A person who won’t read has no advantage over one who can’t read. – Mark Twain
Reading has been a passion of mine all my life. I read between two and three hours every day. I thought I would break down some of my favorite reads for the last year. Not all of these were published in the last year, but I read them in 2022. I will list the title, the publisher’s summary, and a comment or two.
The Good and Beautiful You, by James Bryan Smith
The Christian faith is not only about belief and practices, it is also about the kind of people that we become. Yet some of the biggest barriers to our transformation come from our toxic self-narratives. These narratives shape the way we see ourselves and the way we interact in the world. God designed us with a deep longing in our souls to be wanted, loved, alive, and connected to God. Healing our souls requires more than knowing what God thinks about us. Our healing comes not through reason alone, but through revelation.
Identity is one of the fundamental elements of a healthy spiritual life. Get this wrong and it will throw off the entire trajectory of your life. It is one thing to know in your head that God loves you, it is an entirely different matter to believe it in your heart. Down deep—where the knobs are. This book helped me not just know something intellectually, but to engage in practices that made knowing it in my heart a reality.
The Language of the Birds, by Amy Nemecek
According to legend, the language of the birds was a mystical language God used to talk with Adam and Eve when he walked with them in the garden of Eden. Amy Nemecek listens for this divine dialect as she communes with God on her walks along country roads and creek banks, through forests and hayfields. She observes the world around her with expectation, knowing that God still speaks to us as he is at work making all things new. If we have ears to hear, we can catch snippets of his grace in the watercolor silhouette of a bird, the thrum of a tractor engine, the tang of a grapefruit, and the curvature of an ampersand. Amy doesn’t want to miss any of it, so she remains attentive to the smooth grit of beach sand, the tendrils of a nebula, and the steady gaze of a fossil. She delights in the details, and you will too.
Full disclosure: Amy is a friend of mine, but that only heightens my love for this collection of her work. Amy has a way of using personification of inanimate objects that makes word pictures come alive for me. I lost my mother in November of 2021 and then I read Amy’s A Grief Preserved almost exactly a year after my mother’s death and it brought to life memories of my mother canning fruit in the kitchen and making homemade preserves that my heart of sorrow felt seen and heard.
Liturgy in the Wilderness, by D.J. Marotta
What you pray . . . shapes what you believe . . . shapes how you live.
The Lord’s Prayer is a beautiful, subversive passage of words given to the church by Jesus. It forms our imaginations and—given time—transforms us. And today, we are in desperate need of renewed imaginations. Christians are living in a wilderness of secularism. The historic Christian faith is seen as absurd at best and dangerously oppressive at worst. Followers of Jesus must begin to imagine life as a faithful minority who are ever seeking to subvert what is evil with good, what is hateful with love, and what is corrosive with nurture.
I have been leading my congregation through this prayer at the end of our worship services for years. I wonder if I intuited that what we pray shapes what we believe and how we live. What I love about this volume is that there is an emphasis on the subversive nature of ritual for getting into our spiritual bones to change us. The change is slow and steady, but change, nonetheless. I gave copies of this book away for gifts this holiday season.
The Remarkable Ordinary, by Frederick Buechner
Learn to see God’s remarkable works in the everyday ordinary of your life.
Your remarkable life is happening right here, right now. You may not be able to see it – your life may seem predictable and your work insignificant until you look at your life as Frederick Buechner does.
Named “the father of today’s spiritual memoir movement” by Christianity Today, Frederick Buechner reveals how to stop, look, and listen to your life. He reflects on how both art and faith teach us how to pay attention to the remarkableness right in front of us, to watch for the greatness in the ordinary, and to use our imaginations to see the greatness in others and love them well.
Pay attention, says Buechner. Listen to the call of a bird or the rush of the wind, to the people who flow in and out of your life. The ordinary points you to the extraordinary God who created and loves all of creation, including you. Pay attention to these things as if your life depends upon it. Because, of course, it does.
As you learn to pay attention to your life and what God is doing in it, you will uncover the plot of your life’s story and the sacred opportunity to connect with the divine in each moment.
We lost Mr. Buechner last year at the age of 96. It was a sad day for me. I have been reading him for years. He, like Eugene Peterson, had become a literary and spiritual companion for me. What I love about Buechner’s writing is how unflinching it is. He talks about his father’s drinking and eventual suicide in such honest ways that you can tell those elements in his life dynamically impacted his life and he learned from that impact. There is such intelligence and insight in his writings that I don’t know I have ever read a work from him that I didn’t feel the need to look more closely at my life and learn from the defeats and victories found there.
A Burning in My Bones, by Winn Collier
Author Winn Collier was given exclusive access to Eugene and his materials for the production of this landmark work. Drawing from his friendship and expansive view of Peterson’s life, Collier offers an intimate, beautiful, and earthy look into a remarkable life.
