Sunday, December 31, 2023

Reading List 2023

I read less this year. Blame it on busyness. But it's also because I discovered a Bible Memory app that kind of became a hobby for me, if it's not wrong to call it that. The number of books I read in 2023 is actually nearly the same as last year, but the average length was less, so it amounts to fewer pages read, but it's all about quality, not quantity, right? 

In fact, this will be the first year since I began publishing my reading lists that my list will not include every book I read. It's not that the books I omitted were bad books -- quite the opposite. A couple of them were just too personal.

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 is a list that includes most of the books I read in 2023...

1. John Wesley: The Man and his Mission by Godfrey Holden Pike.
It's hard not to be inspired by John Wesley. This 1904 biography provides plenty of detail without going into too many details about a highly exceptional man. I appreciated the care taken in the selection of various personal stories in the midst of explaining the bigger picture of what John Wesley accomplished. The overall impression I was left with was of a man who so obviously depended on the Lord to live a highly generous and sacrificial life for the sake of others, and who as such a disciplined and scholarly man, made the gospel message so hugely accessible and understandable to so many worldly and uneducated masses.

2. Gettysburg: The Final Fury by Bruce Catton.
This is Catton in all his descriptive powers. I find that Catton's prose helps me to feel what happened as much as to understand it. Something as simple as describing General Lee as appearing "to be on the crest of the wave" after his successes on the first day of fighting provides more than a simple historical account. It's a graphic image of Lee's perspective that helps me to feel the momentum of his emotions rather than simply understand the outcome of a day's events. And that's why I find Catton's writing so compelling. Couple that with the succinctness of this book, and you have a very readable and enjoyable introduction to an extremely significant battle.

3. The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni.
I'm a little uncomfortable saying, and more than a little surprised, that I actually found this book to be emotionally moving. I'm the leader of what I'd consider a fairly healthy team, but this book inspired me to believe we could be even more healthy and effective. At the same time, this book sobered me as I saw how much courage and persistence will be required to increase our sense of teamwork. Growth doesn't happen overnight, and even what's achieved requires discipline to keep what's been gained. That's what makes the simplicity of this book's five principles so appealing: keeping it simple is what makes it achievable. I'm looking forward to trying some of the very practical exercises Lencioni has provided.

4. Between God and Satan by Helmut Thielicke.
An interesting mix of theological exploration and of well-written creative expression as Helmut Thielicke examines Christ's temptation in the wilderness. Again and again, Thielicke made observations I had never considered before, and offered applications that both challenged and encouraged me. And he not only thoroughly honoured Jesus in this book, but he also made it plain just how much what Jesus endured in the wilderness was for the sake of us being able to experience true communion and companionship with him.

5. Five Secrets of Living by Warren W. Wiersbe.
I love John 15, and though I found some valuable nuggets about that passage in this little book, I had hoped for more. Too many of Wiersbe's statements felt overly sweeping or too simplistic, and too many of his conclusions felt overly hurried. Sometimes that left me feeling like I was reading a condensed version of a longer book. I appreciated Wiersbe's outline of the passage, as well as his personal applications to do with abiding in the Vine. And I hope what I read will help me grow in the area of abiding as knowing Jesus leads to loving him more, which will lead me to obeying him more, which will lead me to abiding in him, and then to bearing fruit for him, which all leads to that abundant life Jesus has promised us. That's a great sequence of thought. But too often this book made me feel like we were paddling in the shallows of those thoughts rather than going deeper.

This book is immensely practical, and is simple enough to not be overwhelming in what it suggests, while also detailed enough to feel like it's more than just a pep talk. Groeschel is incredibly honest, as well as very well acquainted with his topic. Each chapter follows very naturally after the other as Groeschel lays out a very accessible and hope-inspiring strategy. I did every exercise, and will need to review my answers to properly follow through on what I wrote down, but I found the exercises helpful. And it was worth persevering to the end, as the main points in the second-last chapter felt to me the most encouraging. That chapter clearly emphasizes what sets this book apart from any better known secular books on this topic. He could've ended with it, as I found the last chapter more than a bit anticlimactic.

I found this book incredibly helpful! In fact, so much so that I kept a journal of the valuable things I was learning. After all, George Muller made it clear that he wanted his life to be a lesson for people. He specifically said that he wanted observers of his life to grow in their understanding of the things of God, and so he did what he did with his life for the express purpose of strengthening people's faith in the prayer-hearing, prayer-answering God of the Bible. What a privilege it was to be taught in such a way by a hero of the faith like George Muller, who never actually wanted to be seen as exceptional, but only as an example of what any Christ-follower can be and do. That's why I wanted to record and remember the lessons Muller sought to illustrate -- to help me to grow in my own experiences with God in life and ministry.

