My Best Books of 2015

December 30, 2015 — Leave a comment

At the end of each year I write a post about my favorite things that year, including my favorite book. However, with all the books I tend to read each year, it seems a little unfair to peg just one book. Often I’ll cheat by breaking it up into a couple different categories (e.g., ministry, fiction). This year, with the number of books I read, I thought I’d dedicate an entire post to my favorite books of 2015. Here goes…

Best Biblical Studies BookThe Lost World of Adam and Eve by John Walton. Walton’s previous book The Lost World of Genesis One was in my best of 2014, so I was excited to see his follow up book in 2015. I couldn’t put it down. Indeed, I read it the first evening I got it. Walton’s attempt to understand the account of human origins as recorded in Genesis 2-3 is thought-provoking to say the least. There may be many assertions readers disagree with; however, I found Walton incredibly expositional in biblical support and winsome in presentation. The fact that Dr. Walton is committed to the full inspiration of Scripture and a Wheaton professor should give those who are apprehensive at his conclusions at least some modicum of comfort with his personal devotion and intellectual integrity. This book received Christianity Today‘s ‘Award of Merit’ in their 2016 Book Awards.

Best Theology Book The Confessions by Augustine of Hippo. Periodically I try to read a Christian classic for several reasons. The first deals with what C.S. Lewis once noted as “chronological snobbery.” He said a generation can develop a way of thinking whereby it considers inferior any old or ancient way to its own. Reading old books by the the Church Historical helps deliver us from the bubble of thinking our own way is the best or right way. A second reason I wanted to read this book, written from AD 397-400, is because I didn’t want to be someone who always quoted classics without at least attempting to read some of them. Augustine’s work helped me more deeply realize the passion ancient believers had for Jesus and the importance of personal holiness. It also reminded me why it’s good to read the church fathers but not replace the Scriptures with them. At the risk of displaying my own chronological snobbery, I found myself disagreeing with some of Augustine’s assertions (e.g., that baptism is salvific and literally cleanses one’s sins). This deepened my appreciation for historical theology and the witness of the Church Historical. Augustine also would’ve likely failed my homiletics and biblical exegesis classes in seminary. The latter part of his book deals with his take on Genesis where metaphor takes on a life of its own. I was also surprised how philosophical The Confessions is. Frankly, there were times I had to discipline myself to just keep reading because of the abstract nature of Augustine’s content.

Best Ministry BookThe Imperfect Pastor by Zach Eswine. I appreciated Eswine’s transparency about what he believed ministry would be in his life and what it actually became – and how the real latter was better than the imagined (or idolized) former. It enlarged my heart for the weighty things of pastoring while causing me to look in the mirror about my current ministry as pastor. Eswine is a gifted writer. There are many parts of the Eswine’s work that felt novel-esque giving a richer, more colorful sense to the pastor/reader. Ultimately, The Imperfect Pastor was a needed journey for my heart as much as my head. Maybe the best compliment I can give The Imperfect Pastor is that the more I read, the more I repented.

Best Fiction –  The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor. Sorry, but this is a three-way tie. I read all three on my month-long break this summer and each one was fantastic in its own way. O’Brien’s book was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, Gilead won it (2005), and O’Connor’s work is considered by The Guardian as one of the top 100 novels of all time. The Things They Carried is full of pathos about the Vietnam War and, more importantly, what happens to human beings who went through it. Robinson’s work deals with the legacy of an aging pastor and how he sees the world and grace within it. Wise Blood is a book I’ve written about this year: here and here. O’Connor’s sense of what divides true faith from false is so spot on that I kept wondering how she reached her conclusions in the life she lived. All three are written with their own sense of beauty and artistry. O’Brien will make you weep, Robinson will make you wonder, and O’Connor will make you wise.

Best Nonfiction –  Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace. There are fewer people I’ve developed an intrigue for than David Foster Wallace (or DFW). Considered a genius, DFW is a man whose insight into the human condition has almost an eerie quality about it. This collection of essays is mesmerizing. I don’t know how one person can not only think as deeply (an accurately) as Wallace but communicate those thoughts as precisely and effectively as well. Consider the Lobster is DFW’s time of show-and-tell about his genius. This guy can make talking about the dictionary engrossing. I’m not kidding! I stole this book from a friend and didn’t give it back until I finished it a few days later.

Best Book I’m Still Trying to Digest – Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. Well, you’ve heard about DFW already but Infinite Jest is his gargantuan novel 1 about a teenager who is a student at a tennis academy, a drug treatment center, and a video which renders people invalid. All of this occurring in a dystopian United States. Weird? Well, I’ll put it this way, I felt like I was engaging the literary version of a Terry Gilliam film. Surreal. Strange. But also something you felt you needed to experience in order to ask better questions about life and reality. Maybe one of the reasons I like Infinite Jest is because I don’t exactly know what to do with it. I can see why people continue to re-read Wallace’s work in order to find new answers and insights.

Best Just for Fun Book Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. While it could have excised some explicit sexual language, Flynn’s work was a true page-turner. I think I put down this book twice before finishing it. Just twice. Her twists and turns were well-crafted and left me wanting to read more of her work. Slick, smart, and super. Gone Girl is an outstanding “summer” read with an ending I appreciated although some did not.

Most Overrated Just for Fun BookThe Martian by Andy Weir. Maybe I felt nonplussed by Weir’s book because I was recuperating from surgery and on painkillers but The Martian felt like many movies people push: over-hyped but underwhelming. I had the sense I was reading more screenplay than novel. But give credit where it’s due, Weir, a software engineer, originally self-published his novel and it won popular acclaim (and a book deal) on its own merit.

