Saturday, December 31, 2016

Reading List 2016

This was a year like no other year. Due to a heart ailment that began around Christmas 2015 and which led to heart surgery in July 2016, I didn't work a day in 2016 until the latter half of October! I wasn't able to work during those ten months, but I was able to read most of the time. And because television felt of no interest to me, I read a considerable amount. I'm sure the 37 books I read this year were more than I had ever read in a single year. There was quite a mixture of themes, but among the history books I read, Lincoln was a topic of several books, and among the devotional books I read, joy was a repeated theme of many of them. That was quite intentional. I truly wanted to grow in joy this year!

Apart from the books listed here, I read my Bible throughout the year. I believe the Bible is God's inspired Word to us, which means if I want to grow in joy, there is no better source of it than the Truth of God's Word. Most of the postings I added to my blog are a result of my time spent reading God's Word.

I doubt I'll experience another year like this one for a long, long time, and I'm truly grateful for the wonderful opportunity I've had to devote so much time to reading and study (I wrote many notes on much of what I read). (Here's what I read in 2015, and here's what I read in 2014 and here's what I read in 2011 and here's what I read in 2010 (this blog was dormant for 2012 and 2013).)

Here are the books I've read this year...

  1. Shackleton's Forgotten Expedition: The Voyage of the Nimrod by Beau Riffenburgh. What at first appeared like a tedious 300+ page historical account of an explorer's failed efforts in a mercilessly cruel environment turned out to be quite the page-turner for the last 100 pages or so. One of Shackleton's claims to fame was that he never lost a team member in any of his Antarctic adventures, and though it looked like many could've perished in several different close calls on this expedition, they all made it out alive despite not achieving their quest for the South Pole. But to be honest, Shackleton should receive little credit, for he was fighting his own battles with the elements while his team members in other places were battling theirs!
  2. Trafalgar: The Nelson Touch by David Howarth. This is the second book I've read about the sea battle of Trafalgar, and I thoroughly enjoyed it due to my fascination with the large sailing ships of old. David Howarth has a gift of recounting historical events without going into so much detail that he loses all but the most devoted of readers. This 248-page edition, loaded with illustrations and maps, is an easy and engaging read for those who love stories of the sea.
  3. Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist by John Piper. This is a book that I have long ignored due to my initial reaction (in 1986) to its unique subtitle, but which God put in my hands by a pleasantly surprising sequence of events, and I believe it was exactly what He wanted me reading at this particular time. This is essentially a book about enjoying God, which is exactly what I know I need to grow in right now. I was mesmerized by the content on every page, and plan to read it again as there was so much to take in and I'm sure I didn't absorb enough of it yet! Highly recommended.
  4. Knowing Christ by Mark Jones. This book felt at first like a dry academic book, but slowly it began to grow on me as the richness of one description after another of Christ's nature and character began to permeate my heart. But that was because it was far more than mere description, as the author explored the many practical and eternal implications of Jesus Christ being who He is. A very edifying book!
  5. Waterloo: A Near Run Thing by David Howarth. I bought this book together with "Trafalgar" (above) as part of a two-book box set at a used book sale. I had long been curious about the details of this battle but had never read anything about it before, and felt that David Howarth's uniquely concise writing style (as an historian) would be a way to be introduced to something I'd likely never read another book about. I was intrigued by how singular this battle was in that Napoleon behaved quite out of character in key ways that cost him the battle; so much so that it felt like the hand of God resisting a war-mongering dictator. Though not mentioned by Howarth, I suspect there may be some truth in that perspective.
  6. When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor... and Yourself by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. This is another book that I felt God had intentionally put in my hands to read at this particular time. It's a book specifically written to help churches to reach the poor both locally and overseas in a developmental and participatory way. This book really challenged what had become my reflexive relief-oriented approach, as it called on readers to consider the more difficult time-intensive, relational approach of asset-based community development. This book was exactly the message I needed to hear as I consider the existing mission policies and practices of our church, as it brought me back to many important principles of proper community development that avoid the paternalism and expediency of many of our western church approaches.
  7. A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah. This was a difficult but rewarding book to read. The story is tragic, though the latter half of the book caused me tears of happiness for the young boy this book is about. I had read many books about the Lost Boys of Sudan, but never a book about and by a child soldier. This story takes place in Sierra Leone, and while it begins with stories of running from the war and then fighting in the war, it ends with a very moving account regarding this boy's recovery from the war, with the help of some amazing people who helped to rehabilitate the child soldiers of this conflict.
  8. Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth by Richard J. Foster. This is a book I've long wanted to read, and it was well worth it! Foster has a very encouraging and engaging writing style for what has the potential to be a very demanding topic, as I found insightful gem after gem in every chapter. Foster manages to explain the Disciplines in a way that motivated me forward in my practice of them without having to get heavy-handed in his applications. His approach feels fatherly and kind, and gave me hope that this book will impact my everyday life in the days and years ahead!
