My Top Books from 2020

One of my reflections every year is to spend some time reviewing the books that I read during the year. It gives me a picture of what I was processing and being challenged by. It’s a great catalogue of new thoughts taking root and new ideas that are percolating. The early Christian leader, Paul of Tarsus would say that we are transformed by the renewing of our minds. I have become convinced that unless we are allowing ourselves to think new thoughts, being challenged in the way we think and how we understand the world, we will move towards atrophy. Books are one of the great gifts that are a part of the process of renewing our minds.

This year, one thing that was shocking to me during all of the COVID shutdown is that it actually decreased my reading. I don’t know if it affected you in the same way, or if it had the opposite effect, but I found that my regular reading habits weren’t working as well as they normally do, but I was still able to complete 30 books.

What makes for a good book for me may be different than you, but for me, they’re books that I find myself thinking about for a while afterwards, they usually have stretched or challenged me in new ways and it’s usually one I find myself engrossed in as I’m reading it. And so, with that, I hope that these stand outs for me from this past year can be helpful for you as you consider ways to be renewing your mind over this next year.

Jesus and John Wayne by Kristin Kobes Du Mez

I picked this up after seeing Beth Moore tweet that it was the one book she read in 2020 that she wishes everyone would read in 2021, which was enough of an endorsement for me to pick it up and read it in a couple of days leading into Christmas. For the past 15 years, I have found myself teaching and preaching against Christian Nationalism in various forums, seeing it as a significant problem in the church, which we has especially shown itself to be true over the past year. Du Mez does a great job bringing together a cohesive narrative to make sense of the rise particularly of White Christian Nationalism, alongside the movement of patriarchy and toxic masculinity in the church as well as the effects it’s had on the larger American culture and politics.

If you have been baffled by things like the overwhelming percentage of white evangelicals that would not only vote for Trump, but would overwhelmingly support his behavior, the support for white supremacists, the attitudes towards refugees and immigrants, and abuse coverups in the church…and you want to try and make sense of how we got here – I can’t recommend this book highly enough. If you’ve spent any time reading on the history of evangelicalism, the integration of anti-communist sentiments during the Cold-War, purity culture, and racial injustice in the church, this won’t be entirely new content to you, but the way that Du Mez puts it together will help to give context to how we got to where we are today.

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

I don’t read a ton of fiction, but when I find one that grabs me, it sucks me in like a good binge on Netflix. I found myself constantly looking for opportunities when I could sneak in a few more minutes of reading this book, which won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Whitehead tells the story of a young Black man who ends up in juvenile prison in Florida during the Jim Crow era, which is based around a real reform school and the stories that have surfaced from that school.

This book caused me to consider racial inequities, systemic injustice as well as criminal reform, without being direct and utilizing stories that were based in reality. I usually don’t like books that win awards, they often feel to me like they are self-indulgent writing that doesn’t connect with me personally. But this one was very different. It’s a great way to bring yourself into a world that may have been outside of your experiences.

Shining Like the Sun by Steve Wiens

This book helped to bring together two themes that I’ve been working through in my own life – Contemplative Christianity along with spiritual practices that are a part of the ordinary rhythms of life. Wiens does that in the context of utilizing practices as a way of reconstructing your faith. I find myself in conversations on a regular basis with people who are going through some sort of deconstruction of faith. My experience is that it’s often a intellectual and emotional journey meshed together, but it ends up having implications in so many areas of our lives, including rhythms and practices that had been ingrained into our lives. Wiens draws from the great contemplative tradition to help bring healthy integration to a journey of a renewed faith.

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

Noah’s story of growing up in apartheid South Africa, where he was literally born a crime as the child of a White father and a Black mother. Sometimes it’s difficult to be confronted by the situations that are a part of our own experiences and lives, and it’s helpful to engage in a situation that doesn’t directly implicate us in order to be able to see a bit more clearly. As the host of the Daily Show, Noah does a great job at combining humor and thoughtfulness in order to expose the reality of life in apartheid South Africa in order to confront the reality of racial injustice that’s a part of the system that you and I exist in. I listened to this as an audio book, and was so glad that I did, enjoying both Noah’s accent, his pronunciation of different South African dialects, and the way he would recount his mother’s voice.

