40 for 40 (January 2020)

The goal of 40 for 40 is two fold: (1) I want to take some time (a year) to slow down, stop reading so much new stuff, and (2) create space to revisit books that I have loved or considered formative to this point in my life. 

Part of the quest is to fight my propensity to consume. I love reading new things and that’s not bad, but it does make it hard to deeply digest, or to go back and revisit. New is always better, right?

So, my hope this year is that I’d spend some time reflecting on the journey to 40, sit with some past favorites, get to know the “old Steve” a little better, and see if these books I’ve loved have aged with me, or if they are simply relics (ebenezers) from the past.

I began with Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer. For the past 15 years, if you had asked me: “Steve, what is your favorite book,” there’s been a 90% chance (or better) that this would be my answer.

I first read this book in the fall of 2003 on the advice of one David Crowder. I met him at a concert that my friend was running lights at, and I asked him what I always ask people: what is the best book you’ve read this year? He said, “Everything Is Illuminated.” He had just released Illuminate (coincidence?).

I re-read the book two more times: once on a trip to India in the fall of 2004, and again (in hardback for the first time) in 2007. 

All three previous readings were in my 20s, pre-marriage, and well over 10 years ago!

My takeaway re-reading it now: it is a young man’s book.

It’s still amazing in many ways. Hard to believe the author was in his 20’s when he wrote it. The scene where he describes the Nazi’s coming to take over his grandparents village is still one of the most harrowing passages in any book I’ve read.

It’s a book about memory and making sense of the stories that have produced us.

And it’s great. But as I said before, it is a young man’s book.
Full of fury and urgency and sexual tension. 
Full of longing and a desire for everything to mean something.
But not as weighty as I remember it feeling 15 years ago.

Young people have, and can express deep wisdom. 
And getting older is no guarantee that we will grow in wisdom.
And yet…weight. Everything Is Illuminated just feels lighter now than it did then.

Which, interestingly, is sort of what the book is all about: memory, how we change and grow and evolve as people, how the perception of an event changes depending on our moment in time and our proximity to that event.

It’s a brilliant book, written by a brilliant young man, and I mean that in the best sense possible.

—————

Next up is The Book of Lost Things. There was no method to choosing this book next, but it makes for a fascinating contrast. 

The Book of Lost Things is also a clever and a wonderful bit of writing about memory and tragedy and processing the traumatic events we experience in life. (First read in the fall of 2007.)

John Connolly reimagines classic fairy tales as the main vehicle for his narrative. I remember this technique being more shocking the first time around. I don’t know if I’ve just read more gnarly things, or watched too many movies, but there was very little shock value during this reading.

The particular copy I have has a big section at the end that gives the reader the background on each fairy tale and I had never read that before, so this experience was much different simply by taking the time to read through all that information. 

I found the experience of reading this book much easier than I remembered it, but the ending was no less meaningful (and it is one of the best endings to any novel I’ve ever read). 

And it’s the ending that gives the book weight and that provides a sharp contrast to Everything Is Illuminated. This is an old man’s book. It has less urgency, but more weight to it.

And so, my initial response, two books in to this adventure, is a sense of (a) relief. I confess to being mildly concerned that I would be devastated by “old Steve’s” taste. But, (b) also a sense that it is good to be in a different place than I was back then. 

Can’t wait to share more next month…  

40 for 40 (2020 Books)

Yesterday I published my 2019 book list. Check it out.

Today, let’s talk about 2020. Happy New Year!

I turn 40 this year. This milestone is obviously a time to pause and reflect, and one thing I’ve decided to do is to set a very different reading goal for the coming year. (My other big goal is to try to run a marathon).

This goal comes from two places. First, our church community is thinking a lot about spiritual formation and disciplines this year. One of my personality traits is to constantly seek and acquire new information. This is not a bad thing. But sometimes I can get caught up in needing to always be reading the “new” thing.

