Saturday, December 31, 2022

Reading List 2022

I managed to read books from a dozen genres this year, according to how I'd categorize this list of 20 books. 

Apart from the books listed here, I consistently read my Bible throughout the year. I believe the Bible is God's inspired Word to us, and of all the things I read, I see the Bible as the most important book to be continually reading. 

Here are the books I've read in 2022...

  1. Missionary Methods: St. Paul's or Ours? by Roland Allen. Even though this book was written in 1912, it’s so ahead-of-its-time insightful that it feels prophetic. What Roland Allen wrote 110 years ago feels like a clear call to attention for any church planter today in 2022. I’ve been a pastor for 30 years, and I’m about to embark on leading a new church plant, and I found much of what I read here highly relevant to my situation. If you can set aside the Anglican particulars and the outdated vocabulary, there are many invaluable principles to be gleaned here from Roland Allen’s incisive and prescient observations. For example, because I’m not working cross-culturally in a faraway place, I often found it helpful to think “young adults” on pages where Allen used the word “natives” or “local peoples,” and to think “older generations” on pages where Allen used words like “foreigners” or “missionaries.” The lessons I learned by doing that were amazing. I consider this book a timeless classic on church planting.
  2. The Army of the Potomac: Mr. Lincoln's Army by Bruce Catton. There were evenings when I’d put this book down, unable to read any further after reading only 5-10 pages, because the angst I felt was too great. It just seemed like too much pain and suffering due to too much pride and stupidity. And yet Catton’s reflective and perceptive narration kept drawing me back again and again to learn more from his helpful interpretations of these early battles of the Civil War.

    The climax of the book is the Battle of Antietam, said by many to be “the worst single day of the entire war.” The many heart-rending “what ifs” in a battle that could have truly resulted in a war-ending victory for the Union have long left me inexpressibly exasperated with General McClellan’s inept leadership of so many thousands of men whose lives seemed lost for absolutely no reason.

    But then Bruce Catton suddenly opened my eyes at the end of the book to what I’d never seen before. He explains that a decisive and complete war-ending Union victory at Antietam would not have been “an abolitionist’s peace” — the kind that was eventually achieved at the end of the war. The very fact that Antietam was only a “tactical” Union victory — and an incomplete victory — allowed Lincoln to immediately follow it up with his Emancipation Proclamation, making this bloody, horrific battle actually the most decisive battle of the war, “affecting the whole course of American history ever since.” Which meant the lives lost in it did have meaning, however horrible the battle truly was.

    Mr. Catton, you have my attention, and I certainly want to continue reading this trilogy.
  3. Deeper: Real Change for Real Sinners by Dane Ortlund. As someone who has too often felt a sense of futility in my halting progress as a Christian over many years, I found this book refreshing. Dane Ortlund revived my hope by tossing out the typical performance-based approach to sanctification, and by inviting me into deeper intimacy with Jesus. I was drawn to his clear and simple message that my growth as a Christian is not about measuring my outward behaviours as much as about pursuing a genuine relationship with Jesus so that he can accomplish his good work in me. Ortlund developed this unapologetically simple theme by treating it much like a diamond that’s worthy of examination from many different angles. And as he did so, he often made profound truths accessible by his excellent quotes and analogies.