  9. When I Don't Desire God: How to Fight for Joy by John Piper. This book feels quite a bit like a sequel to the book "Desiring God" (see #3 above), and my interest in reading it stemmed from the subtitle, "How to Fight for Joy", as I long to grow in my delight of the God I already know. And this book most definitely addressed that. The crux of what Piper shares in this book is that our joy in God is our essentially our enjoyment of God, and that it must be based solely on Him and the great redemption He has provided rather than on any circumstances - even if they are good circumstances like God's tangible blessings or answers to prayer. And he provides some very practical strategies to help us maintain such a focus in the midst of all the curve balls life can throw at us!
  10. The White Spider: The Classic Account of the Ascent of the Eiger by Heinrich Harrer. The north face of the Eiger. Only about 13,000 feet in height, but one of the most feared climbs in the world. There have even been accomplished Himalayan climbers who have declined to attempt it due to the level of risk involved. It offers just about every hazard a mountain can throw at a climber, and only the most experienced and patient climbers have reached the summit. This book is filled with the stories of all those who have attempted it until 1964, written by a member of the first team to succeed in 1938. It may not be easy to understand why people attempt something so dangerous, but it's quite easy to admire the courage and tenacity of those who overcame such a great obstacle or of those who sought to rescue those who tried.
  11. The Pilgrim's Progress: From this World to that which is to Come by John Bunyan. I have long owned an old 19th century edition of this 17th century book, and have talked myself out of reading it a number of times. But after finally reading it, I am so grateful I did! I found myself both challenged and encouraged again and again as I met character after character and saw how they each responded to the pilgrim's life. Some left me convicted, others left me teary-eyed as I admired their character and their love for the Lord. Great-Heart is a wonderful example of a hero I found myself wanting to walk with as I walk my own pilgrimage with God. Though he was a courageous warrior, at one point he said, "It is my duty, said he, to mistrust my own ability, that I may have reliance on Him who is stronger than all." Amen! It is a book well worth reading, and one I recommend reading in the original 17th century English.
  12. The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness: The Path to True Christian Joy by Timothy Keller. This is a very small book - more like a booklet, really. It's no longer than a typical chapter of a book, and seems to simply be a transcript of an amazing sermon that Timothy Keller preached. But does it ever pack a punch! No wonder someone decided to put a cover on it and make it available to people! There is such incredible insight in this book, and it is explained so well that after reading it once, I promptly read it again. I want it to sink in. And I expect I'll read it again just to make sure it does! Keller's aim in this book is to set people free from the futile games we play to achieve what society calls proper self-esteem, and to do so, he points us to Jesus and the Gospel in some very practical ways. I am thrilled that the Lord drew my attention to this book!
  13. Everest: The Unclimbed Ridge by Chris Bonington and Charles Clarke. After 19 Himalayan expeditions (as well as being part of the first British ascent of the north face of the Eiger in 1962 (see book #10 above)), Sir Christian Bonington is an extremely accomplished mountaineer, and so I was glad to have found this old book in a used book store last summer. It's the first book I've read by Bonington, and it's about a tragic and unsuccessful attempt in 1982 to climb Mount Everest via the northeast ridge without supplemental oxygen (at a time when only two people prior to this had successfully summited Everest without supplemental oxygen). It is tragic because two members of the four-man climbing team lost their lives. The authors are not afraid to be honest in their account of this climb, and truly, reading it left me with a growing feeling that the expedition was simply too ambitious for such a small team and that it was doomed from the start. Despite the expected justifications at the end, this felt like one climb that simply shouldn't have been attempted.
  14. Life and Holiness by Thomas Merton. This book is a bit of a departure from the stream of thought I tend to wade into when looking for devotional material. Thomas Merton was a Catholic theologian who was once a Trappist Monk. But I knew enough about him to know that he loved Jesus and was a deep thinker about the things of God, and that was enough for me. This book was definitely worth my time! In a nutshell, this book emphasized above all else that our spiritual life is all about taking our eyes off of ourselves and fixing them on Jesus. It's not about my work for God, but about God's work in and through me. So many of the books that I've read reinforce this theme, as I obviously need to be regularly reminded of it. And it felt refreshing to read it again from such a unique perspective.
  15. The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith by Timothy Keller. Timothy Keller has a way of discovering profound truth in very familiar Bible passages, and then explaining them in very compelling ways, and this book is no exception. In this book, as he walks the reader through the story of what we know as "The Prodigal Son," he not only shows us why it would be more aptly named "The Prodigal God," but insists that at the very least, we call it "The Prodigal Sons." The emphasis on a prodigal God stems from the fact that the word "prodigal" literally means recklessly extravagant or having spent all, which reminds us of a God who spends extravagantly without reckoning our sins against us, and Timothy Keller repeatedly and abundantly emphasizes God's extravagant grace in this book as he reminds us of the Gospel message. But the emphasis on both sons being viewed as the focus of this story is where this book impacted me the most. Keller shows us how deceptive the elder son's sin was, and how prevalent it is in the Church, and reminds us of how that elder brother didn't return to the father at the end of the story the way the younger brother had. This should sober many readers, and did me, and is why we so desperately need the Gospel of a "prodigal God"!
  16. Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution by James M. McPherson. This is a collection of seven essays that explore Abraham Lincoln's approach to leadership, his far-reaching influence on American politics, and the the long-term implications of the American Civil War, which all represent the primary reasons I'm fascinated with the history of that conflict. To many, this would be a boring book; to me, it was a page-turner. Lincoln's leadership style provides a great many lessons, and the American Civil War has had an immeasurable impact on the character and politics of the United States that can be clearly seen to this day, which in turn affects the world in varying degrees. I love exploring such hinge-events in history, upon which so many things turn, and McPherson does an admirable job exploring it as one of the foremost historians for that period.