Here is Real Magic by Nate Staniforth

I was shocked at how much I liked this book. In fact, I find myself thinking about it again every once in a while and will likely reread it this year. It’s Magician Nate Staniforth’s story of recapturing wonder after becoming burned out by the profession that once captured his imagination. One friend after reading it described it as the male version of Eat, Pray, Love, which is probably a good description. It’s one of those books that I don’t know that I left it with any specific thing that I would do or learn from it, but found myself inspired as I read it and left with a renewed sense to pursue wonder.

The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson

I found myself regularly sharing something I had learned from this book during dinners with the family. So much so, that it began to become a family joke that I began all my sentences with, “I’m reading a book about the bombing of London during World War 2…” I read this during the early days of the COVID stay at home order and it gave me a very small sense of solidarity with what was happening in London during the bombing of the city and it gave me a needed perspective at that time that we would be able to make it through. Churchill is a fascinating leader through that time and you’re able to get a bit of a biography on him, while not being specifically a biography on him. I often say that if I had to read history books that had been written like this during high school, I would have enjoyed history a lot more.

White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo

It’s crazy to me how controversial this book has been, and particularly by people who have never read it, but have read a sentence or two out of context. A friend who has been helpful to me over the years on been understanding racial injustice, being confronted by my complicity and has offered helpful challenges of normalized narratives in my life – said that this is the one book he was asking all of his White friends to read – so just from that, it seemed important for me to engage it. While I read several books on this topic this past year, I think this is the one that gave some language and framework to be able to appropriately hear and receive the others that I read.

There’s been a lot written and said about this book over this past year, so I won’t offer more on it, other than to say – it’s important for us to be confronted with ways of thinking that have become normalized, to think about the way we bring who we are into different spaces and how we make room for others who’s experiences are not our own. Growing up as an upper-middle class white male, it’s easy for me to ignore those things, but a part of loving my neighbor and following the example of Jesus who “did not hold onto his advantage” is to be curious and open to being challenged in new and different ways. I’d encourage you to read DiAngelo’s book (or any of the multitude of others that address racial injustice and our complicity in it) with an open, non-defensive posture to see what you need to learn and be challenged by.

Everything is Spiritual by Rob Bell

This is as close to a memoir as we might get from Bell. I found so much resonance with Bell’s own journey, some of what he went through and endured from others (on a much smaller scale) and the way he processed all of that has been helpful for me through the past several years in my own journeys. If you aren’t a fan of Bell’s writing, with fragmented sentences and unique paragraph formatting, you probably won’t like this book, as it’s one long run on chapter. But I found it to be engrossing and a quick read. I’ll be honest though – his whole section on sperm and sex seemed out of place in the book and felt like something he just really wanted to find a way to fit in.

Greenlights by Matthew McConaughey

I fully expect to get teased relentlessly for putting McConaughey’s book on this list, but when a friend who I highly respect told me in almost hushed tones that he read it in one sitting, I bought it while we were still on the phone.

First, he’s actually a really good writer. Second, he’s thoughtfully approached the way he engages life. Third, it’ll inspire you to want to recapture adventure. I didn’t read it as quickly as my friend though…it took me two sittings.

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

I love Steinbeck, and realized that I had never read this classic of his. I’m not sure I’ve ever put two fiction books on my end of the year book list, but both of the fiction books I have on this list moved me beyond fiction in ways most fiction books don’t for me. It asks questions of providence, human freedom, and gets a little preachy without feeling preachy. There’s a reason this is a classic

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Top Books 2018

Top Books 2018

This year I decided to try something different with my reading, I did my best to track every book I read with goodreads. And while I don’t think I nailed it perfectly, there are some I would forget to include or others that I would forget to update after I finished reading, it seemed to be a pretty handy way to keep track of and review what I read this past year. I’m sure it’s way more powerful than that, but I’m becoming the old guy who doesn’t always understand how to properly use these new hip gadgets.