    My only reservation as I finished reading this book was an overall feeling that it all just sounded too easy — too unresisted — too much like the inevitability of falling dominos. It’s unfortunate that a book this profound (which it is) felt at times on the verge of being glib. For though I felt helped with the feelings of futility that I’d felt before I began this book, I also completed it with a sense of having been skillfully reminded of fundamental things that I already knew, but that I still struggled to do.
  4. The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church and the Causes Which Hinder It by Roland Allen. This was not an easy book to read, but I considered it an extremely important book for me to read as I prepare to launch an evangelistic church plant. Much like Allen’s previous book, “Missionary Methods” (which this book was written to defend and reinforce), this book is full of timeless insights. To transfer the application of those insights into my 21st century North American context, I regularly thought about traditional church methodologies whenever Allen addressed traditional Anglican missionary methodologies. The parallels abounded. There were quite a few times when I felt truly wowed by Allen’s wisdom, and amazed at the obvious present-day applicability of his observations.
  5. The Army of the Potomac: Glory Road by Bruce Catton. Catton is clearly both an able historian as well as an expressive storyteller. As the latter, he often waxes eloquent, like an orator of old, conveying the heart of the story rather than just the facts; focusing on the humanity of the characters rather than just their roles. There were times I found this riveting, though at other times a tad tedious. But what I appreciated about Catton’s storytelling was his attention to the details that weren’t tactically significant, but that filled in scenes of enormous scale with little bits of knowledge that made the story more lifelike. Certainly there were times when I’d have preferred a few more details about the battles, but I can find that information in the more technical books out there. What Catton provides here is a heartfelt and fascinating telling of a tale that explains some of the dramatic transitions that both an army and a nation experienced amidst a very cruel war.
  6. Ignite Your Life: Living for Significance by David A. Macfarlane. This is an extremely practical book written by a man who has truly lived and modelled all that he describes in it. Having personally met David Macfarlane, I could see his winsome smile as he told his cheesy jokes, and I could hear his voice as he good-naturedly created conversations between nameless biblical characters as if they were just like ourselves, with all our usual biases and excuses. His subtitle is “Living for Significance,” but what made this book worthwhile for me was his emphasis on how to make the most of the opportunities God gives us to make a difference in this world. I needed to hear his words of confident faith on that theme as I prepare to embark on a new untried ministry initiative. There were a couple times when what David wrote felt so appropriate and applicable that I immediately began to put his points into practice. I’m grateful for his wisdom and encouragement.
  7. What is the Gospel? by Greg Gilbert. This book clarifies the essential elements of the gospel, and I personally found that abundantly reassuring. Amidst the many muddy and distorted versions of the gospel that I’ve been exposed to in recent years, I found it encouraging to hear the gospel explained so clearly and so compellingly. And I also didn’t feel the need to agree with every line or nuance of Greg Gilbert’s explanations to feel inspired by his description of the gospel. I simply appreciated his many great reminders in this brief book of what really matters as I consider and communicate the gospel of Jesus.
  8. Arminius and His Declaration of Sentiments: An Annotated Translation with Introduction and Theological Commentary by W. Stephen Gunter. I found it enormously helpful to finally read Arminius rather than just what others have written about him. Gunter has provided a long overdue and extremely valuable service by translating Arminius’ “Declaration of Sentiments,” which is surely Arminius’ most complete and coherent explanation of where he stood on key theological issues. Not only did this clarify much of what Arminius actually believed (in contrast to what many people say he believed, or in contrast to what many of his theological “followers” currently believe), but I also found it encouraging to hear the spirit with which he stated his beliefs (in contrast to the vehemence of his adversaries). Arminius wrote that “I have no doubt that if they [his adversaries] had consented to the private conversation… We would have arrived at a mutually satisfactory conclusion, or we would have concluded at the very least that our disagreement presented no immediate danger to the truth necessary for salvation and piety, or to Christian peace and unity” (p.100-101). That statement comes not only from the mind of a great theologian, but also from the heart of a pastor who wanted to walk in unity with those who contended with him. That’s a posture we could use more of these days. So whether I applaud Arminius’ “Declaration of Sentiments” (which I enthusiastically do), or find some of his views confusing (which I also do), I hope I can carry my heartfelt beliefs with the same gracious spirit with which Arminius carried his.
  9. The Army of the Potomac: A Stillness at Appomattox by Bruce Catton. Reading the 1,049 pages of this amazing trilogy in my comfortable chair is obviously a vastly different universe than the 1,488 bloody, death-filled days of this war. But as I read Catton’s descriptive conclusion of this third volume, I found myself feeling what might’ve been a hint of what the Army of the Potomac likely felt as they silently stared across an unfought battlefield at a Confederate flag of truce. This final volume introduces the highly capable Union generals who were relentless enough to finally bring this war to a close, which felt such a relief after enduring the incompetencies of so many previous Union generals.

    And if you want to read just one paragraph that epitomizes Catton’s approach to writing these 1,000-plus pages, check out the first paragraph of the last numbered section of the last chapter. It’s classic Catton. And I found it irresistible prose that even got me reflecting on the course of my own life. This trilogy is an epic saga well worth the read.
  10. The Epistle to the Hebrews by F. F. Bruce. Long ago, the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews invited his readers to rest in the wonders of the finished work of Christ. Unfortunately, my own personal struggles with drivenness have long made that message very difficult for me to embrace. So this year, I decided to read through Hebrews very slowly, while also reading through F.F. Bruce’s commentary parallel to my reading of the epistle. And what an incredibly rewarding experience it’s been. This commentary is not only a valuable reference book for carefully studying Hebrews, but F.F. Bruce has also provided a wealth of faith-strengthening insights that have truly deepened my relationship with Jesus. This commentary is well worth reading devotionally, and as I’ve done so, F.F. Bruce has helped me to grow in my understanding of the truths in this amazing epistle.
  11. Relentless: The Power You Need to Never Give Up by John Bevere. I really struggled with this book, but I kept reading because I know I have trouble persevering amidst adversity, and I truly hoped there were important things I could learn. And I certainly benefited from portions of this book that felt like they hit some bullseyes in my life. I appreciated John Bevere’s emphasis on how God has given us authority to rule with Christ in our circumstances rather than letting our circumstances rule us. And I was helped by his clear reminders of why we can confidently believe God even amidst the troubles we face in a spiritual war, and of how we can more effectively fight in that war. It was also good to be assured that when we’re doing God’s will, we can be certain that any adversity we face is not only conquerable in Christ, but will also train us for future challenges.