So part of my goal this year is to cut down the flow of new information, go a bit slower, and revisit some of the things that have formed me over the years.

Which leads to part 2: I’ve read a lot of things and been deeply formed by a lot of what I have read. There are a number of books that have been extremely important at different moments, but many of them I haven’t revisited. Some of those moments are now many years old. I’m interested to see: were these books I loved about that moment in time, or was there something timeless about what I was encountering?

Either way, it will be an interesting means through which to reflect on my 40 years. My hope is to then post something here about each book, what the original moment was like, and what it was like to read that book again at this stage of life.

A few ground rules: I could only pick one book from an author, even if I REALLY like that author (I did make one exception to this rule, but rules are made to be broken). I also sometimes picked a book that was more representative of the author, and not actually the book I enjoyed the most (this will make sense later on when I do the reviews). I also picked 39 because I want to leave room to remember something or change the list if needed. Finally, I tried to pick books from many different eras of my life.

Here’s the list:

  1. The Holy Longing
  2. A Community Called Atonement
  3. Surprised By Hope
  4. An Unstoppable Force
  5. Reaching Out
  6. The Divine Conspiracy
  7. Jesus Wants to Save Christians
  8. With Justice For All
  9. The Gift of the Jews
  10. Persons in Relation
  11. The Drama of Doctrine
  12. Tattoos on the Heart
  13. Blue Like Jazz
  14. Christ Plays In Ten Thousand Places
  15. Five Smooth Stones For Pastoral Work
  16. The Shaping of Things To Come
  17. Searching For Home
  18. To Change the World
  19. Church Next
  20. You Are What You Love
  21. Between Two Worlds
  22. A Band of Misfits
  23. What the Dog Saw
  24. Traveling Mercies
  25. For The Time Being
  26. Everything is Illuminated
  27. A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius
  28. And The Mountains Echoed
  29. Book of Lost Things
  30. High Fidelity
  31. The Fortress of Solitude
  32. My Name Is Asher Lev
  33. Franny and Zooey
  34. The Fault in our Stars
  35. Plainsong
  36. The Kid From Tomkinsville
  37. Angela’s Ashes
  38. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
  39. The Tender Bar
  40. The Hate U Give

 

Books of the Year

This year I got back on track and achieved my reading goal: 75 books! Here are a few that stood out to me (in no particular order):

Category 1 (Spirituality/Theology):

  • The Year of Small Things: Life in Davis has created a sort of reverse culture shock for our family after years of living in the “hood.” There was a moment on the soccer field this fall where we discovered that a family on our team was looking at the two houses for sale in our little development. The dad made it very clear they were really only looking at the more expensive of the two. That type of thinking is extremely prevalent here, and so figuring out how to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly is actually more complicated than we expected. This book has been a good gift to us, creating a lot of great conversations about how to live counter-culturally in this place we find ourselves in.
  • The Kingdom Life: Our church community is going to be experimenting with a year long journey through various spiritual disciplines, so I read a ton of spiritual formation books this year. This was the best book on formation I read. It is a great blend of theological reflection and practical ideas. Plenty of content to generate conversation as well.
  • Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership: In all of that formation reading, this book stood out, partly because Ruth is the best, and partly because this was the one formational book that focused on the life of the leader.
  • ReUnion: Every year there’s a book that ends up on my list, and in retrospect I have no idea how or why it did but I am sure glad that it did. Here’s 2019’s version. Bruxy is character, but his writing and thinking is extremely refreshing. This will be one I go back to often in the coming year(s).
  • Faith Formation in a Secular Age: Hands down this was the most consequential book I read this year. Fair warning: it is not easy to read. He repeats himself a lot, he quotes many, many people, there are a billion footnotes, and a lot of terms that are not familiar to most outside of academic circles. But it is so good and so important for any church that is serious about mission in the 21st century.
  • Honorable Mentions: Formational Children’s Ministry, Good News For A Change, The Color of Compromise, Desire of the Everlasting Hills, Raising Disciples, The Strangest Way, Faith For Exiles, The Making of An Ordinary Saint