  17. Pure Joy: Receiving God's Gift of Gladness in Every Trial by R.T. Kendall. R.T. Kendall has a very pastoral way of approaching most of the subjects he writes about, and this book is no exception. Rather than systematically and thoroughly explaining Biblical joy in the way that John Piper does in several of his books, Kendall approaches the subject more as one who is admiring a diamond one facet at a time. Piper seems to examine the diamond of joy on the molecular level, as much as a mineral as a gemstone, but Kendall simply turns the stone in his hand to examine and explain each facet of its beautiful face. He not only helped me to see more clearly how trials are meant to enhance my joy in God, but also how I can cooperate with the Holy Spirit so that He can increase my joy. A very encouraging book!
  18. Abraham Lincoln: The Man Behind the Myths by Stephen B. Oates. This is the second book I've read about Lincoln this year, primarily because I rather admire the man. But I chose this book over one of the many massive biographies out there because this book so succinctly and informatively distills from the myriad details of Lincoln's life both his greatest qualities as well as his great humanity, while also debunking some of the more persistent yet fanciful romantic notions that have persisted about him over the years. And it helps that it was written by the author of what many consider the best one-volume biography ever written about Lincoln. It's a fascinating read, not only because Lincoln was called upon to lead a nation in the midst of an horrific civil war, but also because Lincoln was able to persist as a leader amidst such incredible hostility and adversity. His moral backbone and tenacity in pursuing a vision amidst great resistance are truly characteristics worth celebrating.
  19. The Chosen by Chaim Potok. This is the first novel I've read in a few years, and I'm so glad that God led me to it (on a clearance shelf at Sam's Place for 50 cents)! It's an amazing story that I was captivated by as I absorbed this touching story about a world I know virtually nothing about. It's about a Jewish boy growing up in Brooklyn, New York, just around the times when WWII was ending and when the nation of Israel was recognized in 1948. The story is written from the perspective of a teenager named Reuven Malter and revolves around his friendship with Daniel, who is a member of a local Hasidic sect. It's written in a way that is both illuminating and moving, as these two very different boys come of age together as close friends, and each play a key role in each other's lives. 
  20. Holy Fire: A Balanced, Biblical Look at the Holy Spirit's Work in our Lives by R.T. Kendall. I've been reading so many challenging devotional books this year, each of them addressing character issues in my heart and inviting me to live in ways that are impossible by my own strength. This has resulted with an increased hunger for more of the Holy Spirit’s activity in my life because I know that I can't put any of the things I'm learning into practice without His help. This book came to mind because it was highly recommended by my pastor, Ron MacLean. I found it very helpful, partly because Kendall begins with the basics and expands from there. But it was his emphasis on the "immediate [as in, suddenly!] and direct testimony of the Holy Spirit" as a "conscious experience" that was especially helpful to me. That assertion provided an excellent basis for why the baptism of the Holy Spirit is meant to be something that typically happens repeatedly after conversion, and for how that baptism is meant to provide the "highest form of assurance" available to us, which was very encouraging.
  21. Champagne for the Soul: Rediscovering God's Gift of Joy by Mike Mason. This is a book of 90 two-page chapters unpacking the author's many personal and random thoughts regarding Christ-centered joy, and his experiences in seeking to live out the premise that any Christian should be able to be happy, by God's grace, every day. I found the book both rewarding and frustrating. On the one hand, it was always easy to read a chapter since each one was so brief, but the book often left me feeling like there was so much more to be mined from the subjects of such brief chapters. The resulting lack of thematic momentum made it difficult to keep reading. That said, I found about 20% of the chapters truly impacting, but the rest too often felt overly philosophical and sometimes lacking in obvious Biblical support. I believe this was more due to the limitations of such brief chapters than to the theological integrity of the author.
  22. Thanking God by R.T. Kendall. My third book by this author this year, and my second time reading this book, its focus is as simple as its title suggests: showing God our gratitude. A great deal of this book is unapologetically about stating the obvious, but which we often need to hear because we often neglect what's obvious. For me, gratitude to God is something I've often neglected, and I appreciated the reminders of this book. Not every chapter seemed equally relevant to me, but many were extremely so. Kendall's main point is a good one, and it is to remember well so that we can be appropriately thankful, as God's continued blessing hinges on our acknowledgment of His grace in our lives.
  23. Captain Cook: The Seaman's Seaman by Alan Villiers. I found this book in used condition and very spontaneously bought it, knowing very little about James Cook, and I'm glad I did, as I thoroughly enjoyed it. Alan Villiers is not only an excellent researcher and writer, but also has a great deal of experience sailing a full-rigged (or "square-rigged") ship of the types Captain Cook sailed, so he knows how to describe many of the challenges Cook faced. I love books about sailing from this era, as I think I'm attracted to the extremes that such sailors went to in order to sail these vessels to uncharted waters in such inhospitable conditions. It could be accurately said that Cook was "the greatest explorer-seaman the world has known" as he was the first to accurately chart much of the world's southern oceans as well as a great deal of the vast Pacific Ocean.