    But unfortunately, my frustrations with this book were many. I was troubled with some of Bevere’s reckless theological overstatements (the worst being when he heretically and repeatedly insisted that “we are Christ” rather than more carefully explaining our union with Christ). I was also annoyed when he would carelessly base his points on fragments of verses from Bible paraphrases (and in one case, on the punctuation of a paraphrase) even if the wider context of a passage in a more literal translation emphasized something different. And I also grew weary of how insubstantial his quoted reference material was, especially as he repeatedly felt the need to emphasize how scholarly it was. And yet in the midst of all that, I relentlessly persisted, and I managed to learn some worthwhile things by chewing the meat and spitting out the bones.
  12. The Mount of Olives: 11 Declarations to an Extraordinary Life by Michael V. Ivanov. This book took me by surprise. Given to me as a gift, I didn’t know what to expect, but quickly found the principles shared in the context of its story quite relevant to my life. It wasn’t just the fact that I felt struck by how much some of the book’s 11 declarations felt worthy of remembrance and of applying to my life. What really got my attention was the pointed applicability that a few of the declarations had in my current context. I just know that it’s going to be important for me to put some of them into practice.

    However, I was distracted by how the author unrealistically inserted too many 21st century sensibilities into the book’s first century characters, and I was also particularly disappointed by the manner in which the author included Jesus in the story. Jesus is portrayed as powerful enough to miraculously heal, but then he merely points to the boy’s principles as if knowing them is more valuable than actually knowing Jesus. The book thereby presents the principles as the truths we need for a changed life, rather than more accurately portraying a miracle-working Jesus as the only one who can work the most important change that is needed in our lives. I was also troubled by how the author described conversations with Jesus — as well as a heavily-modified account of his crucifixion — in ways that missed the whole point of his incarnation and crucifixion. The scene at the cross could have been the moment when the boy heard the most important declaration of all: “It is finished.” But instead, the book’s final declaration is vaguely about believing, with a painful lack of clarity about precisely what it’s so important to believe. That leaves the book’s concluding focus merely on a boy and his new-found principles rather than on the power of the resurrected Jesus, who is briefly alluded to near the end.
  13. The Immeasurable World: Journeys in Desert Places by William Atkins. This book wore me out. It should’ve been entitled, “The Immeasurable Wordcount.” And Atkins’ writing style seemed so disjointed that I feel like a passenger in need of a chiropractor after all the unannounced thematic zig-zagging he did. It not only happened throughout every chapter, but even within paragraphs, and even in single sentences, leaving me too often wondering, “What’s he talking about now?” But the weariness is also due to the lengthy descriptions of so many peripheral details. It seemed like Atkins just didn’t know when enough was enough. Near the end of his second last chapter, Atkins described being at a lecture where he wanted to tell the speaker to “put a sock in it,” and then wondered why we couldn’t all just do that. At that point, I wanted Atkins to do so, but with just one chapter left, I figured I’d read to the end.

    But what made the book so overly long was also because it wasn’t actually a book about different deserts of the world (as the subtitle suggests). It was far more about various social issues being faced by people living near deserts. And yes, it was interesting to read about the Anangu people of Australia, and the Uighur people of China, and the fishermen of the failing Aral Sea, and about the Central American refugees in America. But amidst all that, there was just no need to include chapters about the excesses of the Burning Man event, and about why an Eritrean man named Peter chose not to join a monastery in Egypt. In other words, too often, Atkins’ social commentary just had too little to do with deserts or with people indigenous to deserts — there just happened to be a desert in the background as he included us in his personal travels. So overall, not a very satisfying read.
  14. Covenant: The Framework of God's Grand Plan of Redemption by Daniel I. Block. Wow, what a feast! My biblical worldview has certainly been expanded. Daniel Block has provided an extremely comprehensive explanation of how the entire biblical narrative, from beginning to end, is tied together by God’s persistent commitment to covenant relationships with his creation. I guess I kind of knew that, but this book helped me to see how each covenantal stage not only builds upon the previous stage, but also how each progressive stage clearly echoes the others. Grace is evident at every stage, from the rainbow to Sinai to David’s throne, and to the cross! What an encouragement to see how God’s love and grace are as clearly evident in the covenants of the First Testament as in what’s been fulfilled in the New Testament. And what a helpful challenge to see how grace was even being expressed in the giving of laws, and in the commands of our Saviour, so that we know how we can live for God by his grace!