This year, I’ve read 43 books so far, which puts me at the top end of my goal to read 25-50 each year.

In case you are looking for some suggestions on books to buy for Christmas presents, I thought I’d offer what I thought were the best books that I read this year.

Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved by Kate Bowler

This was easily, hands down one of the best books I read this year. I met Kate at a writer’s bootcamp a few years ago when she was working through the concept of this book, which made it a joy not only to read but to see it sit on the New York Times bestseller list for several weeks. Kate has done her doctoral work in the history of the faith healing movement in America, and while she was doing her research, became incredibly ill, eventually fighting cancer as a young mom. She wrestles with faith, easy answers and is humorous, thoughtful and vulnerable as she does. If we are friends, I have probably already recommended this book to you this year.

Deep Work by Cal Newport

This is another one that I probably recommended to you already as well. Newport is a professor at Georgetown University and has taken to learning to make a science out of developing the skills to focus on significant work, what he calls deep work. He argues that most of us don’t actually engage in that sort of work anymore because of the amount of distraction that we allow in, and he offers larger thoughts about how to do that as well as practical suggestions

Becoming Dallas Willard by Gary Moon

It’s no secret to anyone who knows me that I have a proclivity towards wanting to learn from Dallas Willard. He was the kind of man that I would want to become and so I find myself more and more drawn to learn not only from his teachings but from his life. This was a great biography by one of Dallas’ disciples that was interesting and insightful. If you’ve been impacted by Willard and his teaching, it’s worth reading.

Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser

One of the things that I did this year was to intentionally get books from the library that would be different from what I’d normally read. I used their online app and would only get library books available for download on the kindle, which has limited my selection, but it’s also brought books to my attention that I wouldn’t have noticed otherwise. This was a fascinating biography about Laura Ingalls Wilder, who wrote the Little House on the Prairie series. It was an honest look at the realities of the country, homesteading and the move west during that time, how she turned herself into a successful writer and what her family life was actually like. I found myself often telling other people stories from her life as I read it

Robin by Dave Itzkoff

I’ve long considered Robin Williams to be brilliant, but I honestly didn’t know much about him. This was another great biography that felt both honest and honoring.

The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton

Isaac was reading this for school, so Allison and I decided to read it along with him. I had forgotten how good this book is and how much I enjoyed it. If you’ve never read this modern classic or if it’s been a while, it’s a good one to pick up.

Cross Vision by Greg Boyd

Boyd is fascinating in that he lives at the intersection of being a biblical scholar and a local church pastor. The way he processes faith and the Scriptures are always intriguing to me and I often want to learn from him however I can. He had recently finally published his magnum opus work, a two volume treatise on dealing with the violence of God in the Bible, called The Crucifixion of the Warrior God. Cross Vision is essentially the abridged version of that much larger, scholarly work. Greg works to make sense of the pictures of a violent God, with Jesus as his starting point of what God must always look like. He has produced an important work, taking seriously the nature of Jesus and the Scriptures. If you’ve ever struggled with making sense of the violence of God in the Scriptures, this would be a great book. It’s Greg being pastoral with his scholarly work, so it’s very readable and does not feel overly scholarly in its tone or content

High Fidelity by Nick Hornsby

I had never read any Hornsby books, and a friend had chastised me for that this year, telling me I needed to give High Fidelity a shot. I not only really enjoyed this one, but I ended up reading 2 more by Hornsby this year after it. I’m not quite sure how to describe Hornsby and his writing, as I don’t read a ton of fiction, but I found myself drawn in by the characters he creates and like I was being casually told a story by an Englishman in a bar.

I Accidentally Published a Book Today

So, apparently I accidently published a book today.