Category 2 (Non-Fiction)

  • The Away Game: There are a million, billion, fascinating stories happening all the time, and one of the gifts of books is discovering what a few of those stories are. Here’s a great example: the story of the Football Dreams academy and the search for the “Next Messi” among African teenagers. Fascinating!
  • The Good Neighbor: Mister Rogers has experiences an incredible resurgence in this cultural moment. The book is excellently put together and does a great job exploring Rogers’ faith background as the foundation for his TV philosophy.
  • Improv Nation: If I had to pick one book for book of the year, this is it. Some books tell great stories, some books are full of incredible ideas and information, and some books are just brilliant writing. And then there are books where the author pulls of all three. And this is what we have with Improv Nation. A wonder to read, while at the same being informative and full of unreal stories.
  • The World As It Is: Some will write this book off as Obama propaganda, or an attempt to justify a particular career era (by the author), and it may very well be both of those things. That said, what this book really is is a reflection of the toll positions of power take on people. Spoiler Alert: the toll is significant.
  • She Said: This book is being heralded as an inside look at the story that launched the #metoo movement, and it is that. But once again, so much more is going on here. In our era of deep distrust of the media, this book is a case study in just how deeply researched news stories that comes from major publications are (and have to be). Sure, some stories get published too soon or without enough corroboration, but if you want to know what really goes into reporting big, breaking, stories check this out.
  • Honorable Mentions: The Job, The Power of Habit, Atomic Habits, I’ll Be There For You, Talking To Strangers

Category 3 (Fiction)

  • Simon Serrailler Series: I’ve spent the last two years reading various mystery series, and this one is great. It’s very character driven, very British, and can be a bit slow (in comparison to a typical American detective novel), but it is so, so good. These are great novels that happen to be about a detective, rather than detective novels.
  • There There: Some debut novels make you wonder how did this happen? How did this thing come out of someone who had never done this before? This is one of those books, plus it’s a fascinating look at the city of Oakland.
  • Honorable Mentions: On the Come Up, Witch Elm

 

Books of the Year

Amy and I sat down the other day to review our goals from 2018 and set some new ones for 2019. One of my goals for 2018 was to read 75 books (oops), and blog more (haha)! (I also had a goal to look into a lead pastor position if the opportunity presented itself, so check).

Consequently, 2018 was a big year of transition for our family and so many of our goals had to be massively readjusted. For 2019 I am not making any big promises: I’d like to write more, I’d like to read more, but this new job is a beast and so who knows (smiley face emoji). Nonetheless, I humbly submit my books of the year…

Top 5 Books of 2018:

Hero Maker//Gaining By Losing: These two books are foundational for understanding where things are headed at our little church in Davis. Both are focused on the essential discipleship tasks of equipping and sending. They challenge us to change the scorecard from building our kingdoms to building THE Kingdom.

God Is Stranger: Krish Kandiah is (probably) my favorite. One of my first series at Discovery was based loosely on his excellent book Paradoxology. This book picks up in a similar place challenging us to examine the weirder (and stranger) stories and characters in Scripture, because those are often the best places to meet our God. Krish smartly, but accessibly, helps us navigate the complexities of Scripture and our faith.

Reading the Bible For the Love of God: There are a lot of books out in the world on how to read the Bible. Most of them, in my humble opinion, get bits right here and there but then you have 150 pages of stuff that isn’t all that helpful. This is an “older” book that I finally read this year and as I read it I had the experience of realizing this was the book I had always been looking for. Now, when people ask me about a resource to help them understand and read the Bible this is the go-to.

Little Fires Everywhere: I did not read much outside of theology/church and crime mysteries (more on this in a moment). But I did dip outside of those boundaries a few times and in this case it was well worth it. Celeste Ng is a fantastic writer and this book will thrill you with her skills, keep you guessing until the end, and make you think about many of the layered issues in our world around race, culture, class, immigration, and raising kids.