Notes:

  1. 1079 pages with a serious amount of lengthy, at times short-story length, footnotes

New church plants aside, it’s very easy to make the church all about the pastor by making everything revolve around his leadership.

  • He authorizes every check.
  • He oversees every ministry.
  • He makes every weighty decision.

But that’s not wanting to be a pastor. That’s wanting to be a pope. If the lead pastor gets hit by an asteroid on Monday and the church boards its doors on Sunday, the head honcho has failed. Unfortunately, many leaders who initially aim to lead gospel-centered churches often, years after planting, still find themselves a pastor-centered church.

For example, a pastor-centered church is one where you never really pass the ball of leadership to others. You make all the final calls, remind everyone the buck stops with you, and spend more time making decisions instead of developing decision-makers. You’re always working in the ministry than on the ministry. Again, it’s one thing to endure this type of pastor-centeredness when you are starting a church. Honestly, it’s likely necessary for more reasons than this post will allow. But if, over time, you’re not willing to expand the circle of leadership responsibilities to include others (and yes, this includes preaching), you may be succumbing to the temptation of indispensability.

Indispensability whispers to us that things won’t get done without our involvement. It betrays us into thinking that if we’re not in the middle of everything then somehow we’re not being a good pastor. It hamstrings our ability to entrust things to others for collective good of the church. It plays on our insecurities grinding down the health our leadership. Frankly, the feeling of indispensability bloats the ministry of a pastor to a size of idolatrous proportions. It can also alienate you from your family and your marriage.

Brave pastors fight the temptation of indispensability. They do it by investing in other leaders, giving away ministry, and realizing the church doesn’t belong to them but belongs to Jesus. Brave pastors fight indispensability by confessing their limitations to God and others. They make it clear that leading the church is a team effort. Brave pastors learn to not only endure but appreciate the fact that church ministries may be a bit different than they would personally do it because they’ve let trustworthy, gospel-centered leaders actually lead. Brave pastors fight the temptation of indispensability by reminding themselves of passages like,

Eph. 4:11-13, “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ,  until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ”

2 Tim. 2:1-2, “You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.”

which remind them that pastoral ministry is measured just as much by what you pass down to others as what you keep for yourself.

That’s one reason why my church has spent countless hours and tons of resources putting together a Leadership Development Program that keeps us in a healthy rhythm of pouring into leaders “for the work of ministry.” It’s why we make the pulpit a team endeavor, eschew personality-centered communications, and structure leadership in such a way that distributes many responsibilities of the lead pastor while still having a very real (and very fine) lead pastor.

Know this, the temptation of indispensability is very real pitfall for the heart of a pastor.

Brave ones fight against it.

 

 

Leading the church is a demanding task. There will be times when you come home late because of the work pastoring demands. The problem is when those seasons become the norm instead of the exception, and we spend more time investing in our churches than in our families.

This temptation is easier to succumb to if we don’t center our identity in the gospel but instead in being a pastor. Now the success of our church – in its ministries, numbers, or simply how we want our congregants to view us – becomes the thing for which we live and, consequently, that which we give the bulk of our time.

It’s no secret many churches both big and small are led by unhealthy pastors who’ve made their local church a priority over and above their marriages and families. This can be especially true of church planters who work feverishly to get their local church off the ground.

But a brave pastor invests in his family. He pours into his wife, his kids. A brave pastor knows his home is the first church he pastors. That’s why one of the elder qualifications in 1 Tim. 3:4 is that “he must manage his own household well.” A healthy pastor must lead the little church (family) before he leads the big church. A brave pastor consistently fights the pull of ministry, the ache that things need to be done (by only him), and the siren’s call that tells him his identity is anchored to the “success” of his church.

Conversely, unhealthy pastors make excuses for their inattentiveness at home. They can easily guilt their spouses saying the church must have this or that from their leadership in order for things to work. They can also drop the God bomb on them: “Listen honey, this is why I’m the pastor God called to this church!” Well, who’s to argue with him when it’s put that way? To call his judgment into question is equated to lack of faith, spiritual immaturity, or flat out rebellion against God. However, let the record show this type of reasoning isn’t the sign of his spiritual greatness but his weakness, manipulation, and cowardice.

Listen men, the local church can get another pastor, but your wife has only one husband, your kids only one father.  If you’re going to cheat on someone, cheat on the idea that you have to be doing ministry/church 24/7. You don’t. Cheat on “the ministry” so you won’t cheat on your family. Make your home a priority in your schedule. Continue to date your wife. Make memories with your kids. Don’t play quality time over quantity time. Do both well. Lead your family at home so they won’t resent ministry but see it all as a blessing from God. It bears repeating. Lead your little church (family) in order to better lead your big church.

If your spouse ever says, “How come the church gets the best of you – your energy, your creativity, and your attention – but at home we get the crumbs?” You might want to consider cheating on the ministry so you can give your family what they deserve. I should know. This is what my wife said to me. And she was right. I was cheating on the wrong group.

I’ll give you one more reason not to cheat on your spouse with the church. The church is already Someone else’s Bride. That seat is filled by the Lord Christ himself (cf., Rev. 19:7-10, 2 Cor. 11:2). You play your role as pastor not Savior. Remember, your legacy as a pastor is just as defined by the family you love as the church you lead.

Brave pastors invest in their family.