  24. Joy Unspeakable: The Baptism and Gifts of the Holy Spirit by D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. This is an expansive and inspiring collection of sermons from the great preacher - "the Doctor" - on the work of the Holy Spirit. I have never read such a thorough treatment on the baptism of the Holy Spirit, and though it has left me with some questions, I found this book to be amazing. I felt downright childlike (like a true beginner) in the things of the Spirit as I read it. It felt fresh and appealing and vital and remindful all at the same time. I felt like it took me back to earlier years when I was so excited about these things - things that Martyn Lloyd-Jones clearly hasn't lost his zeal for in his own life as he preached these chapters. Note: I read the longer 442-page version published by Kingsway that includes the sermons/chapters on the gifts of the Spirit (those chapters were previously published under the title, Prove All Things), as there is a 280-page abridged version of this book out there that doesn't include those chapters.
  25. C.T. Studd: Cricketer and Pioneer by Norman Grubb. Just as I began to feel that I was overdue for reading a missionary biography, I found this book in a thrift store! As one of the more notable pioneer missionaries of the nineteenth century, it's odd that I've never gotten around to reading C.T. Studd's story, but this is partly due to a bias I felt against him as a man who had left his wife and children to pursue missions. Yet he is still spoken of in the same discussions in which William Carey and Hudson Taylor are mentioned, so I thought I should look a little closer. As I read it, it was difficult not to admire Studd's dedication and zeal for people who needed to hear about Jesus. His desire was always to reach those who had no other witness around them and would not hear of Jesus unless someone went to tell them. This zeal took him initially to China, then to India and finally to the Belgian Congo where he had the greatest impact. His love for the people he worked among was obvious, and his wife, in fact (who was unable to go to the Congo for health reasons), zealously led the work at the home base in England. I wouldn't want to follow in all of his footsteps, but I certainly could learn a great deal from this passionate man of God!
  26. Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God by Timothy Keller. This is one of the best books I've ever read on prayer. It revived my hope for a deeper prayer life by building on a foundation of who God is and what He has done to make intimacy with us possible. But his emphasis on grace and the Gospel doesn't cause Keller to shrink back from calling us to the simple discipline and hard work necessary for one's prayer life to thrive. And if I'm to benefit from this book, it will require heavy lifting. But Keller provides so many practical helps and perspectives on how to approach and practice prayer, that he left me certain that it's worth the effort to grow in an ever richer experience of God in prayer.
  27. The Invasion of Canada: 1812-1813 by Pierre Berton. I have always wondered about the War of 1812. I've known virtually nothing about it, learning nothing about it in Michigan (where I grew up, near where much of the war occurred) except that, "Oh yeah. We [the U.S.] won that war," and learning little more in Canada (once I got here as a young teen) except that, "Oh yeah. We [Canada] won that war." Well, I've picked up enough information over the years since then to know that Canada, in fact, did successfully repel America's attempt to invade Canada, so it could at least be said that Canada didn't lose that war, though whether or not anyone won it seems dubious. But I still lacked details. Then I discovered Pierre Berton's two-volume explanation of the War of 1812 and having immensely enjoyed the previous Pierre Berton book I read (Vimy), I bought it! I haven't been disappointed, as Berton writes in a way that draws you into the lives of the characters as much as into the historical events they're involved in, creating real empathy and suspense in his historical accounts.
  28. Flames Across the Border: 1813-1814 by Pierre Berton. The second of Berton's two-volume set on the War of 1812 brings the story to its tragic conclusion. Was any other war ever fought that achieved so little at a cost of so many who never understood what they were fighting for? I doubt it. And apart from the great grief carried by so many due to all the bloodshed, nothing really changed between these two nations ("as if no war had been fought"), except for how the war helped to forge the identities of the two young nations involved. For America, it meant they were now taken more seriously on a world stage, and the few battles they won were enthusiastically celebrated, giving fuel for newfound national pride. For Canada, a common identity was forged as settlers of many backgrounds banded together to successfully resist an invader. This resulted in a shared appreciation of cherished Canadian values that distinguished the colonials from their bellicose republican neighbours. In fact, one could probably say that the War of 1812 was the seed of many key distinctions between Canadian and American values.
  29. Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Cures by Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. First of all, I am not depressed! I read this book mainly because it came so highly recommended from a variety of sources, one of them being R.T. Kendall. In "Holy Fire" (#20 above), Kendall states that this may be his favourite book by Lloyd-Jones, and I'd have to agree that it's an amazing book! But perhaps an equally suitable but less provocative title might have been "Encouraging Yourself in the Lord", for that is what Lloyd-Jones describes in each chapter: how the Scriptures teach us to avoid discouragement and how to encourage ourselves when we're struggling spiritually. Lloyd-Jones approaches this subject with a deep love for God's Word, a thorough understanding of its teaching on this topic, and a gentle and loving heart toward any who may struggle mightily in this area. I found chapter after chapter enormously relevant and applicable to my own life, and was encouraged by the many Christ-centered, Word-based antidotes that Doctor Lloyd-Jones prescribed.
  30. Out of the Salt-Shaker and into the World: Evangelism as a Way of Life by Rebecca Manley Pippert. Like the previous book in this list, I picked this one up based on a recommendation by another author. I have had an unread copy of this book on my shelf for decades, and when I read recently that Timothy Keller considered it to be his favourite classic book on evangelism, I knew it was time to read it. I had already been feeling weak and ineffective in the area of personal evangelism for some time now, so it seemed fitting to include it in my reading list for this year. Though written in the 1970s, and aimed primarily at college students, the principles Pippert explains in this book seemed easily transferable and applicable to my own life. Her approach is enormously practical, and I found immediate ways in which I could incorporate what I was learning into my routines. There's nothing complicated about this book, but that's what made it so helpful. Pippert has a way of making evangelism so simple that I was encouraged to believe I could grow again in this area.
