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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Books List 2011

This will appear as my monthly article in the December issue of our church newsletter. I finished it today:

Each December I use this space to reflect on books I’ve read during the year. I amped up my writing this year in starting a blog and becoming a panelist at Faith in Memphis ( Since reading is foundational to writing, I’m particularly interested now in books that stimulate ideas to further ponder via writing.

The list below is neither ranked nor in order of reading. As always, I lost interest in some books along the way and they don’t make the list. Neither do technical books like Bible commentaries nor periodical readings. Some of these titles were recommended to me by you, and though I can’t always follow through on someone’s recommendation, I like receiving them from you as it indicates you’re reading.

          The Pastor by Eugene Peterson: I’ve read most of his books; his insights and perspectives have shaped and sharpened many of my ministry convictions through the years. While I do not share his ecumenical interests, I'd recommend his memoirs to any pastor.
          The Age of the Unthinkable by Joshua Cooper Ramo: Our world, even amid unprecedented globalization, is largely “organized into instability.” Ramo is a secular author, but I found his advocacy for resilience in American foreign policy (he says we should rechristen Homeland Security to the “Department of Resilience”) applicable to the gospel: Evangelicals should see the gospel as a strategy of resilience more than resistance.
          Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies by Marilyn Chandler McEntyre: The book is based on a series of lectures the author gave at Princeton Seminary. Words and their mediums—conversation, poetry, stories—all matter, and the misuse or abuse of each and all is culturally eroding.
          The Devil Reads Derrida by James K. A. Smith: An assortment of writings Smith has published through the years in various periodicals, subtitled, And Other Essays on the University, the Church, Politics, and the Arts. I like essay-collection books usually. Do you think there could be any redemptive value in a movie like Little Miss Sunshine, or American Beauty? Smith thinks so and attempts to justify why in a couple of essays.
          In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick: This was my beach book in June, a historical narrative on the 1819 sinking of the whaler Essex. The ship was rammed to splinters by an angry sperm whale (Herman Melville based Moby-Dick on the tragedy). Since reading this book I don’t look at that whale on Vineyard Vines clothes as cute anymore!
          Tempted and Tried by Russell D. Moore: He utilizes Jesus' temptation narratives in Matthew and Luke to lay down some key contemporary insights on how the Tempter relentlessly works for our undoing. I was very impressed with Moore’s prose.
          Heresy by Alister McGrath: Heresies often originate from well-meaning types who are trying to advance the church or recover something they believe the church has lost. But they go too far. McGrath takes the reader on a fascinating tour of what constitutes "too far" in theology.
          A Positive Life by Shane Stanford: The autobiography of the new pastor at Christ Church, who lives with HIV. God has turned the mourning into dancing for Shane and his family.
          Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl by N. D. Wilson: The author is a modern-day Chesterton, and his book is a playground of peculiar insights. Readers in their twenties will especially “get” Wilson. I loved the book.
          Spiritual Rhythm by Mark Buchanan: I needed this book. Buchanan’s writing is always rich and thoughtful, and in this book he used the four seasons of the year to plot spiritual growth, experience, and work over a lifetime.
          Flannery O’Connor and the Christ-Haunted South by Ralph Wood: The fiction of this Georgia Catholic always contained a deeper commentary on American culture, especially the Protestant South. My favorite O'Connor quote, which I utilize in preaching:When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs as you do, you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock, to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind, you draw large and startling figures.”
          The Next Story by Tim Challies: A first book from this Canadian blogger extraordinaire, Challies offers his theological reflections on technology’s potentials and pitfalls.
          The Writing Life by Annie Dillard: A slim book on how writing happens that probably only appeals to writers.
          Humilitas by John Dickson: This Australian pastor and historian looks at humility. The premise of this book is that the most influential and inspiring people are often marked by humility, and that humility is using power in service to others. The book is chockfull of interesting anecdotal examples that bear this out. It’s subtitled A Lost Key to Life, Love, and Leadership.
          Sticky Teams by Larry Osborne: Practical counsel for how to keep church leaders on the same page. I’ve probably never read a book with so many endorsements on the first few pages, including the author’s mother! But such a helpful book to read I shared it with our staff.
As the year concludes, I’m finally into David McCullough’s John Adams and Mike Mason’s Champagne for the Soul, a book written to natural melancholies (like John Adams, and me) about joy. Reading is joy, as is serving a church that encourages me to it. Have as joyous a Christmas as you can!