Steer described Muller's detailed thoughts about what successful prayer depends on, and about why prayer may not be answered immediately, and about how to persist in prayer and grow in faith. And I relished the experience of learning such valuable things from such a proven prayer warrior.

Perhaps it felt so helpful because so many of Muller's life-lessons were so relevant to my own personal struggles in prayer. He expanded on the importance of believing as we pray, on the value of facing trials to pray through, and on the benefits of having to wait for answers as we trust God's timing. I personally hate delayed answers, and can become easily discouraged, but Muller spoke of delays as precious opportunities to continue waiting on God, and of communing with God being the real work we do for God as we seek to do his will in this world.

Amidst all my ups and downs in prayer, I needed to be reminded of such things. I found this whole book -- George Muller's whole story -- a wonderful collection of invaluable reminders, lessons, and quotes that I want to long remember, and by God's grace, put into practice.

8. Waiting for a Angel by Helon Habila.
How would one best write about a volatile time period in a nation's history in which uncertainty, loss, and grief were persistently prevalent themes? Helon Habila does a masterful job of it by writing a story about Nigeria's past in which he creates an amazing tapestry of intersecting plotlines that steer the reader between time frames and characters to build a palpable sense of uncertainty and suspense. As the story abruptly zigzags back-and-forth between what-happened and what-led-to-what-happened, characters are introduced and then disappear, usually tragically, and often with scant explanation, leaving the reader guessing ...A little like people must have felt in the time period Habila was writing about. But the over-arcing story of one character, Lomba, ties it all together so that there is someone the reader can feel engaged with, and invested in, and for whom one wants a good outcome. But true to the days Lomba lived in, one can only wonder what came of him in the end, as well as of various people around him. In this way, I loved how Habila's story-writing style mimicked the unstable context he has written about. And while I've read some authors who've attempted this style of writing quite clumsily, I found this story both compelling and illuminating as I caught a glimpse of Nigeria's history.

This is a book on grace that's heavy on the application side of the subject, which I greatly appreciated. Over the years, I've felt motivated to read a number of books on God's grace, because if I'm honest, deep down, I don't fully grasp it. But the books I've read are typically about receiving grace, while this book emphasized the importance of personally passing it on to others. That's what attracted me to this book. The act of practicing grace in more intentional ways seemed to make God's grace more real for me. And Blackaby's specific examples of how to express grace more generously with people around me helped me to grow more comfortable with my own need for grace, even as he took my eyes off of myself and onto others. (Perhaps that's the secret!) I didn't mind that the content of some chapters was fairly similar to the content in other chapters -- in fact I valued the repetition. I wanted to soak in the truths that kept getting repeated so that I could increasingly become a face of grace to people around me. As I read the book, opportunities abounded to put it into practice, and I appreciated the coaching it felt like Richard Blackaby was providing me. And by what he included in this book, Blackaby has shown himself to be a very patient and able coach.

Carey Nieuwhof consistently finds a way to distill complex issues down to what intuitively feel like their core elements, and then to somehow consistently come up with a list of compelling applications for every insightful observation he makes. In fact, almost overwhelmingly so, on page after page. And I was amazed by how much his thoughts on cultural trends, written before all the upheaval caused by the pandemic, still felt so incredibly relevant. That's why I found it helpful to have Carey's thoughts in book form rather than his usual blog posts, so that I could underline and make notes in the margins for easy recall later. This is an immensely practical book with loads of thought-provoking, discussion-starting content that's worth pondering well after reading it through.

Jon Meacham is a fan. He clearly admires Abraham Lincoln, and perhaps that's the only reason he wrote this book. It was sometimes difficult to tell how his angle on Lincoln's life offered anything new enough to warrant yet another Lincoln biography. Though he certainly went out of his way to try to clarify and discern Lincoln's spiritual perspectives, which may have been Meacham's primary concern. Sometimes that felt forced, and sometimes unclear, though sometimes illuminating.

But the Prologue alone inspired me to want to read this book to the end. I was stirred as Meacham set the stage for this biography as he wrote, "A president who led a divided country in which an implacable minority gave no quarter in a clash over power, race, identity, money, and faith has much to teach us in a twenty-first century moment of polarization, passionate disagreement, and differing understandings of reality... This is why his story is neither too old nor too familiar... It is a fact of American history that we are not always good, but that goodness is possible. Not universal, not ubiquitous, not inevitable -- but possible."

Meacham revisited that theme in his Epilogue as he wrote that "Lincoln's life shows us that progress can be made by fallible and fallen presidents and peoples -- which, in a fallible and fallen world, should give us hope."

I found much of Meacham's research helpful, especially what he wrote about the little that's known of Lincoln's views on Reconstruction. But I often found his writing style awkward -- especially his frustrating tendency to wait until the very end of long quotes to finally tell you whose words you're actually reading. I'd often choose to peek ahead in frustration.