The Fifth Risk: Michael Lewis can make anything interesting. I am convinced of this now more than ever. In this book, which I believe started as a long-form article and ended up a short book, he takes the riveting topic of government bureaucracy (I know, right), and makes it fascinating and vital.

Addendum to the Top 5:

Eldership and the Mission of God//The Board and the CEO: I have spent the last few years thinking, praying, and pondering deeply over the question of church/ministry boards and leadership (and the interaction between boards and senior leaders). These relationships are tricky and I’ve seen the dark side of this part of church life more than enough times. As with the “how-to-read-the-Bible” genre, there is a great lack of helpful resources in the “elder” genre. These two books were good gifts this year. Both do an excellent job walking through perils and pitfalls, but also painting a picture of what a life-giving, healthy board/leader relationship should look like. Pastor/elder friends, don’t read another book until you’ve worked through at least one of these!

Finally:

My sub-challenge in the reading category was to start working through a genre that I normally don’t read. A friend gave me a list of mystery novels to tackle, and so that became the theme of 2018. I read 20 mysteries this year, and it was so much fun I will continue on into the new year. I would highly, highly recommend Tana French’s Dublin Squad mysteries. They are easily the best writing of the 4 series I’ve read so far. You will feel like you know Dublin after you’ve read them. They are also a little weird (in a wonderful way) and walk the line between realism and the fantastical. If this doesn’t make any sense, just read a few of them and you’ll see what I mean. I strongly suggest reading them in order. If you don’t like it I’ll buy your copy off you for my own self.

Happy reading in 2019!

Books of the Year

2017 was a pretty good reading year, 60 books completed plus a variety of resource books/reading (which I don’t count). Not bad for this stage of life. So, in no particular order:

  • The Imperfect Pastor
    • This was the book of the year for me. Timely, humble, earnest and just the words I needed to keep going at this crazy calling. I had never heard of Zach Eswine before this book, but I am now a huge, and grateful, fan.
  • Barbarian Days
    • If I were to write this book it would be a “San Francisco Giants Fan Days” or something like that. This is a long meditation on our passions and hobbies and how those shape and organize our lives, which I totally get and very much appreciate.
  • Just Mercy
    • If there is an energy that drives a lot of social justice work it is anger. Which makes sense: injustice should make us angry. The problem is that when it comes to communicating about issues and causes anger only gets you so far. And then a bunch of angry people yelling about their cause gets loud (and a little obnoxious). Bryan Stevenson is one of the most humble, quiet, and yet deeply passionate people working for justice and shalom in our world. His voice is so fresh and so inspiring and there are some INCREDIBLE stories in this book. Please read it.
  • The Tech-Wise Family
    • I deeply appreciate Andy Crouch’s approach here, because he moves us beyond the issue (technology and parenting) to what is really true and important: raising wise children (and becoming a wise person in general). More than thinking about smart phones and lap tops, this book challenged me to think about modeling wisdom and how I am leading our kids to a life of pursing wisdom.
  • Ready Player One
    • I met with a group of guys fall of 2016 into the new year for discipleship, and we often met in a sports bar in Rockridge. This bar was close to where one of the men was living at the time so his wife would come down and wait for us to wrap up so the two of them could hang out. While we talked, she read. I’d always end up talking to her about what she was reading and one time she very sheepishly told me about this book (virtual reality, mystery, sci-fi, etc), and I said “I’m in!” I completely enjoyed every page of this book. It’s got 80’s references, music/movie/book references, a total nerd fest. It would have been the novel of the year (but it got beat out in the end by a truly remarkable work of fiction). Still, this was an amazing, satisfying read that I will likely pick up again. It is also being made into a movie, a feat that seems impossible (but I guess Spielberg is on it, so we are probably in good hands).
  • Kill ‘Em And Leave
    • I love musician biographies. I try to read a few each year, but this was the only one I got to in 2017. However, it was a doozy! I know very little about James Brown outside of “I Feel Good” (which used to be the intro song for Giants broadcasts back in the day, which sort of proves my earlier point). This was a very educational read, one that had me running to Spotify or Wikipedia to hear more or learn more. James McBride is also an incredible writer, which makes the whole thing worth your time whether you are interested in the subject matter or not.
  • Paradoxology
    • The other new voice that I am now a huge fan of now is Krish Kandiah. This book, along with God is Stranger, are great introductions to his work and thinking. Kandiah invites us into the weirdness and strangeness of Scripture and then pulls us through to the other side where we can exercise a stronger faith for having taken the journey. His writing is very accessible, even though he delves into some deep waters. My Writer of 2017.
  • As Kingfisher’s Catch Fire
    • I have a friend who, if he knows an author has X amount of books, will purposely save one of their books so that they never get to the end. In his words: he would rather live in a world knowing there’s at least one more book to be read (by__________) than not. I sort of get it because when Eugene Peterson decided to stop writing I kind of freaked out. I haven’t read all of his books, yet, but there will come a day when there is only one more. In the meantime, though, Peterson did publish this new work, a collection of sermons from his preaching ministry. You can see all the roots of his writing ministry in the these sermons. They are beautiful, and served as my devotional reading for about three months. I’m not sure what I will do when I come to that last book, but for now I continue to treasure Peterson’s words, he is a giant.
  • The Hate U Give
    • The novel of the year. I read this on Amy’s recommendation. Wow. There’s a lot one could read regarding police brutality these days, but this book humanizes the issue (both sides) in a way nothing else has (to my knowledge), it doesn’t provide any easy answers, and it will stick with you for some time.
  • Telling the Truth
    • I’m embarrassed to confess that I know Frederick Buechner far more from quotes than from original sources. This book came recommended by Dad, and it was, in many ways, a fitting sequel to The Imperfect Pastor. These two works, together, were fuel for the craft this year, and will be returned to again and again.
  • The Beginning and The End
    • Here is a short, but extremely profound, book that picks up where Dallas Willard leaves off. I have now made it a required intern reading text, and it is an excellent summary of the larger narrative arc of Scripture and how that arc informs our hermeneutics. Narrative theologians add this one to your tool bag.
  • Barking to the Choir
    • One of the gifts of books is they introduce you to people who remind you of certain truths: that we live in a beautiful, God-bathed world, and that there is hope and a better story to be lived and told. Greg Boyle is one of those people for me. Barking to the Choir is a bit more somber than Tattoos on the Heart, but still full of joy, humor, and deep insight into the power of compassion to change hearts.

Happy Reading in 2018!

Books of the Year

I fell off my normal reading rhythm this past year,
but still read enough to let you know what I enjoyed.
Here we go (in no particular order):