It wasn’t an accident that it was getting published. We had been working on it for a while. I just didn’t realize it would actually happen…and that it would happen today.

4 years ago, I was tired of the way that I was seeing Christians engage in politics and decided that I wanted to help initiate a different kind of conversation that I wasn’t seeing many people have. I preached a 2 week series called “In God We Trust?” It stirred up more conversations than just about anything else I had preached before.

As this election began to move closer, I began to see some of the same disturbing trends and at times even worse. So, decided to try and take what we talked about 4 years ago and see if we could turn it into a short book. Short enough that people would actually read it, but still with enough substance to invoke conversation.

My hope is not to give final solutions and answers as to how Christians are to engage (or not engage) in the political process, but instead, my hope is to raise some new conversations that not many are having. Sometimes we need a bit of a jolt to the system so we can step back to try and see the forest in the midst of the trees.

If you’re tired of the rhetoric around politics and have this sense that evangelicals are being used as political pawns…then this book is for you.

If you have an uncle who you hate to be around during this political season because of how obsessed he is with politics…this would make a great “Happy Super Tuesday” election present.

If you’ve read the stats of how the younger generation is being driven away from the church because of how politically involved the church is and you want to figure out a way forward…this book is a great starting point.

If you don’t want easy answers and want to struggle through things on your own and have the space to come to your own conclusions while being challenged by others…this book will mess with you a bit without giving a bunch of easy answers.

So, I’d love it if you’d consider buying this book. But here’s the deal, my biggest hope is to in some small way begin to change some of the conversation that at least some followers of Jesus are having when it comes to politics. So, buy one for someone else too.

If you’re a part of Parkcrest, we will have copies available on a Sunday, sometime in the future. I’m not exactly sure when, but it won’t be for at least another 3 weeks. Because, like I said…I accidentally published a book today.

If you’re a church leader and want to utilize this for groups in your church or use it as a way to have a larger conversation about faith and politics as the election season continues to heat up. Let me know and if you’re buying more than 25 copies, we can offer them at a discounted rate.

If you have an event at your church or organization and need a panelist or speaker regarding faith and politics, I’d love to be a part.

I (obviously, since I didn’t even realize it was being published today) don’t have a marketing plan. So, I would love it if you would help me out and help get the word out. We’ve got to start having a better conversation about faith and politics. Lets get that ball rolling.

For my friends who already tweeted, instagramed, facebooked, sent me pictures of their receipts from purchasing it. Thank you! I had no idea you would do that and I’m so grateful!

And thanks to my friends Ashley Miller who helped me edit it and actually make it readable and Brent Otey who did a killer cover design.

Here’s to having a better conversation about faith and politics

Sermon Prep – Follow Up to SermonSmith Podcast

Recently, John Chandler interviewed me on his new podcast, SermonSmith. It’s a great podcast, interviewing pastors about sermon preparation. It’s such a significant part of the job, that not a lot of people are talking about. If you preach or teach on a regular basis, I’d highly recommend checking it out.

On the podcast I mentioned that I am not a good extemporaneous speaker. I ramble, I repeat myself, and I forget half of what I wanted to say. Which is exactly the case when John interviewed me. Before he called me, I had thought about all kinds of things to say about my sermon prep, and proceeded to forget most of it when we talked. 

So, I thought I’d follow up here with a few things I didn’t mention in the interview.

Sermon Prep is incredibly hard work for me

It does not come easily or naturally for me. I enjoy teaching, but the preparation for the teaching is something that I agonize over. I can read and study if it has nothing to do with something I’m preparing to teach on, and I enjoy it and get a ton out of it. But, when I’m studying for a specific sermon or series, it is incredibly hard for me. For me, it’s a discipline that I have to intentionally engage in. For those who just naturally engage in it…I hate you… :)

I’ve had to learn the discipline of holding onto sermon illustrations

My temptation is to have something happen or to come across something that I think will be a great sermon illustration, and then to want to use it that weekend. Because of how I use Evernote (something I talk about some in the podcast), I am able to file that illustration in order to use it when it would work best, rather than trying to cram it into a message just because it is there (which is what I used to do).