For Eugene, the gifts of life were inexhaustible: the glint of fading light over the lake; a kiss from Jan; a good joke; a bowl of butter pecan ice cream. As you enter into his story, you’ll find yourself doing the same – noticing how the most ordinary things shimmer with a new and unexpected beauty.
This book wrecked me. Other than my own father, Eugene Peterson has had the largest impact on my vocation as a pastor. You have heard the cliché, WWJD? I often imagine ‘what would Eugene do?’ I have read and re-read almost all of his books. This particular book about his life was an incredible encouragement to me. The author doesn’t shy away from Eugene’s shortcomings. I know that is a good thing, but it was a little uncomfortable for me to see my vocational hero as a real person. Uncomfortable, but healthy. I enjoyed this biography more than Eugene’s own memoir, The Pastor. I suppose most of that is due to the gifting and skill of the author, Winn Collier. I highly recommend this book.
Rembrandt Is in the Wind, by Russ Ramsey
Did you know Vincent van Gogh sold only one painting during his lifetime and that during the last three months of his life he completed an average of one painting every day?
Did you know that Michelangelo’s David is covered in a dusting of human skin?
Did you know Caravaggio murdered several people while he was painting some of the most glorious paintings of biblical scenes the world has ever known?
Rembrandt Is in the Wind by Russ Ramsey is an invitation to discover some of the world’s most celebrated artists and works, while presenting the gospel of Christ in a way that speaks to the struggles and longings common to the human experience.
The book is part art history, part biblical study, part philosophy, and part analysis of the human experience; but it’s all story. The lives of the artists in this book illustrate the struggle of living in this world and point to the beauty of the redemption available to us in Christ. Each story is different. Some conclude with resounding triumph while others end in a struggle. But all of them raise important questions about humanity’s hunger and capacity for glory, and all of them teach us to love and see beauty.
I only endured art appreciation classes in college. I had no real interest in the great artist of history. The older I get the more art has come to be an integral part of my growth as a human being. Now poetry and art are essential for my life. Rembrandt is my favorite artist of all time, but Van Goh is right there. The integration of art and faith of these masters was fascinating for me. I didn’t feel that the author was too heavy-handed in his exposition of the faith of these artists. I learned many things about these artists that I didn’t know and found them to be quite inspiring.
A World Lost, by Wendell Berry
In this, Wendell Berry’s fifth novel and ninth work of fiction, Andy Catlett revisits his own ninth year in the summer of 1944 when his beloved uncle is shot and killed by the surly and mysterious Carp Harmon. This is his Uncle Andrew, after whom the boy is named, someone who savored “company, talk, some kind of to–do, something to laugh at.”
Years later, still possessed by the story, Andy seeks to get to the bottom of all this, to understand the two men and their lethal connection.
Wendell Berry, Cormac McCarthy, and Marilynne Robinson are my favorite living fiction writers. I am not sure if Berry has moved ahead to take the lead in that triumvirate. His commitment to place and character and language is unparalleled. He has the unique ability to be profound, eloquent, funny, and poignant all in the same sentence. I found myself smiling, wondering, and feeling deep sadness all at the same time as I read this little novel. There is one paragraph so profound about the impact of presence to change the moment and thus change our lives that I lifted it from the page and pasted it in my journal to remind myself of the power of presence to change lives in the pastoral context.
The Other Half of Church, by Jim Wilder and Michael Hendricks
Why does true Christian transformation seem fleeting? And why does church often feel lonely, Christian community shallow, and leaders untrustworthy? For many Christians, the delight of encountering Christ eventually dwindles – and disappointment sets in. Is lasting joy possible?
These are some of the questions Michel Hendricks has considered both in his experience as a spiritual formation pastor and in his lifetime as a Christian. He began to find answers when he met Jim Wilder – a neurotheologian.
Using brain science, Wilder identified that there are two halves of the church: the rational half and the relational half. And when Christians only embrace the rational half, churches become unhealthy places where transformation doesn’t last and narcissistic leaders flourish.
In The Other Half of Church, join Michel and Jim’s journey as they couple brain science with the Bible to identify how to overcome spiritual stagnation by living a full-brained faith. You’ll also learn the four ingredients necessary to develop and maintain a vibrant, transformational community where spiritual formation occurs, relationships flourish, and the toxic spread of narcissism is eradicated.
I was ordained to the ministry in 1984, and the process of my own growth and the spiritual growth of others has been my life’s work. How do we become more like Jesus? For sure, the process is slow and incremental. Always has been. The Apostle Peter we see in the Gospels and the one that wrote 2 Peter hardly seem to be the same person. But it took a lot of time, pain, and cooperation with the Holy Spirit for the big fisherman to change. I can relate. This book brings modern science along with sound biblical practices to bear to demonstrate how spiritual growth is possible.