    I also found it helpful to see how Dr. Block clearly emphasized Israel’s ongoing relevance in God’s covenantal relationships. He also described the missional aspect of the Israelite covenant for the rest of the world, though I had hoped to hear more emphasis on that given how it was first mentioned to Abraham and then expanded on by prophets and by Jesus and by most New Testament writers.
  15. Friend of God: The Legacy of Abraham, Man of Faith by Ray C. Stedman. It had its moments. Here and there, I found some faith-building encouragements in this book. But too often, I felt a little bit bored, or a little bit annoyed at Ray Stedman’s penchant for finding unlikely symbolism throughout the story of Abraham. I guess I approach these stories with a bit of a different hermeneutic, seeing its characters more as examples to learn from than as rigid symbols to interpret. Overall, Stedman certainly has a warm and heartfelt approach, but too often that made the book feel like nothing more than a living room chat, and too lightweight for what I’d prefer in a study of a story of such significance.
  16. Everest: The West Ridge, 50th Anniversary Edition by Thomas F. Hornbein. Tom Hornbein was an intense young man, and as terrific a writer as a climber. I was fascinated by Hornbein’s account of the team dynamics, the preparations for the climb, and the rigours of climbing a previously unclimbed ridge of Everest. His creative and contemplative descriptions continually drew me in to the story he told. And the quality of this 50th anniversary edition of the book is superb with its multiple prefaces from previous editions, and its many large and beautiful photographs helping the reader to imagine what Hornbein so capably described. Many times I found myself pausing to re-read a sentence that just seemed far too thoughtful to be passed over too quickly.

    That happened as I read Hornbein’s stirring description of his and Willi Unsoeld’s brief time at the top of the world: “We felt the lonely beauty of the evening, the immense roaring silence of the wind, the tenuousness of our tie to all below. There was a hint of fear, but not for our lives, but of a vast unknown which pressed in upon us. A fleeting feeling of disappointment — that after all those dreams and questions this was only a mountain top — gave way to the suspicion that maybe there was something more, something beyond the three-dimensional form of the moment. If only it could be perceived… The question of why we had come was not now to be answered, yet something up here must yield an answer, something only dimly felt, comprehended by senses reaching farther yet than the point on which we stood; reaching for understanding, which hovered but a few steps higher.”
  17. God's Plan for Your Wellbeing: 50-Day Guide by Dave Smith. This book explores six specific areas of personal wellbeing, all of them well worth addressing, but in my own life, some clearly more so than others. In a few sections of this book, I was already conscious of how little wellbeing I was experiencing, and Dave Smith’s encouragements and challenges were helpful. For that reason alone, I’m glad I read and interacted with the material in this book. But that said, I found the contents of this book a bit uneven. Perhaps that’s related to the fact that some sections felt more personally relevant than others, but not entirely. Some pages just didn’t seem to delve that deep, offering little to chew on. But I got enough out of what I read on other pages to make reading this book worthwhile.
  18. Lead Like it Matters: 7 Leadership Principles for a Church That Lasts by Craig Groeschel. Craig Groeschel managed to set my sights on some lofty, spiritual heights, while also offering me some extremely accessible helps that gave me hope to get there. As a pastor in the early months of a new church plant, I felt my faith grow as I read this. I felt challenged to believe God for more. But I also feel as though I now have some new tools in my hands to work with, some of which I’ve already used. This extremely practical book reminded me in compelling ways that I have permission to risk, and I have permission to fail. But most importantly, Craig pointed me to Jesus and reminded me that all the helps and tips and tools he’s recommending aren’t worth a hill of beans if I’m not pursuing a genuine walk with Jesus. This book raised my perspective to something much higher than merely vibrant church growth and fruitfulness — it raised my perspective to want more of Jesus, for myself as well as for anyone around me.
  19. Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Ulysses S. Grant said that Lincoln “was incontestably the greatest man I ever knew.” Abraham Lincoln began as a little-known wanna-be politician, and when he was unexpectedly nominated as the Republican candidate for the 1860 election, his powerful rivals were stunned. Then upon being elected president, Lincoln did what no one expected — he invited his rivals (who were also rivals of each other) to be in his cabinet. That resulted in a fair bit of drama behind the extraordinary drama of the Civil War. And though I didn’t find every episode of this behind-the-scenes political drama riveting, one thing held my attention throughout it all: the political genius and exemplary character of Abraham Lincoln. Not once in 754 pages did I feel that Goodwin glamourized Lincoln. And yet, like Grant’s quote above, it’s difficult to overstate his greatness. Lincoln’s magnanimity, his humility, and his integrity shine through on page after page. His leadership and his statesmanship seem unbounded as he capably led the rivals in his cabinet through a war within his borders. I was inspired by Lincoln’s wisdom and tenacity and kindness in the midst of such turbulent times. We need such leaders today, and I’d be encouraged if what I read in this book helps me to grow as a leader.
  20. Surprised by Jesus: Subversive Grace in the Four Gospels by Dane Ortlund. This book is essentially a celebration of God’s grace as expressed in the gospel! It reminded me of how vital it is that I continually keep the gospel at the front and center of my life and thoughts. As Dane Ortlund explores each of the four biblical accounts of Jesus’ life on this earth, he provides plenty of outstanding insights while identifying a unique and vital aspect of the gospel in each of them. I found myself feeling both convicted as well as comforted by what I learned. Some portions felt more personally helpful to me than others, but the parts that were helpful felt profoundly so. And it left me grateful to be reminded of the importance of continually meditating on and embracing the gospel as I pursue a life with Jesus. It’s not just the door through which we enter the Christian life — it’s the whole house in which we live that life!