A lot comes to me through in-direct study

Although I do record and catalogue quite a bit as I mentioned in the podcast, I also am constantly taking in information that I don’t capture. Listening to podcasts, reading books, magazines, newspapers, etc – there is a constant influx of information. All of that information is in some ways, synthesizing in your mind, and at times you’re making connections without a focused effort to. You will have a thought, that you think is original, but it’s really not, it’s simply coming out of a collection of things that you have in some unintentional way synthesized in your brain. So, I try to take in a lot of info, and sometimes something comes out of it.

Sunday forces me to have to ship

Seth Godin talks about how professionals always ship. They don’t just talk about an idea, they actually ship an idea. If Sunday didn’t show up every week, I wouldn’t ship. The impending Sunday forces me to have to come up with something. People are showing up and I’ve got to have something to say. On Monday, I may have had a great sermon the day before, but the next one is what’s on my mind now. In some ways, that showed up in the interview. John asked me for an example of something I had done in a previous sermon, and I honestly couldn’t think of it, because the way that I work, I have to move on to the next one.

Obviously, there’s a lot more to what I do in sermon prep than just that. I talk more about it in the interview, which you should check out, not because of me, but more because of the others who are being interviewed. I’m already trying new things, and incorporating new ideas into my sermon prep because of it. Thanks John for doing this, it’s a much needed discussion.

Thinking About Politics: Resources

Several times at Parkcrest, I’ve teased it that we’re going to spend a couple of weeks preaching on politics towards the end of October, at the height of the political season. Every time I bring it up, I’m shocked by the response and the discussions I end up having with people in the hallways and during the week. I get the sense that we’re really looking for some way to have some kind of thoughtful dialogue about this, and to honestly wrestle through what it looks like when the Kingdom of God and politics collide. 

For those of you that are intrigued by this, I thought I’d point you towards a few resources since we won’t be talking about this for another month. These are books that I’ve found helpful in thinking about this discussion. A few disclaimers first: As with any book, I don’t agree with everything the authors write, but I did find each of these thought-provoking; Also, a more robust theology needs to be developed outside of books specifically about politics, but these are only ones that approach things from that framework. 

Descriptions for each of these books can be found on Amazon. If you end up reading one, I’d love to hear your thoughts…

The Myth of a Christian Nation by Greg Boyd

Jesus for President by Shane Claiborne

Blinded by Might by Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson

The Politics of Jesus by John Howard Yoder

And finally, when you’ve got a spare hour :), you may enjoy watching this discussion between Chuck Colson, Greg Boyd and Shane Claiborne on how evangelicals engage politics. It’s a great, respectful dialogue, between differing views…

Three Degrees of Separation from On Being on Vimeo.

The Tension of Middle School

This American Life is one of my favorite things to listen to. I listen to very little music, almost all podcasts, and This American Life is one that I never miss. This week’s episode is on Middle School. If you have any kind of influence with Middle Schoolers, as a parent, pastor, teacher, whatever, it’s worth a listen (This American Life makes only the show from the previous week free to download, so get it before Sunday if you want to listen to it).

A couple of things I was reminded of as I listened (it’s got much more in it than this, but these were two overarching ideas I left with after listening):

Middle School is hard. Those can be some of the roughest years for a kid as you’re growing up.

Middle School is exciting. It’s a time where you form who you are, try new things and experiment.

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That makes such an interesting tension for those who do ministry to that age group. It takes the right person and personality type. It made me really proud of our Junior High Ministry and Scott Schlatter who leads it. He’s been doing this ministry much longer than the average tenure of a Junior High Minister and gets better and better every year.

If you go to Parkcrest, listen to this episode, be reminded of what that age group is like and thank Scott and the incredible volunteers who serve our Middle School students.