My Top Reads of 2015

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

My books

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 2015 in no particular order:

The Way of the Heart, by Henri J.M. Nouwen

One of my top five favorite authors of all time. Henri Nouwen brings some of the most important truths a Christ-follower needs live out in such a very accessible way. While we couldn’t be more different in our faith traditions, me a Southern Baptist and he a Roman Catholic, I have read few writers that push the truth of the Gospel as deeply into my soul as does Mr. Nouwen.

One of the greatest of all spiritual writers, invites us to search deeply for the well-springs that nourish true ministry in his classic The Way of the Heart. Interweaving the solitude, silence, and prayer of the fifth-century Egyptian Desert Fathers and Mothers with our contemporary search for an authentic spirituality, The Way of the Heart not only leads us to a fuller encounter with God, but to a more creative ministry with our fellow human beings. Here is one of the most profound works from a writer known for his fresh and perceptive insights—and who stands alongside C.S. Lewis and Thomas Merton as an essential Christian scholar and thinker.

Inside Job, by Stephen W. Smith

I wish I had read and assimilated this book 20 years ago; lots of life-pain might have been avoided. What I love about this book is the honesty by which the author discusses the interior issues of a leader’s heart. He pulls no punches and sugar-coats nothing. He can’t afford to. Too many lives are at risk.

The discussion in chapter 5 about the four quadrants of the heart was especially insightful. I want to be a leader that leads from all four quadrants: the part people see, the part that I reveal to a certain few, the part I show to my boon companions, and the part that I don’t know, but want to learn about—the deeper heart.

Another part that I found helpful was the chapter 9 on Leader Transitions. Because I have recently moved my wife across country to lead an organization that is culturally different than what I am used to, this looks to be a daunting challenge, but with the tools of transition the author outlines in this chapter, I feel better equipped to find contentment, resiliency and satisfaction in the latter years of my vocational life.

I highly recommend this book. Very little attention is paid to what is going on the inside of a heart and soul in popular writing about leadership. This book goes deep and stays there. The metrics are mostly external in our culture. But external metrics are of little good if the life I am living is only as deep as a bird bath. If read, processed and assimilated, this book will deepen your soul—preparing you to live the life you’ve always wanted and the one God as offered: Shalom. I purchased ten copies and gave them away to many of my pastor friends.

Effective leaders work very hard to succeed, but often at the cost of their own souls. They are challenged to keep themselves emotionally and spiritually healthy in order to survive success―to keep their humanity intact. This is the work within the work. Stephen W. Smith helps leaders in the marketplace and in ministry set aside the life-draining values of power, fame, fortune and position and instead explore the life-giving qualities of building character.

There is a better way to live than the craziness we experience in our driven world. Inside Job is your invitation to journey inside and do the work within your work.

The Art of Pastoring, by David Hansen

This is not a church growth book. This is a soul growth book. The idea of a pastor as a living parable of Jesus was one of the most humbling and empowering concepts of this book. I found myself cheering the author on at every turn of the page.  I would recommend this book as required reading for any young pastor.

Every pastor has encountered those who struggle to hear God’s voice in a hospital room, who reach for Jesus in the sacraments. No systematic answers can meet their deep, eternal needs. What can touch them, Hansen contends, is a life itself, a life lived as a parable of Jesus. “As a parable of Jesus Christ,” Hansen writes, “I deliver something to the parishioner that I am not, and in the process I deliver the parishioner into the hands of God.”

It is this knack for getting to the heart of things that makes The Art of Pastoring valuable for pastors in any setting–rural, suburban or urban. Parachurch workers, missionaries, church leaders and ministry volunteers will also find inspiration here.

In this significantly revised new edition, Hansen includes new insights into his view of pastorate as parable and adds a new postlude in which he comes clean on his “constant attempts to leave the ministry.”

The Allure of Gentleness, by Dallas Willard

Few authors have influenced me as deeply and as profoundly and the late Dallas Willard. I can’t get enough of his wisdom. I have read and re-read his works several times.  Mostly I re-read them because I didn’t understand them the first time through. But I also read them because they are so rich I have to savor the nuance of the wisdom so that it will seep deeply into my soul. This is one of his most accessible books and it is about such an important topic in our times.  The art of expressing our faith to an increasingly secular world and to do it in such a way that we win them with kindness.

When called upon to explain their faith, Christians do not always feel equipped to do so—particularly when some of the most difficult questions arise. In The Allure of Gentleness, esteemed teacher and author Dallas Willard not only assures us of the truth and reasonableness of the Christian faith, but also explores why reason and logic are not enough: to explain Jesus’s message, we must also be like Jesus, characterized by love, humility, and gentleness.

Based on a series of talks and lectures on apologetics given by the late author and edited by his daughter, Becky Heatley, this book constitutes Dallas Willard’s most thorough presentation on how to defend the Christian faith for the twenty-first century. This beautiful model of life, this allure of gentleness, Willard tells us, is the foundation for making the most compelling argument for Christ, one that will assure others that the Christian faith is not only true but the answer to our deepest desires and hopes.