  31. The Air I Breathe: Worship as a Way of Life by Louie Giglio. By coincidence, I happened to be reading this and the previous book in this list at the same time and both books have subtitles that refer to their theme "as a way of life"! It would certainly be wonderful if the truths of both these books were clearly reflected in my way of life. Giglio's book is very brief and very to-the-point: He provides a descriptive definition of worship and then works his way through that definition line by line, chapter by chapter. What seemed most important, and worth being repeatedly reminded of, was that each of us is "a worshiper." It's what we were created to do, and it's what we'll do no matter what the focus of our worship. Giglio very passionately and practically then directs the reader's heart to Jesus, the only one who is truly worthy of our worship.
  32. Our Heavenly Father: Sermons on the Lord's Prayer by Helmut Thielicke. As I read this book, I found that the impact of each chapter (sermon) seemed to sneak up on me and take me by surprise! Thielicke seemed to preach from such a unique perspective, with such fresh insights and with such pastoral care that I felt encouraged by each sermon. Perhaps it was partly due to the context in which these sermons were preached. Thielicke was a German theologian who was preaching these sermons in Germany at the time when the allies were aggressively bombing his city. The series could not be completed in the location in which it began because his church building was destroyed along with a great deal of the rest of his city. One sermon was even interrupted by an air raid as sirens alerted them to take cover. It felt an honour to read the sermons of such a loving, Christ-focused leader, who persevered through great trials as he sought to keep his congregation's eyes on the Lord through such a trying time.
  33. How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospel by N.T. Wright. This was probably the heaviest read I attempted this year. N.T. Wright is a great writer but also a very well-studied theologian. I found this book slow-going as I found myself re-reading many sentences to fully track with Wright, but it was worth the effort in terms of the subject matter. I've never read (nor likely seen) a book that examines the theological content of the parts of the four gospels that fall between the incarnation and the Passion Week, and that's what Wright ably tackles in this book. I must admit, the book is heavily weighted on the side of Wright simply (though not so simply) building a case for his premise, and is somewhat light on application, but an alert reader will be able to deduce plenty of application for how a church ought to behave in a world in which Jesus has already been made the true King in His ever-growing kingdom.
  34. Making Room for Life: Trading Chaotic Lifestyles for Connected Relationships by Randy Frazee. I was given this book ten years ago, and should have read it ten years ago when my kids were younger! Even though I found a fair bit of the book either inapplicable to my situation or unendorsable as a premise (eg- no work happening in the evenings), I was challenged by the emphasis of making sure one made room in their schedule for, and made a priority of, meaningful relationships with family, neighbours and church. The book strongly encourages investing in community in a way that minimizes how many unrelated circles of friends we're involved in, and in a way that mixes our friendships as much as possible with our pursuits of various other things like work, recreation, neighbourhood and church. A worthy ideal, but not always possible.
  35. Lincoln's Battle with God: A President's Struggle with Faith and What it Meant for America by Stephen Mansfield. I've long wanted to read an historical account of Abraham Lincoln's spiritual life, and this book was just what I was looking for. Mansfield is a balanced historian who is not quick to jump to conclusions based on questionable anecdotes, but has laid out a carefully researched account of the process that Lincoln went through to grow from being an aggressive religious skeptic to being a genuine spiritual seeker of Biblical truth. Despite what a reader of this book might desire, Mansfield refuses to declare resolutely that Lincoln became a Christian, but what Mansfield does do is provide historical evidence of the steps Lincoln took toward belief in the God, Jesus and the Bible as God's Word. Without any record of an explicit conversion, he then encourages his readers to consider the evidence and conclude for themselves what that evidence points to. And I actually found that some of the quotations of Lincoln's spiritual considerations really encouraged me in my own walk of faith.
  36. the furious longing of God by Brennan Manning. Every so often I want to read a Brennan Manning book. It's like a dose of medicine for people who need reassurance that God is deeply in love with us. This book, like all Brennan Manning books, focuses on the love and grace of God. The word "furious" is used in the sense of intense energy, like "the fury of a gathering storm." The back cover reads, "Such is God's intense, consuming love for His children. It's a love that knows no limits and no boundaries." I need to be reminded of that from time to time, and if you can endure Manning's tedious and profuse addiction to alliteration and adjectives, he will leave you with no doubt that God has the fullest affections for you!
  37. My Calvary Road: The author of The Calvary Road tells his own story by Roy Hession. I ordered this book by accident while attempting to order a copy of The Calvary Road for someone. But I soon realized that this very well may not have been a mistake from God's perspective, as it turned out to be a very helpful book! There is so much of Roy's story that I found relevant - especially in light of all the lessons God has been teaching me in all the others books I've read this year - that I'm glad I accidentally ended up with it. Many of the lessons of The Calvary Road are reinforced in this autobiography, but they felt more accessible in a way by learning how Roy Hession initially learned those lessons. His life inspired me by the way he showed me how he walked the Calvary Road.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