One of the voices Meacham often quoted, and from whom he seems to have derived the title of his book, is the freed slave turned statesman, Frederick Douglass. Meacham included one of those quotes in the Prologue, as he wrote, "'I do not despair of this country,' Frederick Douglass said. 'The fiat of the Almighty, "Let there be light," has not yet spent its force.' And it fell to Abraham Lincoln to shed that light in the darkest of hours."

I happened upon this book. I wasn't looking for it, as I didn't even know it existed, but I happened to walk into a place where I was unexpectedly offered a free copy. And the timing was perfect, because my soul was not doing well. I thought, I think I need to read that. But I was taken aback when I realized that the author had only been 38 years old when he wrote this book on soul-care. I then thought, what does a youthful guy in his 30s know about the troubles of the soul? I'm nearly 60, and is this 38 year old going to help me with my internal struggles? Well, it turns out that, yes he is! Judah Smith wrote this book with genuine wisdom and insight, and I found it tremendously helpful. He gently and humourously invited me to a place of greater surrender to God and of trust in an amazing Saviour amidst the messiness of life. Again and again, he hit the bullseye in my heart, and left me both challenged and encouraged. I'm so glad God put this book in my hands, and I'm so grateful that I read it!

I got this book with high hopes, both because of the topic and the author. But in order to now commend this book, I'd have to use that drab adjective in saying that it was... interesting.

To be fair, it was extremely interesting at times. I learned a lot of interesting details about "backgrounds and the linguistics, [and] the biblical passages" (as Michael Card summarizes in his Afterword). But a book all about something as significant as hesed ought to be far more inspiring than interesting. That's why I was disappointed that this book too often felt educational rather than devotional. My desire to read about hesed was so I'd grow in my affection for God, and yet all I felt I grew in was my education about God. Too many chapters were so heavy on background and context that I felt like I was in a lecture hall, or reading a term paper, and then just when something heartfelt was being said -- the chapter suddenly ended.

It's not that I never read longer and more scholarly books. I do, and I enjoy them. I see great value in having a thorough understanding of biblical truths. But I picked this book up about the infinitely heartfelt lovingkindness of God because I wanted more heart than head in my longing to better grasp what "hesed" is. The content in the very last couple paragraphs of the Afterword is what I actually longed for more of throughout the many interesting chapters of this book. But then, yet again, just after reading those heartfelt paragraphs -- the book suddenly ended.

What I really appreciated about this book is that it revived a whole bunch of passions and convictions that have previously been at the forefront of my heart and mind, but had cooled a bit over time. It wasn't even all that long ago that I was preaching some of the themes in this book, but as I got too busy and as time went by, I feel like I've gotten distracted from them. There really wasn't a lot written here that I hadn't previously been a passionate proponent and pursuer of, but as I read each chapter, it was clear to me that I really needed to be reminded of them. Life gets full. And the demands of ministry can pull a person in many directions. But reading this book helped me to focus again on the main things that I need to remember as I pastor a relatively new church.

15. Beyond Band of Brothers: The War Time Memoirs of Major Dick Winters by Major Dick Winters, Commander, Easy Company.
Some years ago, I really enjoyed reading Stephen Ambrose's book, Band of Brothers, and so I thought there'd be value in hearing the story again, but this time from the leadership perspective of Easy Company's commanding officer, Dick Winters. Major Dick Winters truly was an amazing leader, and his book certainly does add some interesting stories to Ambrose's historical account. But too often, I found Winters' wartime recollections substantially lacking in details, leaving me wanting more, and wondering if he wasn't allowed to go into much detail regarding the best of Easy Company's stories that Ambrose had already told.

But part of my motivation in reading this book was to imbibe some leadership principles from an example of good leadership in extreme circumstances. And while there are some worthwhile leadership insights to glean from Winters' reflections, it felt like even when he focused on the subject, his thoughts seemed cursory, and mostly shared in a summary manner, which left less of an impression than I'd hoped they would.

Though this book was published in 1913, it couldn't be more relevant today! And though it's formatted like a textbook, it couldn't be more devotional in its content! I was both inspired and challenged by this book as Roland Allen persuasively turned my attention from material focuses in ministry to a reliance on the Holy Spirit in all missional pursuits. Allen's emphasis was that the Life we have in the Spirit is far more compelling to people we reach out to than our latest strategies. He acknowledges that the Spirit can certainly use material strategies and means in missions, but that if we want spiritual outcomes in people being saved, we need to depend on the Spirit as we set our strategies. This book left me as a new church planter in Canada with a strong desire to seek more of the Spirit, and to abide more in Jesus, than to simply sharpen up my methods.

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