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Friday, November 11, 2011

Pondering a Decision? Consider Possibilities and Problems

Every year my counsel is sought by people pondering major life decisions. How do I know whether I should make this move, take this job, marry this person? Is God’s will for me behind Door 1 or Door 2, or does God care one way or another what I decide? Did God put this interest before me or these desires in me? How much is up to me? How much has been ordained by God? What about Jeremiah 29:11? What about Psalm 37:4? What about Proverbs 3:5-6? What about James 1:5 or 4:15? What about Acts 16:6-10? What about 1 Corinthians 16:6-9?

This is honest searching in the face of opportunities sought or granted or both. Most of those grappling with these questions have tender consciences to God and want to do the right thing. They know they live Coram Deo (“before God’s face”) but aren’t expecting God will spell it out in the sky for them what to do. And some of them know their hearts well enough to know that it wouldn’t necessarily make follow-through any easier if He did. See ancient Israel in the pages of the Old Testament—a people who had the benefit of direct, audible words from God and still disobeyed.

Obedience is the key consideration for many who consult with me in their decision matters. It is often true of the ones who mull over what they ought to do the longest and tensest that they are most interested in obeying God. But I find, in most of their cases, that the decision being pondered simply does not rise to the level of obedience-disobedience. For instance: If God tells you directly to move to Pittsburgh and you remain in Memphis, you are in disobedience to Him. But deciding to stay in Memphis after considering the new job in Pittsburgh, concluding you don’t want to go after all, is not disobedience to God even if you felt at first a strong interest (or “impression”) to go. My point is that obedience and disobedience to God need to remain matters of response to what God has clearly revealed in Scripture, not what I think He might want from me or where I think He might be leading me.
Fear is another key processor for many, or the specter of regret. Major life decisions frequently have the feel of high-diving. No one wants to belly-flop from that height—make a miserable move, take a fools’ gold job, marry the person of your nightmares. We know one can jump off the high-dive and still climb out of the pool below, but he cannot be “unwet.” Thus many who come to me are looking for some divine assurance—in the absence of divine insurance—that if they meet with troubles or regrets on the other side of their decision it’s not because they flubbed God’s will.
This assurance is rarely frontloaded, however. The future cannot be known until it is lived (excepting biblical prophecy, of course) and God will grow our faith one way or another, wasting no opportunity to do so, even in situations we deem mistaken or failures. But after qualifying obedience-disobedience considerations and helping them plot their fears-regrets continuum, I am prayerfully counseling people these days to consider two points in pondering major life decisions—possibilities and problems.
Possibilities: What possibilities does the decision open to me? And are these possibilities intriguing? For instance, in considering a move or a new job: Am I more intrigued by the possibilities in the new place than the possibilities in the old place? I can misperceive the possibilities of the new place just as I can undervalue the possibilities in the current place. But a sober reflection upon intriguing possibilities—what really interests me—seems to put the considerations on more solid footing. A lot of evangelicals have to overcome the idea that God is automatically opposed to our interests or desires.
Problems: What problems does the decision open to me? Are these problems I want to live with? Note how I phrased that: By “want to” I do not mean one prefers or desires these problems, but that one knows he’ll have to allow them, tolerate them, live with them. Nothing in a fallen world is without problems. Knowing this is the way of life, what problems do you want to live with? For instance: A job in the public eye comes with public scrutiny. Not everyone wants to live with those problems. A staff position in a traditional church has its problems; a staff position in a church plant has its problems. Which problems do you want to live with? A move to another region of the country will likely involve difficult cultural adjustments or anguished distance from extended family. Do you want these problems?
Weighing possibilities and problems takes nothing away from prayer and seeking counsel, nor does it make decisions necessarily easier. What it does instead, I think, is directs what one prays through and how one seeks counsel, countering the “paralysis of analysis” that sets in on too many decision processes.