Home, by Marilynne Robinson

One of the most thoughtful writers of our times. A deeply committed Christian and yet she doesn’t write the shallow-as-a-birdbath that dominates Christian fiction. In fact, I hate that term “Christian Fiction.” When I hear it I immediately move quickly away. It has become synonymous with bad writing. If you go to a book store today you won’t find Ms. Robinson in the Christian Fiction section. You will find it in the award winning literature section.

Home is an entirely independent, deeply affecting novel that takes place concurrently in the same locale, this time in the household of Reverend Robert Boughton, Ames’s closest friend.

Glory Boughton, aged thirty-eight, has returned to Gilead to care for her dying father. Soon her brother, Jack—the prodigal son of the family, gone for twenty years—comes home too, looking for refuge and trying to make peace with a past littered with tormenting trouble and pain.

Jack is one of the great characters in recent literature. A bad boy from childhood, an alcoholic who cannot hold a job, he is perpetually at odds with his surroundings and with his traditionalist father, though he remains Boughton’s most beloved child. Brilliant, lovable, and wayward, Jack forges an intense bond with Glory and engages painfully with Ames, his godfather and namesake.

Home is a moving and healing book about families, family secrets, and the passing of the generations, about love and death and faith. It is Robinson’s greatest work, an unforgettable embodiment of the deepest and most universal emotions.

Home is a 2008 National Book Award Finalist for Fiction.

Blue Horses, Mary Oliver

The older I get the more I value poetry. Poets tell us the best stories in the shortest space. They play a note that makes me think of a chord on either side of the note that harmonize. At least the good ones do. I go back the ones I like time and again. And when you combine great language with the scenes of the natural world, you get this wonderful volume of poetry.

Mary Oliver returns to the imagery that has defined her life’s work, describing with wonder both the everyday and the unaffected beauty of nature.

Herons, sparrows, owls, and kingfishers flit across the page in meditations on love, artistry, and impermanence. Whether considering a bird’s nest, the seeming patience of oak trees, or the artworks of Franz Marc, Oliver reminds us of the transformative power of attention and how much can be contained within the smallest moments.

At its heart, Blue Horses asks what it means to truly belong to this world, to live in it attuned to all its changes. Humorous, gentle, and always honest, Oliver is a visionary of the natural world.

Small, Strong, Congregations, by Kennon L. Callahan

I used to want to pastor a huge congregation. I have come to realize that several things about that dream. One, is that it is not God’s desire for me; second, I don’t’ have the talent for it; and third, a strong and healthy congregation is better for the Kingdom than a large sick one.

Create a small, strong congregation that is dedicated to advancing God’s mission “The twenty-first century is the century of small, strong congregations. More people will be drawn to small, strong congregations than any other kind of congregation. Yes, there are mega-congregations; Their number is increasing greatly. Nevertheless, across the planet, the vast majority of congregations will be small and strong, and the vast majority of people will be in these congregations.”

With uncommon wisdom Kennon L. Callahan-today’s most noted church consultant-moves ahead of conventional thinking and in Small, Strong Congregations offers his unique vision of the church of the future. This important book chronicles the emergence of a vast number of congregations that are questioning the bigger-is-better notion in church membership. These congregations are deliberately small, active, and happy in their dedication to creating strong church communities that advance God’s mission.

The Grasshopper Myth, by Karl Vaters

This book. My goodness.

The validation that I am Okay as a Small Church pastor was so liberating. I found myself highlighting passage after passage. The best and most liberating thing about this book is that it is NOT bashing megachurches. I find myself doing that from time to time and feel convicted about it now. I have known for years that I am a Small Church Pastor, but never felt very proud of that.

Eugene Peterson’s memoir, The Pastor made me proud of my vocation. Karl Vaters’ book made me proud of being a Small Church Pastor. Best line from the book, “Joel Osteen couldn’t do my job.” Loved this book and wish I had read it many years ago before I nearly killed my sheep and my family. I will be giving this book away to many mountain pastors here in Colorado.

90% of the churches in the world have less than 200 people.

What if that’s not a bad thing? What if smallness is an advantage God wants us to use, not a problem to fix?

Vaters takes on some of the unbiblical beliefs we’ve held about church growth and church size for the last several decades. Then he offers a game plan for a New Small Church.

The title comes from the story in Numbers 13. When the Hebrews were at the edge of the Promised Land, ten of the twelve spies come back with this report: “All the people we saw there are of great size. …We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them.” – Numbers 13:32-33

The grasshopper myth is the false impression that our Small Church ministry is less than what God says it is because we compare ourselves with others.

The solution is for Small Churches to see themselves the way God sees them. A church of innovation, not stagnation. A church that leads instead of following. A church that thinks small, but never engages in small thinking.