The Crooked Path to Christmas

Hello. My name is Joseph. I realize it may be a bit of a surprise hearing from me, as not many people think much about me in light of the far more important people in the story I’m known to be a part of. But I was there – I was a part of the story that I understand you call the Christmas story. In fact, I believe you have a day in your calendar called Christmas on which you celebrate the birth of Jesus. I could tell you a thing or two about that birth, for as I said, I was there. And it was all quite unforgettable! But it did not seem very festive at the time. No, quite the contrary.

The truth is, the path that Mary and I took to the first Christmas (as you call it) was a very crooked path – which took me off guard, actually – you know, given the importance of what the angels told Mary and I.

You see, I've got this idea in my head that if an all-powerful God has a big and important Plan (one so important, he sends angels to explain it in advance!), then He must intend to accomplish that Plan the way an arrow takes a straight and steady path toward its target. And you’d think that when almighty God sets out to achieve His Master Plan to do with the Messiah, it would happen with such great deliberateness that it would firmly push through any and every obstacle, straight as an arrow, with immediate effect!

And the coming of Jesus was God’s Master Plan – the most important of all God’s plans for the human race! The coming of Jesus as that little baby represented God’s greatest expression of love ever expressed. It was all about how God was going to save us from the power of sin in this world – how God was going to re-unite us as God’s children with our heavenly Father – and how God was going to reveal His glory in the greatest demonstration of mercy and grace that the world had ever seen! The coming of Jesus represented God’s Plan with a capital “P” – the Master Plan of the Great Creator for uniting God the Father’s family with God the Father! It was God’s loudest “I LOVE YOU!” of all time!

I mean seriously, when the great God who created all things sets His will to do something so incredibly important, how can any created being -- human or otherwise -- hinder Him, right?! It'd be like little flies trying to push that arrow aside!

So that’s why it strikes me as strange that an all-powerful God’s Master Plan would happen on a road that wasn’t all that smooth and straight, despite the infinite greatness of its Author and the supreme importance of its objective. I say this because it was a road that included disappointments for Mary and I. It was a road that included unanswered questions – things that God has never sent any more angels to explain to us! And it was a road that felt confusing at times as we travelled that road.

I’m sure that surely you’ve seen turmoil or disappointments or unanswered prayers in your life as well – twists & turns on rocky roads. And you’ve probably wondered the same thing I did: Couldn’t God have made this path a little straighter?!

Well, even though the path to that first Christmas was a crooked one – and your path to this Christmas might be as well – I can tell you from experience: God wants to use those twists and turns to express how great He is and how great His love is toward us!

So perhaps you’ll allow me to share a little about Mary’s and my crooked path to Christmas, and perhaps it will be a help to you on your path.

A man named Luke recorded this small but important part of the story I want to talk with you about… “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”

There were so many twists and turns that created turmoil on that path to the very first Christmas…
·         A pregnancy before marriage (Luke 1:31-35),
·         A marriage about to be called off (Matthew 1:19).
·         A marriage plan restored, but amidst the public disapproval of a pregnancy before marriage (Matthew 1:24).
·         Then an unwelcome donkey ride in the last days of Mary’s pregnancy (Luke 2:1-6).
·         Then a dirty stable is all God reserved for the baby's birth (Luke 2:7)
·         Then Mary and I and Jesus had to flee for our lives to avoid King Herod's sinister plot (Matthew 2:13).
·         King Herod then murdered all the male babies of Bethlehem (Matthew 2:16).
·         And finally, though all seemed well to return from Egypt, Mary and I were afraid to dwell in Judea because of Herod’s relatives, so we had to return to Nazareth to live among the people who knew Jesus was conceived before marriage (Matthew 2:22-23).
Turmoil.  Discomfort.  Fear.  Tragedy.  Disruption. …Crooked lines. And rather than looking at all of those circumstances, I just want to talk with you about two of them… What I’ll refer to as…
·         A poorly timed summons in the mail…
·         And an example of…“How much more can I take?”

I’ll start with the Poorly Timed Summons in the Mail… I’ll never forget that day! Mary was in the last month of her pregnancy, feeling very uncomfortable, and suddenly our entire region receives a pronouncement from ROME that we must all return to our home towns IMMEDIATELY for a census!

How could the timing have been worse?!  We lived 120km away from my home town of Bethlehem! I immediately wondered resentfully why God couldn’t have arranged that better. But there was no choice in the matter – and it was beyond our control to change it. It was inconvenient and it was uncomfortable. Have you ever ridden a donkey? It’s not very comfortable! But no matter how bad the timing seemed – no matter how difficult the journey would be – we eventually realized that God was in this, because the Scriptures actually taught that God wanted the Messiah to be born in Bethlehem!

And when we realized that Jesus being born in Bethlehem was part of God’s plan – as foretold in ancient prophecies – we had to then conclude that the awkward – difficult – uncomfortable and unwelcome journey to Bethlehem was actually a part of God’s plan.

So that means that just like the exciting fulfillments of prophecies – or the wonderful answers to prayer – or the plans God calls each of us to accomplish – are all loving examples of God’s will for us, so too must be the journeys God chooses for us to get there – even if they include twists and turns that we ourselves would never choose.

It reminds me of when Joseph-of-old was sold into slavery in Egypt, and he summed that journey up with: “God meant it for good!” Something that terribly difficult was actually God’s will for Joseph. And he could say “God meant it for good” because he knew that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God – to those who are called according to His purpose­ – and that nothing can separate us from God’s love.  Not even tribulation or distress or persecution or famine or nakedness or dangers or the sword!