This Here Flesh, by Cole Arthur Riley
“From the womb, we must repeat with regularity that to love ourselves is to survive. I believe that is what my father wanted for me and knew I would so desperately need: a tool for survival, the truth of my dignity named like a mercy new each morning.”
So writes Cole Arthur Riley in her unforgettable book of stories and reflections on discovering the sacred in her skin. In these deeply transporting passages, Arthur Riley reflects on the stories of her grandmother and father and how they revealed to her an embodied, dignity-affirming spirituality, not only in what they believed, but in the act of living itself. Writing memorably of her own childhood and coming to self, Arthur Riley boldly explores some of the most urgent questions of life and faith: How can spirituality not silence the body, but instead allow it to come alive? How do we honor, lament, and heal from the stories we inherit? How can we find peace in a world overtaken with dislocation, noise, and unrest? In this indelible work of contemplative storytelling, Arthur Riley invites us to descend into our own stories, examine our capacity to rest, wonder, joy, rage, and repair, and find that our humanity is not an enemy to faith but evidence of it.
At once a compelling spiritual meditation, a powerful intergenerational account, and a tender coming-of-age narrative, This Here Flesh speaks potently to anyone who suspects that our stories might have something to say to us.
I am still processing the profundity of this book. I can’t remember being moved quite like I was while reading this book. The depth of insight at such a young age is staggering. I am only hopeful that she will continue to write. It is a little unsettling that someone so young could write so profoundly without living very many years of pain and sorrow. Why is she “getting it” when it took an old white guy like me decades to scratch the surface of her wisdom? A very provocative and moving book.
When Narcissism Comes to Church, by Chuck DeGroat
Why does narcissism seem to thrive in our churches?
We’ve seen the news stories and heard the rumors. Maybe we ourselves have been hurt by a narcissistic church leader. It’s easy to throw the term around and diagnose others from afar. But what is narcissism, really? And how does it infiltrate the church?
Chuck DeGroat has been counseling pastors with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, as well as those wounded by narcissistic leaders and systems, for over 20 years. He knows firsthand the devastation narcissism leaves in its wake and how insidious and painful it is. In When Narcissism Comes to Church, DeGroat takes a close look at narcissism, not only in ministry leaders but also in church systems. He offers compassion and hope for those affected by its destructive power and imparts wise counsel for churches looking to heal from its systemic effects.
DeGroat also offers hope for narcissists themselves – not by any shortcut, but by the long, slow road of genuine recovery, possible only through repentance and trust in the humble gospel of Jesus.
I wish this book didn’t need to be written. I wish this book didn’t get so personal with me. I wish for a lot of things. Chuck’s work with pastors and ministry leaders and his wise insight has helped me to see the pathology in my own soul and how to detect it in others. He also gives a depth of insight on how to heal if you have been harmed by a ministry narcissist. Sadly, this book needs to be read by church boards and search committees in every gathering of saints in our country today.
Managing Leadership Anxiety: Yours and Theirs, by Steve Cuss
You can learn to handle the onslaught of internal and external pressures
Does anxiety get in the way of your ability to be an effective leader? Is your inability to notice when you and those around you are anxious keeping you “stuck” in chronic unhealthy patterns? In Managing Leadership Anxiety, pastor and spiritual growth expert Steve Cuss offers powerful tools to help you move from being managed by anxiety to managing anxiety.
You’ll develop the capacity to notice your anxiety and your group’s anxiety. You will increase your sensitivity to the way groups develop systemic anxiety that keeps them trapped. Your personal self-awareness will increase as you learn how self gets in the way of identifying and addressing issues.
Managing Leadership Anxiety offers valuable principles to those who are hungry to understand the source of the anxiety in themselves and in the people with whom they relate. Listeners will be empowered to take back control of their lives and lead in mature and vibrant ways.
Understanding systems theory has greatly helped the author to give powerful and profound guidance to churches and ministry organizations. I have invited a group of local pastors to read this with me in our town and discuss this book amongst ourselves and then take the principles back to our respective churches to try our best to create a non-anxious presence for the gospel to take root. I highly recommend this book.
Well, there you have a few of my favorite reads this last year. I am going to list some other titles below that I didn’t have space to write about, but nonetheless had an impact on my life this last year.
Everything Sad is Untrue, by Daniel Nayeri
The Color of Compromise, by Jemar Tisby
Finding Quiet, by J.P Moreland
Letters to a Young Congregation, by Eric Peterson
In the Name of Jesus, by Henri Nouwen
In Praise of Paths, by Torbjorn Ekelund
The Lord is my Courage, by K.J. Ramsey
Jesus and John Wayne, Kristin Du Mez