in the world but not of the world will understand.

Cities of the Plain by Cormac McCarthy. Tragic, depressing, dark. But I can’t pull myself away from the way McCarthy writes.

So there is my literary year in review. I hope next year’s list is just as good if not better. Maybe someday, I’ll have something that appears on someone else’s list. I’ll be working on that too.

Happy New Year, everyone!



Slow up


Today I’m in a hurry to get to a place I can rest. I’m in a plane 31,000 feet above northern Alabama, hurtling through the sky at 509 MPH, all so that I can make it to a conference with other campus ministers who are, like me, exhausted from the semester and in need of a break.
Ironic, isn’t it? To travel with such speed and haste in search of rest. And even more ironic that this flight, like most of my life, is moving at a speed much faster than my experience would suggest. I won’t really notice we are flying until the plane slows down enough for me to shift momentum.
It’s a metaphor that fits almost every adult I know, from college freshman to retired mechanic. Busy-ness is epidemic, and I find it hard to cure, especially in myself. To slow down is to risk appearing lazy, or worse, unsuccessful.
But I want to secure could not be found in a different way. Perhaps, instead of asking, “what could we cut out so that we’re not so busy?” we should be asking, “What possibilities open up for us if we make time for them?”
I plan to research that question a little bit this week I hope you can make time to do the same, wherever life has you.

Here’s the Kicker

I am baffled by football—not so much the rules or the strategy, which seems clear enough to me, but by the culture of the sport. To move from baseball to football seems to me like being dropped into a tribal South American culture. Goodbye flannel shirt and table manners. Hello loincloth and body piercings.

Except for that one player—the little guy who nobody talks to. The one who looks way too small and way to clean to be a part of the on the field barbarism.

I’m speaking, of course, of the kicker.

In baseball, every many on the team matters, from the star outfielder to the middle reliever. Not every player gets into every game, but every one has a role to fill and is appreciated by his teammates for that role.

To be fair, I’ve heard the same said of football teams, particularly in the pros. “You only get 53 spots on an active roster,” I heard one commentator say. “And two of those spots have to go to the punter and the kicker.”

It’s a prejudice backed up by history. No kicker has ever won college football’s Heisman Trophy. Only three are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and only one of those (Jan Stenerud) did not play any other position. Kickers are usually draw the lowest salary on the team, and is usually seen by other, more athletic players as an outsider.

And yet kickers decide the biggest games in the biggest moments, as was evident in the Auburn-Alabama matchup last Saturday. The Alabama kickers missed four field goals, any one of which would have given them the win in a game they ultimately lost. The final miss ended up in a 107-yard return that ended the Crimson Tide’s national championship hopes.

I don’t want to pile onto those poor kickers. They are very young men, after all—too young for their lives to be defined by this all too public failure. Besides, it really is just a game.

But I do want to shine a brief spotlight on the importance of the kicker, because most of us play that role at one time or another. We do thankless jobs for little or no pay, only to be overlooked by virtually everyone else around us.

Lack of notice does not translate into lack of importance, however. Ellsworth Kalas tells the story of medieval stone masons who carved the gargoyles atop buildings in great detail, even though their top and back sides would never be visible to the masses. Yet God could see their work from his heaven, and he would notice.

May we do our own work with such care, even we have to do it without recognition from the rest of our tribe.

Loincloths look ridiculous anyway.