Well, it’s a fact that Mary was called to a very great purpose, and that she certainly loved God, and her response to being told she’d bear God’s Son as a virgin might’ve been similar to her thoughts about the donkey ride: “Behold, I am a servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”

How about you?...  …Have you received a summons in the mail lately?... Something unexpected? Something uncomfortable? Something that feels like a mountain before you? Something beyond your control to change it? And the timing couldn’t be worse? Something from someone close to you? Or something from a doctor, or from a Roman officer? Some of the best lessons I’ve learned from the Lord have been when I’ve been stopped by the Romans. God has used fines from the Romans to send me timely messages that I needed to hear… to tell me to, yes, to slow down – to tell me to stop & spend more time with the Lord – and to tell me to listen to my wife!

But rather than reacting in anger or resentment, I suggest taking time to allow God to speak to you through the unexpected circumstances of life – because He’s fully in control of every circumstance! And if God wants to use all things for good, it’s vital that we pause before we react, and listen carefully to what God is trying to say to us, and look for God’s sovereign hand in whatever you’re going through. If you’re on a journey this Christmas, then pause, look and listen for God in whatever part of the journey you’re experiencing right now.

But now comes the “How much more can I take?” part! When Mary and I finally reached Bethlehem, it was no silent night! We found the town’s only inn to be full to the brim, and all that was left was a stable. Bethlehem was a very busy place during that census!  It was hectic!

At this point, I would’ve been able to forgive Mary if, after that long donkey ride, she lost her composure when she discovered God hadn’t saved a simple room for her to have the baby in.
I mean think about how you feel when you can’t find a single spot to park your donkey in at one of your big mall parking lots a day or two before Christmas! I’m a model of patience when stuff like that happens, but you might struggle with that!

So after 120km of donkey riding, an innkeeper tells us that, “No vacancy means NO ROOM!”
And we wondered, “How much more can we take?” Have you ever had a week where something in your home breaks, then an unexpected bill arrives, then your donkey starts making funny sounds, then you get pulled over for trotting too fast…?

I believe God has a two-fold purpose for all such situations: something to do with God’s glory and something to do with our good. And I believe that this is true for why God wanted His Son to be born in a stable. The angel who visited me in a dream told me that Jesus would save His people from their sins! Salvation at last! The mercy and grace of God! Nothing reveals God’s glory like God’s grace does!

So to make His grace abundantly clear, God made a way – through His Son Jesus – to forgive us for every sin we ever committed against Him and to be freed from the power of sin! What great grace! To accomplish this, God’s Son would have to lower Himself to the lowest place – and would start His life in the lowest of places – emptying Himself of heaven so that He could take the form of a bond-servant – and as a servant among men, He would be a substitute for every sinner when He eventually died on a cross to pay the penalty for all our sins.

That’s God’s glorious grace revealed! The glory of God revealed in a baby in a stable! But He was also born in a stable because God wanted it to be clear that His Son was to be accessible to ALL – even to the lowest in society, like carpenters like me, and to shepherds. No one should be afraid to approach Jesus, and Jesus would be willing to approach anyone.

At first, being in the stable felt like a disappointment to us, but as we gazed at that baby in a manger, we wondered at how much this baby in a stable revealed God’s glory for our good! Are you also dealing with disappointments that God has a purpose for in your life – to reveal His glory for your good? What may feel to you like a detour from God’s plans may actually be a part of God’s plan. The right response to such turmoil is trust.

A man named Jon Bloom has written that “maybe what we need most this Christmas is not less turmoil, but more trust. For God chooses stables of desperation as the birthplaces of his overwhelming grace.”

If that’s true, why would I want to be kept from the kind of challenges that Mary and I faced on that crooked journey into Bethlehem and into that stable? Those difficult circumstances happened to be God’s will for our lives.

And God is committed to not only accomplishing His plans through us, but also to lovingly accomplishing plans IN us as well – and I think He finds that crooked lines on the paths of our lives achieve that much better than straight lines.

Crooked lines teach us to listen – to trust – to obey – and to persevere amidst resistance.
And because our sovereign God is also a loving God, we can be sure that He will still be able to fulfill all that He has planned for our lives as we follow Him around every unexpected corner we face!

© 2016 by Ken Peters

Friday, November 25, 2016

Start your day right – with a good gird

Each day ought to begin with a good gird. That's right. Girding is a great way to start your day. Not many people know it, because we don't use that word much, and modern translators of the Bible prefer to use descriptions of that word rather than the word itself, even though the Greek New Testament clearly says, "Gird."

In 1 Peter, the Apostle Peter has just explained how wonderfully God arranged for the grace and salvation of Jesus to be revealed to us through the prophets, and then he reaches this climatic application: "Therefore gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and rest your hope fully upon the grace that is to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ" (1 Peter 1:13, NKJV). There it is: "Gird up the loins of your mind." Peter used Greek words for gird and loins, but hardly any English translations do, and that's because hardly anyone knows what such a phrase means anymore! But they're such descriptive and illustrative words that explain so much more than how they're commonly translated: "prepare your minds for action".

To gird (a very fun word to repeat out loud, by the way) means "to encircle or bind with a belt or band", and to gird up one's loins was like a man in Biblical times having to pull up his robe and tie it with a belt to prepare himself to run or to work. I saw men do this very thing with their robes in Sudan when we were working in the desert. So this is what Peter instructs us to do with our minds after we have received the salvation that was revealed to us: gird up the loins of your mind so that we can live our new lives in Christ in all the ways we are meant to (which Peter then goes on to describe).