  • The Brothers: Road to an American Tragedy
    • Haunting, but I would argue balanced, account of the Tsarnaev Brothers and the Boston Marathon Bombing (which we lived through during our time in Boston). The most interesting part of the book revolved around the reflections of a Russian gangster who urged people not to rush to try to “figure out why this happened.” His thoughts: maybe they were just angry, and maybe that anger drove them to evil.
  • Disappearing Church: From Cultural Relevance to Gospel Resilience
    • Mary Sayers is the best going right now when it comes to exegeting Western Culture. Having read a few of his books, the awe factor in this effort was not the same, but his conclusions are still excellent and worth pondering.
  • The Lost World Of Genesis 1: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate
    • John Walton’s work is a gift to the church. This (and The Lost World of Adam and Eve) helped shape my teaching on Genesis (summer of 2016).
  • You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit
    • If I had to pick the best/favorite of the list, here it is. Smith’s thoughts on worship, liturgy, and desires should change a lot of our thinking and practice when it comes to everything from how we parent to how we craft Sunday services.
  • Strong And Weak: Embracing a Life of Love, Risk, and True Flourishing
    • Andy Crouch takes a simple 2×2 chart and turns it into a brilliant explanation of what true leadership looks like.
  • The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture
    • This fun read explores how Batman has emerged as the preeminent 21st century super hero and how his rise correlates with the widespread mainstreaming of “nerd culture.” If you like Batman, nerds, or pop culture check this out.
  • Between the World and Me
    • The heaviest of the 2016 reads (but the shortest/smallest book), this book helped me understand the physicality of racism (as opposed to the reality or theory). To understand what I mean by that: read it. It will stay with you for a while.
  • Modern Romance
    • Hilarious and, at times, inappropriate, this book deepened my compassion for my single brothers and sisters. Modern dating is not for the weak of heart.
  • The Tortoise Usually Wins: Biblical Reflections on Quiet Leadership for Reluctant Leaders
    • The most refreshing leadership book I’ve read in years. It’s written by an Aussie, and it’s a bit hard to find, but worth the time and effort to get your hands on a copy. As a quiet/reluctant leader it both (a) confirmed many inner feelings and tensions, and (b) helped me see my strengths in new ways while offering some great guidance and challenge on how to lead in this way.
  • Here I Am
    • Easily the most anticipated book of the year for me. I’ve been waiting 11 years for a new Foer novel. In many ways this is his most ambitious effort to date (which is saying something for a guy who tackled the Holocaust and 9/11 in his first 2 novels). Parts of this book are intended to make you very uncomfortable, and it is not as perfectly brilliant as his other efforts, but the voice is there and at times it can be breathtaking.
  • The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity
    • Speaking of being uncomfortable: this is a confrontational work, but important, and never more timely than now (it was originally published in 2008). Rah’s words are must reading for those doing ministry in a multi-ethnic/multi-cultural context.
  • Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer
    • Finally, it wouldn’t be a reading list from this blog without a Eugene Peterson reference. This is an older work that I had not gotten to yet, but picked up for a series I am doing on the Psalms. Eugene helps us get into the human experience and the language the Psalms use to give voice to that experience.

Happy reading in 2017!

The Gift of Good Words

I am absolutely convinced, as an avid reader, that books find me more than I find them. They find me in all sorts of ways (Amazon’s crazy algorithms, word of mouth, browsing a good bookstore), but they are finding me a lot, these days, through the recommendations of my wife.

A book she shared with me that has been speaking to us in this time of moving and transition is Bittersweet by Shauna Niequist. The book is a meditation on change: change that comes through loss and pain and gaining and growing.

Her words have been a good gift to us.

Here’s some fun words about California:

I have a thing for California, possibly because the four years I lived there during college were the wildest and most disorienting years, punctuated by some of the sweetest moments in all my life. Possibly because California, both in its geography and its personality, is so many worlds away from the Midwest that just being there makes the world feel bigger. I love California for its otherness…

Amen.

Many of the life events she reflects on, miscarriage, parenting, leaving a church/church job, finding new community, moving “home,” are very similar to the big things we’ve been through in the last 3 years.

Sometimes there’s only so much processing you can do on your own, and you need someone else’s words to express what you’ve been through. Or, you just need to read and know that someone else has been through the same thing and felt the same things you’ve felt.

Anne Lamott says the best sermon is: “Me too.”

And in all the truthiness of that thought, Bittersweet has been the best kind of sermon for us at this season of life. I resonate deeply with this:

I wanted for this bittersweet season to be over. I felt so strongly…I’d be free to move into another season, one of life and celebration. But this is what I know: they’re the same thing, and that’s all there is. The most bittersweet season of my life so far is still life, still beautiful, still sparkling with celebration. There is no one or the other, as desperately as I want that to be true. This season wasn’t bittersweet. Life itself is bittersweet. There’s always life and death, always beauty and blood…Life after death…I’ll celebrate the resurrection of Christ with everything in me this year, pleading for a resurrection inside my own battered heart as well.