If big churches are the cruise ships on the church ocean, small churches can be the speedboats. They can move faster, maneuver more deftly, squeeze into tighter spaces and have a ton of fun doing it. They just have to see themselves that way.

The Road to Character, by David Brooks

David Brooks is becoming one of my favorite pundits and authors. I like the way he thinks. This book is as close to a book about Christian ethics and character as one can get without being a bona fide Christian. To my knowledge Brooks in not a believer, but he is very very close.

Looking to some of the world’s greatest thinkers and inspiring leaders, Brooks explores how, through internal struggle and a sense of their own limitations, they have built a strong inner character. Labor activist Frances Perkins understood the need to suppress parts of herself so that she could be an instrument in a larger cause. Dwight Eisenhower organized his life not around impulsive self-expression but considered self-restraint. Dorothy Day, a devout Catholic convert and champion of the poor, learned as a young woman the vocabulary of simplicity and surrender. Civil rights pioneers A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin learned reticence and the logic of self-discipline, the need to distrust oneself even while waging a noble crusade.

Blending psychology, politics, spirituality, and confessional, The Road to Character provides an opportunity for us to rethink our priorities, and strive to build rich inner lives marked by humility and moral depth.

Under the Unpredictable Plant, by Eugene Peterson

Last summer I preached for messages on the Old Testament book of Jonah. I picked up this old copy of Peterson’s treatment of Jonah and couldn’t put it down. I underlined and scrawled all through it. What a delightful book about the pastoral call and vocation.

He clarifies the pastoral vocation by using the book of Jonah where he points out how subversive this ancient book is to restoring our sense of calling and “vocational holiness.” He probes  the spiritual dimensions of the pastoral calling and seeks to reclaim the ground taken over by those who are trying to enlist pastors in religious careers.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce

Lynette and I read this together. It is one of the most moving books either of us have read in years. Simply a captivating story.

Harold Fry, recently retired. He lives in a small English village with his wife, Maureen, who seems irritated by almost everything he does, even down to how he butters his toast. Little differentiates one day from the next. Then one morning the mail arrives, and within the stack of quotidian minutiae is a letter addressed to Harold in a shaky scrawl from a woman he hasn’t seen or heard from in twenty years. Queenie Hennessy is in hospice and is writing to say goodbye.

Harold pens a quick reply and, leaving Maureen to her chores, heads to the corner mailbox. But then, as happens in the very best works of fiction, Harold has a chance encounter, one that convinces him that he absolutely must deliver his message to Queenie in person. And thus begins the unlikely pilgrimage at the heart of Rachel Joyce’s remarkable debut. Harold Fry is determined to walk six hundred miles from Kingsbridge to the hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed because, he believes, as long as he walks, Queenie Hennessey will live.

Still in his yachting shoes and light coat, Harold embarks on his urgent quest across the countryside. Along the way he meets one fascinating character after another, each of whom unlocks his long-dormant spirit and sense of promise. Memories of his first dance with Maureen, his wedding day, his joy in fatherhood, come rushing back to him—allowing him to also reconcile the losses and the regrets. As for Maureen, she finds herself missing Harold for the first time in years.
The Wright Brothers, by David McCullough

I am not certain, but I think I have read everything McCullough has written. In this latest book I was surprised to learn that the brother’s father was a devout Christian minister. Such a wonderful story of the carefulness in which they went about their task of inventing the first self-propelled flying machine.

On a winter day in 1903, in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, two unknown brothers from Ohio changed history. But it would take the world some time to believe what had happened: the age of flight had begun, with the first heavier-than-air, powered machine carrying a pilot.

Who were these men and how was it that they achieved what they did?

Far more than a couple of unschooled Dayton bicycle mechanics who happened to hit on success, they were men of exceptional courage and determination, and of far-ranging intellectual interests and ceaseless curiosity, much of which they attributed to their upbringing. The house they lived in had no electricity or indoor plumbing, but there were books aplenty, supplied mainly by their preacher father, and they never stopped reading.

When they worked together, no problem seemed to be insurmountable. Wilbur was unquestionably a genius. Orville had such mechanical ingenuity as few had ever seen. That they had no more than a public high school education, little money and no contacts in high places, never stopped them in their “mission” to take to the air. Nothing did, not even the self-evident reality that every time they took off in one of their contrivances, they risked being killed.

“If you are too busy to read, you are too busy.”~ Richard Foster

“If you are too busy to read, you are too busy.”~ Richard Foster

McCullough draws on the immense riches of the Wright Papers, including private diaries, notebooks, scrapbooks, and more than a thousand letters from private family correspondence to tell the human side of the Wright Brothers’ story, including the little-known contributions of their sister, Katharine, without whom things might well have gone differently for them.

There 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, three beautiful daughters-in-law and four grandchildren. I love to read, tell stories, and spend time in the wilderness.
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