Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Best reads of 2013

1. In Search of Deep Faith by Jim Belcher: I discovered Jim Belcher through his 2009 book Deep Church which argued for 'a third way' between the emergent church and traditional evangelicalism. That all sounds incredibly boring but do read on. His latest book was a late 2013 discovery and tells the story of his family's pilgrimage across Europe to discover the heroes of his life and faith. It's brilliant. There is a dual narrative to this tale. The first are the accounts of amazing people like Corrie Ten Boom, Van Gogh, Bonnhoeffer, Lewis and Maria von Trapp which are told cleverly both through history and his own family's visits to the places these people inhabited and worked. The second route is the story of a father (Belcher) trying to raise three children in the grace of God and seeking how one goes about doing that. What Christian father doesn't ask and angst about how this is done? For Jim and his wife Michelle the way they chose to do this was to enter upon a journey to significant places through which they hoped and prayed their kids would catch hold of what grace is all about. I particularly loved the accounts of their time in Oxford and Belcher's studies at Wycliffe which was where I spent my season of theological study. This is a wonderful read and was one of those books that you are sad when the book comes to an end. All you can do is wait until he writes his next one!

2. Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering by Tim Keller: Everyone, be they Christian or not, eventually faces suffering and trouble. It's not a case of 'if' but 'when'. Who doesn't ask why their friend is facing cancer (as mine is) and why another's child was born with Downs and another's parents were both run over by a car and died. This book is a very thorough examination of the issue of suffering and pain. It is one to read to prepare yourself for when you walk through it yourself or, if you are in the midst of trouble and pain, this book should definitely be your companion. As with all Keller's books it places Jesus at the heart of things, whilst also reasoning gracefully with all the other perspectives- be they secular or religious. As an evangelist, the question I face more than any other is the one surrounding suffering and the issues that engulf it. Keller combines rational argument and dialogue with thinkers from the past and present, and combines this with real life stories that end each chapter. This is one to read slowly, prayerfully, to tell others about and to give away.


3. The Circle Maker and All In by Mark Batterson: I am not sure why I like Mark Batterson's writing so much. I love that he tells stories and points me to bits of Scripture that quite often have passed me by. I love his passion for Jesus and his seemingly limitless sense of possibility as he comprehends the Kingdom of God. I like that he is a Type A (and I am not) and that something of his goal-oriented can-do faith-filled attitude rubs off on me as I read his books. Reading the Circle Maker leaves you wanting to pray more, risk more, lead better, and, see and believe for what has not yet come to be. Batterson, the dear man, has 113 'Life Goals' and just thinking up that many goals would exhaust me- let alone seeing even a tenth of them come to be in my own life. I am at least thinking of drawing up a few having read 'Ten steps to setting life goals' and it's the sort of thing one ought to read as a new year beckons. The Circle Maker and All In are to be read in tandem and indeed I read them back to back. There is one story about a missionary in 'All In' that I came across on the morning of our Alpha course. It so impacted me that I recounted it to a few folk the same evening- it blew them away, just as it had me (p. 123-125). These books won't be everyone's cup of tea but they are certainly worth checking out while your January sense of a new dawn rides high and hopeful.

4. What did you expect? by Paul Tripp: As readers may know, 2013 was the year I got married. We are currently four months in to this adventure making us the font of virtually no wisdom at all on the subject of marriage! With that in mind, Mrs C and I are reading Paul Tripp's book which was recommended to us by more than just one person. We are finding it incredibly helpful. We read a chapter out loud, underline bits that strike us, write some summary scribbles at the end of every chapter and then chat and pray. If Keller's book on suffering is one that warns that challenges are coming so prepare for them- Tripp does the same for marriage. This is an easy yet deep read, is rooted in Scripture and offers lots of pastoral case study material from Tripp's years of counselling couples.  Even if you don't choose this as your book, I do commend the exercise of a husband and wife reading out loud to each other and perhaps having a 'worthy' book on the go. You might choose one about marriage but if not, do choose another subject to read through together. What about reading the Chronicles of Narnia or C S Lewis's 'Mere Christianity' to each other? See how you go- it's fun.

5. Churchill by Paul Johnson: I read this on a Swiss skiing holiday whilst courting my wife in England through both text messaging and email, so my memory of its contents are rather entwined in all that! I was in a small chalet with dear friends for a week full of skiing, new love and oddly also Winston Churchill. Books on the great man tend to be very thick and I confess the Roy Jenkins tome is still on my shelf 2/3's unread. This is much more manageable and if you are involved in leading anything at all, then doffing your hat to Churchill at some point is a wise thing to do. In these days filled with books about leadership techniques, this one tells the story of arguably the greatest leader my nation has ever known. He was a man of great courage (he took himself to the front line in the Boar War) and of voracious wit. He seems to have drunk too much, been able to survive on little sleep (though enjoyed a cat-nap) and was also rather rude (probably the drink!), but when we needed it most, he stood up to evil without compromise and we are now all living out the benefits. Well worth putting on your 2014 reading list.

6. Sensing Jesus by Zack Eswine: These are the lessons of a pastor who bombed out. As I look around there seems to be so much capacity to get the wrong end of the stick about what pastoring really involves. It's all too easy to be driven, to compare yourself to others, to work too hard, to fear failure, to neglect your family and above all, to forget Jesus. It's also all too easy to live in a world that increasingly seeks Christian celebrity, recognition and 'success' (whatever that may be to you). Eswine writes beautifully and honestly and there is a rich seam for you to excavate if you take the time to read this. I read it because I often feel ill-equipped as a pastor. I know only too well, of my own capacity for failure and falling, but for the grace of God. This book contains some super quotes and helpful truths, that if we take them on board, would make our pastoring easier and our churches healthier. Who among us doesn't want a more healthy church and a more rounded, Christ-like and approachable pastor? Reading this I hope has given me a little more chance of being one.

7. A Simple Way to Pray by Martin Luther: I can't remember how I came across this gem of wisdom, but I seem to recall it was recommended in one of the books I read this year. The author said something akin to it being the most important and significant little book they had ever read. That sort of thing always peaks my interest and the book usually goes on my Amazon list. This is one of the most famous books ever written about prayer and is written by one of the most influential men who has ever lived. If you combine the two you have a mighty cocktail. I took this on one of my 'wilderness days' to read, journal and pray through, which is very possible as it is so short. The contents are nothing particularly startling, save them being a simple exposition of the Lord's prayer. This little book will, I believe, help you to pray more, enjoy doing it and ignite a passion for prayer anew, or perhaps for the first time. If you end up reading it and then find yourself nailing a few thoughts to the front door of your parish church, then I for one will be excited to see what happens next. By jingo we need it.

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