Thursday, January 6, 2022

How to be Steadfast in an Unstable World

I want to know how King David was able to so confidently declare that, "My heart is steadfast, O God!" (Ps. 108:1). As I read Psalm 108, that declaration comes as a surprise to me, given how David later describes the circumstances. Toward the end of the psalm, David lets us see more of his heart as he asks, "Have you not rejected us, O God? You do not go out, O God, with our armies" (108:11). How could David's heart be steadfast despite the warfare he was in that seemed to be going so badly? Perhaps some of us are facing difficulties that leave us wanting to ask the same question. 

Personally, I don't consider myself all that "steadfast." It doesn't take major warfare to leave me feeling moody, or easily discouraged, or with a quitting attitude when I feel I've failed at something. That's not steadfast. But David knew something vital that helped him to counter such struggles. Immediately after describing his own human heart as "steadfast," David gave thanks to God, saying that "your steadfast love is great above the heavens; your faithfulness reaches to the clouds." (Ps. 108:4).

Those words "steadfast love" are an English translation of a Hebrew word for which there is no truly equivalent word in the English language. It's the Hebrew word hesed, which means far more than simply a combination of a collection of words like loving and merciful and kind and compassionate. The definition of hesed must also include words like steadfast and unfailing and faithful and loyal to be accurateIt’s the love of a God who doesn’t give up on us  it's God’s faithful affection for his people  it’s his commitment to covenant – it’s a promise to us that God won't break. It's steadfast love.

So it gets my attention when I see David declaring God's steadfast love in the context of big-time warfare that seemed to be going badly. David was obviously feeling rejected and needing God to "grant us help against the foe" (108:12). But well before he ever mentions that, David makes important choices to give God his proper place. He boldly says that he will give thanks and sing praises to God (108:2-3). Then he declares, "Be exalted, O God, above the heavens! Let your glory be all over the earth!" (108:5) And only then does he plead with God for deliverance: "That your beloved ones may be delivered, give salvation by your right hand and answer me!" (108:6). All this from a man who felt rejected by God in terrible circumstances!

This was only possible because David was convinced that the God of steadfast love who is exalted above the heavens, is also well above the circumstances David was facing. David made it clear how he knew this by how he made a point of recounting God's promises. He wrote that "God has promised in his holiness..." (108:7) and then listed what God has declared his plans to be for Israel. 

So amidst the feelings of rejection that David finally admits near the very end of the psalm  "Have you not rejected us, O God?" (108:11)  what does David choose to focus on despite having feelings to the contrary? Does he focus on the warfare and the circumstances? Or on God’s promises and unfailing love? David's final statement gives us the answer: "With God we shall do valiantly; it is he who will tread down our foes" (108:13).

David's heart remained steadfast because he knew that God's steadfast love for him was greater than all he was facing.

© 2022 Ken Peters