But with what? With what should we gird up the loins of our mind? What comes to mind is that we might use Paul's "belt of truth" (Ephesians 6:14), but that's another context, and this is Peter's letter, not Paul's, so we ought to look to Peter's context to see how we're to prepare our minds for action (though I'm sure Peter wouldn't object to anyone using the belt of truth). Peter's context suggests that the grace of God be what we use. He says to "rest your hope fully upon the grace that is brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ." In other words, put your hope totally in the great grace that we receive when we see and recognize Jesus for who He is in every situation. 

That is how we prepare our mind – each and every day – for whatever God has planned for us. That is how we gird up the loins of our mind so that nothing will take us out of action. We're ready. Our mind and our thoughts are completely encircled and bound up in the hope we have in the great grace we find in Jesus! Hope in the grace of God to see us through. Fill your thoughts with that. Gird your mind with it!

So then, why don't we begin each day with a good gird? After all, it's fun to say, and girding the loins of your mind so that our hope is totally and decisively focused on the grace we see and know in Jesus is truly the best way to start a day!

© 2016 by Ken Peters

Saturday, November 19, 2016

"Who is this Boy who Speaks such Things?" (A Poem about a Painting)

Boy Jesus in the Temple by Heinrich Hofmann (Luke 2:41-51)
At our son Nicholas' baby dedication, his grandfather, John Dean, presented us with a gift for Nicholas: a framed print of the above painting. As Nicholas grew, we kept the painting on display in our home, and to this day, I am still attracted to the earnest expressions of the five characters surrounding Jesus in the painting. Each one seems to be thinking something quite unique, and I have long wanted to attempt to write something about each of the subject's personal thoughts. Today I was so distracted by it, I felt driven to poetry! Below is my attempt to verbalize the expressions of those five men above. Each stanza is 30 lines long, and if you are intrigued enough by the painting to read the poem below, I encourage you to closely study and consider each man's face before reading the stanza about that man (you can click on the painting to enlarge it, and the stanzas begin with the man on the far-left).


I do not trust that boy.
How can a child so young
Speak of such things
As though he understands?
What trick is this?
How does he speak
As though he knows
Mysteries long hidden from
Our learned minds?
Surely he has been tutored
By someone
Hidden from us now;
Someone who has
Put these words upon his lips.
These words cannot be his,
As though he were our teacher.
Why do the others listen
With such rapt attention?
Do they not see through
This irreverent masquerade?
This boy pretends to be so holy
When truly he is nothing;
He must be some mere servant,

And he speaks his master's words
As though they were his own.
Why should I listen?
Why should I consider
What he has to say?
I do not wish to look upon him.
I do not trust that boy. 

I have never heard such a thing;
To hear a boy so young
Able to discuss such texts
With words of such clarity
Expressed with such certainty.
Who is this child?
What is his lineage?
Is his father here among us?
I must know how this lad
Will one day be employed,
For he could be of use to us.
But this is a thought
Too difficult to ascertain:
To know if this extraordinary boy
Could someday gather with us here

And somehow help us
Find our freedom 

From this wretched Roman rule.
Ah, but whatever be his fate,
I cannot help but feel
That I am but a shadow
Of the godly zeal I see in him.
I speak passionately of politics,
But he speaks so boldly
Of God's kingdom
That it causes me to ponder
If I have long been asking
The wrong questions,
And this boy knows the answers

That in my heart I truly seek.

Yes, yes,
This truly is a boy
After God's own heart.
He reminds me of David, who
As a brave young shepherd-boy
Must have been much like this.
I feel this boy's devotion,
His affection for his God,
His heart of tender worship.
What a delight to hear him
Speak of things of God.
I am blessed this day
To have heard him here,
And I cannot help but wonder
What our God may have
In store for him.
Will God choose to use him
To turn hearts
Back to Him?
Surely I wonder
How this boy,
Who is so wise 

And yet so humble,
Will be used of God
In these restless days.
Yes, yes,
Surely young David
Could not have been
Much different than
This son before me now. 

His questions are profound,
And then he gives the answers
That I have longed
To understand
Throughout a life of study.
He uncovers mysteries
As though they were
So simple;
Simple enough for
A mere child to understand.
I wish to discuss so much,
I have so many questions,
And am amazed at his understanding,
At the wisdom of this boy.
I have walked this earth
As though I thought
I was so wise;
As though I were
Some great counsellor,
A gift to God's children
Who esteem me so highly.
Yet now I feel
As though I am the child
In the presence of this boy,
And that he is my counsellor
Who teaches me so gladly.
He has awakened something
In my spirit,
And makes me hungry

To learn again.

I have read this book
From beginning to end
Many times over,
And I have not the insights
This boy possesses.
How did he come by
This knowledge?
Who is this lad?
He speaks as one who
Not only understands
These precious precepts
But knows the mighty One
Who spoke them
From the fire and the cloud
Upon the mountain.
And there is love and awe
For Him in his eyes
That remind me
Of a zeal I once had
In my youth.
His voice is a sweet melody
That I could listen to
For hours;
Like an ancient love song
That reaches into my heart
And calls me back
From dry and distant formalities
To affections I once felt,
And feel again in the presence
Of this mysterious child.

© 2016 by Ken Peters