My Top Reads of 2014

A person who won’t read has no advantage over one who can’t read.~ Mark Twain

Every year’s end I post a list and summary of my top ten reads for the previous year.  In doing this I have to be selective in what I post because I read significantly more than ten books in a year. (Sorry if that sounded arrogant. No, I’m not sorry.) I will list the title, the publisher’s summary and a comment or two. So here goes my top reads for 2014 in no particular order:

Jayber Crow, by Wendell Berry

Jayber Crow, born in Goforth, Kentucky, orphaned at age ten, began his search as a “pre-ministerial student” at Pigeonville College. There, freedom met with new burdens and a young man needed more than a mirror to find himself. But the beginning of that finding was a short conversation with “Old Grit,” his profound professor of New Testament Greek. “You have been given questions to which you cannot be given answers. You will have to live them out—perhaps a little at a time.”

“And how long is that going to take?”

“I don’t know. As long as you live, perhaps.”

“That could be a long time.”

“I will tell you a further mystery,” he said. “It may take longer.”

Eventually, after the flood of 1937, Jayber becomes the barber of the small community of Port William, Kentucky. From behind that barber chair he lives out the questions that drove him from seminary and begins to accept the gifts of community that enclose his answers. The chair gives him a perfect perch from which to listen, to talk, and to see, as life spends itself all around. In this novel full of remarkable characters, he tells his story that becomes the story of his town and its transcendent membership.

This is the most profound and moving novel I have read since Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson.  The character, Jayber Crow, has stayed with me weeks after I finished the book. I found myself wondering what Jayber might think about a certain situation I encountered.  I suppose that is a sign of good writing when a fictional character gets in your head. I really loved this novel.

Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis

In the classic Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis, the most important writer of the 20th century, explores the common ground upon which all of those of Christian faith stand together. Bringing together Lewis’ legendary broadcast talks during World War Two from his three previous books The Case for Christianity, Christian Behavior, and Beyond Personality, Mere Christianity provides an unequaled opportunity for believers and nonbelievers alike to hear this powerful apologetic for the Christian faith.

I don’t know how many times I’ve read Mere Christianity, but a few months ago I decided to read it again and am always amazed at how profound and yet accessible this book is.  Lewis is simply brilliant at putting the Christian faith in terms that and intelligent stranger would understand. I won’t suffer a person who rejects the Christian faith and then tells me they have never read this book.  I would say to them they are making an ignorant (uninformed) decision. Go read the book.

A Conversation in Spiritual Theology, by Eugene Peterson

Eugene Peterson is well known for The Message, his gutsy and faithful paraphrase of the Bible. He is also known by many for his series of books on Pastoral Theology, books which are enlivened by pithy one-liners, for Peterson has a way with words – a way which leads to stimulated thought and deep reflection. Now he has added to these volumes a set of five books on Spiritual Theology.

The five volumes are:

Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual Theology (2005)

Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading (2006)

The Jesus Way: A Conversation on the Ways that Jesus is the Way (2007)

Tell It Slant: A Conversation on the Language of Jesus in His Stories and Prayers (2008)

Practice Resurrection: A Conversation on Growing Up in Christ (2010)

Eugene Peterson is on my Mt. Rushmore of authors who have influenced my life. I read and re-read his works. I read these five volumes consecutively and will do it again, perhaps yearly.  They are that good.

The Little Girl Waits, by Jamie Greening

There are evil people in the world, and they do evil things to innocent children. Pastor Butch Gregory is on a fatal collision course with such evil people. Pastor Butch’s life is a happy one, filled with church meetings, sermon preparation, and leading a congregation he loves. His life is forever changed when unimaginable tragedy comes to a little girl from his church named Tamara. Pastor Butch feels a supernatural call from God to do something about it, so he sets out on a sprawling adventure to find and rescue her before it is too late.

I loved this book for a couple of reasons, one is that it is a really good story set in the Pacific Northwest which is where I live and two it was written by a very dear friend of mine.  I have given my copy away and bought another and gave it away as well.  The subject of human trafficking is the tragedy of our times in this country. Jamie does a great job of burning this into our imaginations with this book. He does it in a gritty and respectful way.  This is a good book.

Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership: Seeking God in the Crucible of Ministry, by Ruth Haley Barton

“I’m tired of helping others enjoy God. I just want to enjoy God for myself.” With this painful admission, Ruth Haley Barton invites us to an honest exploration of what happens when spiritual leaders lose track of their souls. Weaving together contemporary illustrations with penetrating insight from the life of Moses, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership explores topics such as, responding to the dynamics of calling, facing the loneliness of leadership, leading from your authentic self, cultivating spiritual community, reenvisioning the promised land, and discerning God’s will together.

Her chapter on intercessory prayer alone is worth the price of the book.  This is a very helpful and practical guide for anyone in Christian leadership who may not have the tools to adequately care for the hidden part of their lives.  If you lead, then read…this book.

Soul Keeping, by John Ortberg

The soul is NOT “a theological and abstract subject.” The soul is the coolest, eeriest, most mysterious, evocative, crucial, sacred, eternal, life-directing, fragile, indestructible, controversial, expensive dimension of your existence. Jesus said it’s worth more than the world. You’d be an idiot not to prize it above all else. Shouldn’t you get pretty clear on exactly what it is? Shouldn’t you know what it runs on? Wouldn’t it be worth knowing how to care for it? Two things are for sure. One is: you have a soul. The other is: if you don’t look after this one you won’t be issued a replacement.

Not only does the author give helpful council about the most important and hidden part of our lives, he weaves in anecdotal narratives about his mentor, Dallas Willard, in such a touching way that it makes you want to hear more about Ortberg’s relationship with Willard. Such a good book.

Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus, by Christopher Smith and John Pattison

Fast food. Fast cars. Fast and furious. Fast forward. Fast . . . church?

The church is often idealized (or demonized) as the last bastion of a bygone era, dragging our feet as we’re pulled into new moralities and new spiritualities. We guard our doctrine and our piety with great vigilance. But we often fail to notice how quickly we’re capitulating, in the structures and practices of our churches, to a culture of unreflective speed, dehumanizing efficiency and dis-integrating isolationism.

In the beginning, the church ate together, traveled together and shared in all facets of life. Centered as they were on Jesus, these seemingly mundane activities took on their own significance in the mission of God. In Slow Church, Chris Smith and John Pattison invite us to leave franchise faith behind and enter into the ecology, economy and ethics of the kingdom of God, where people know each other well and love one another as Christ loved the church.

One of the more profound books I’ve read in a long time concerning the nature of the church.  In our efforts as purveyors of churchology, pastors have worked hard at creating church franchises like the ubiquitous golden arches in almost every town in America.  What happened to the local church that is birthed out of its own context instead of trying to mimic someone else? I will say this again about another book in a moment, but I would that all pastors and especially church planters would read this book.

An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith, by Barbara Brown Taylor

In the New York Times bestseller An Altar in the World, acclaimed author Barbara Brown Taylor continues her spiritual journey by building upon where she left off in Leaving Church.  With the honesty of Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love) and the spiritual depth of Anne Lamott (Grace, Eventually), Taylor shares how she learned to find God beyond the church walls by embracing the sacred as a natural part of everyday life. In An Altar in the World, Taylor shows us how to discover altars everywhere we go and in nearly everything we do as we learn to live with purpose, pay attention, slow down, and revere the world we live in.

What can I say about this author and this book?  I fell in love with them both. I am confessing to you that I have a literary crush on Mrs. Taylor.001  (Much like I do with Annie Dillard.)  I was so impressed with the prose and spiritual depth of her writings that I wrote her a note asking her to forgive me of ignoring her years due to her reputation as a liberal. Understand that a “Liberal” in the Southern Baptist community means “you are not a fundamentalist and tea party republican.” In the classical sense of theological liberalism she is not a liberal.

Blue Highways: A Journey into America, by William Least Heat-Moon

Hailed as a masterpiece of American travel writing, Blue Highways is an unforgettable journey along our nation’s backroads. William Least Heat-Moon set out with little more than the need to put home behind him and a sense of curiosity about “those little towns that get on the map-if they get on at all-only because some cartographer has a blank space to fill: Remote, Oregon; Simplicity, Virginia; New Freedom, Pennsylvania; New Hope, Tennessee; Why, Arizona; Whynot, Mississippi.” His adventures, his discoveries, and his recollections of the extraordinary people he encountered along the way amount to a revelation of the true American experience.

Some of the best prose you will ever read. I learned about people and places I could not envision would live in the imagination of our best writers, but here they are scattered here and there across this land of ours.  The eye for detail, nuance and sense of place is uncanny by the author as he travels to the backwater towns and communities of our country. Reminds me of the Tolkien quote, “Not all who wander are lost.”  Great book.

Shrink: Faithful Ministry in a Church-Growth Culture, by Tim Suttle

Among followers of Jesus, great is often the enemy of good.

The drive to be great—to be a success by the standards of the world—often crowds out the qualities of goodness, virtue, and faithfulness that should define the central focus of Christian leadership. In the culture of today’s church, successful leadership is often judged by what works, while persistent faithfulness takes a back seat. If a ministry doesn’t produce results, it is dropped. If people don’t respond, we move on. This pursuit of “greatness” exerts a crushing pressure on the local church and creates a consuming anxiety in its leaders. In their pursuit of this warped vision of greatness, church leaders end up embracing a leadership narrative that runs counter to the sacrificial call of the gospel story.

When church leaders focus on faithfulness to God and the gospel, however, it’s always a kingdom-win—regardless of the visible results of their ministry. John the Baptist modeled this kind of leadership. As John’s disciples crossed the Jordan River to follow after Jesus, John freely released them to a greater calling than following him. Speaking of Jesus, John said: “He must increase, but I must decrease.” Joyfully satisfied to have been faithful to his calling, John knew that the size and scope of his ministry would be determined by the will of the Father, not his own will. Following the example of John the Baptist and with a careful look at the teaching of Scripture, Tim Suttle dares church leaders to risk failure by chasing the vision God has given them—no matter how small it might seem—instead of pursuing the broad path of pragmatism that leads to fame and numerical success.

This book encouraged me and frustrated the hell out of me. It encouraged me because it gives me hope that there is a remnant of pastors/shepherds that really get what it means to be a pastor.  They have not drunk the Kool-Aid about bigger and faster is better. It frustrates me in that it so clearly points out how seductive the Church Growth Movement was and how susceptible I was to make a Faustian deal with the American value of accomplishment is equal to validation. What a crock! I am valued by what Jesus did on my behalf, not how big my church gets. This book is REQUIRERED reading for young pastors, in my humble and yet very accurate opinion.

BooksThere were so many others that I could have mentioned, but this is already longer than most of you will have read.

I hope you will go to a library, or your favorite bookstore and get your hands on these books.

You will be the better for it.

About Joe Chambers

I am the beloved of the Most High God. I am an avid reader and writer and have been a continuous learner since my college studies in Ancient Literature and English. I live at the base of Mount Princeton in the Colorado Rockies with my wife of over three decades. I believe I have been put here to tell people that God is not mad at them and to show them the way Home. I am the father of three sons, a daughter-in-law and four grandchildren. I love to read, tell stories, and spend time in the wilderness with my friends and sons.
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