Best Reads in 2016: Part 2

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I’m a sucker for the “best books of 2016” lists that flood my timelines and news feeds this time of year, so to follow suit, here’s a list of my favorite reads from the second half of 2016.

(As a sidenote, these are not not necessarily books released this year, but books that I read this year.)

The Weight of Glory by C. S. Lewis

I offer you this quote from the book: “If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” I don’t think I really need to add anything more.

Do More Better: A Practical Guide to Productivity by Tim Challies

Tim Challies consistently puts out some of the best Christian content and resources on his blog. That’s why this book was a no-brainer when I heard it was coming out. Do More Better is a super quick and easy read but will revolutionize the way you think about productivity. I’m still applying and tweaking many of the suggestions and tools he offers in the book, but I feel that they have helped me immensely over the last few months. Do More Better would be a great read for anyone looking to be more productive in the new year (so, basically everyone).

The Explicit Gospel by Matt Chandler

To quote the aforementioned C. S. Lewis, “I can’t imagine a man really enjoying a book and reading it only once.” I first read The Explicit Gospel just before graduating from seminary in 2012. It was a game-changer of sorts for me. It helped me to see that the gospel is not just the entry point of the Christian life, it’s central to the entire Christian life from beginning to end. I will never graduate from the gospel. Neither will you. That’s why you should read The Explicit Gospel.

As I mentioned, I’m a sucker for “best books” lists, so I’d love to hear your recommended reading from the past year. Also, here’s the list of my favorite reads from the first half of 2016.

A Holy Habit

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In the midst of all your plans to eat healthier, workout more, quit smoking, start saving, etc., can I encourage you to make another plan in 2016?

You should read through the Bible this year.

I’m supposed to say that, I know. I’m a student pastor on staff at a church that pays me to teach the Bible. If I don’t encourage you to read your Bible through this year, am I really even a pastor? (Some might argue that student pastors aren’t really even “pastors” anyway, but I digress.)

Let me write to you for a minute from outside of the pastoral perspective–or at least the best I can. I grew up in church. Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday night, repeat. As a result, I heard a lot of the Bible growing up. I knew the familiar flannel graph stories. I blushed as I would skim through Song of Solomon. I snickered at the use of the word “ass” in the King James Version (especially in 2 Peter 2:16, if you’re taking notes). Despite the fact that I was pretty familiar with the Bible, I never read through it until I was in seminary (which probably made me unqualified for seminary).

So in 2011 I picked up a copy of the One Year Bible and committed myself to reading through it. I read and I read and I read. And I got behind–like, way behind. I think I was actually 17 days behind at one point. But I made those days up over the course of a few weeks, and on December 31, 2011 I read the final passages from the book of Revelation. Done.

I didn’t understand a lot of it. Truth be told, I still don’t understand the majority of it. I did learn a lot, but nothing completely life-altering at the time. God didn’t part the clouds and commend me with a “well done, good and faithful servant!” But there was an interesting side-effect of reading through the Bible that year: it became a habit.

For the last 4+ years, I’ve had a fairly consistent habit of reading the Bible daily. On the days where I don’t make time to read, something feels out of place. Please don’t read that as a boasting of sorts. I still have “out of place” days. And sometimes even the days I do read I do so through the grogginess of an early morning funk or with a “check-Bible-reading-off-my-to-do-list” mentality, neither of which are particularly helpful. But through the grogginess and the struggles, I try to read. It’s habitual.

That’s why I think you should read through the Bible this year. Not because I suspect you’ll experience a completely life-changing truth–though you very well may. Not because you’ll learn much that you didn’t know–though you probably will. Not even because it’s what “good Christians” are supposed to do. I think you should read through the Bible this year to form a habit of reading the Bible daily.

You can find an endless number of reading plans on the YouVersion app or a quick internet search will provide you with ample plans to choose from. If it’s easier, just pick up the One Year Bible, set it on your nightstand or coffee table like I did and read the passages that correspond with each day.

In a season when we’re all contemplating dropping a bad habit, let’s fill the void with a good one–one that has some eternal weight significance (poor word choice around the New Year). One that I really believe will transform us “from one degree of glory to another” one daily reading at a time.

Not By Sight

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I went to the doctor for a physical earlier this week. Unlike my freshman college calculus class, I passed this test with flying colors. I also learned that I have 20/13 vision. Unsure if that was good, bad, or meant that I was living a couple of years in the past, I asked the nurse for some clarification. She informed me that my vision was “better than perfect,” as if that’s really a thing. Upon further research, apparently I can see at 20 feet what the average person can see only at 13 feet.

So I can see really well. Which is awesome–until I remember that walking faithfully has nothing to do with what I can see (2 Corinthians 5:7).

One of my favorite illustrations regarding walking faithfully is found in Psalms 119:105:

“Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.”

God’s word will illuminate my way, telling me where to and where not to step. Encouraging, right? Well, sort of. The object used in the illustration is a lamp, which would be the ancient equivalent of a flashlight. However, whereas the modern flashlight projects a concentrated beam quite a distance ahead, the ancient lamp didn’t have that ability. You know what a lamp in this context would illuminate? The next step. Not the end of the path, not the desired destination–just the next step.

Here’s the deal: being able to see at 20 feet what most people can only see at 13 feet means nothing when the lamp only lights the way for the next 3 feet.

And so we walk by faith, not by sight. Sometimes it’s more like stumbling or crawling, but by God’s grace we progress by faith–not by faith in the path or by faith in the destination, but by faith in the One who lights the way, one painfully slow step at a time.

Having An Affair With Jesus

I’m currently reading a book entitled, “The Senior Pastor and the Reformation of Youth Ministry” by Richard Ross. It’s really challenging my perspective on the “why” and “how” behind student ministry and what a healthy student ministry should look like–but that’s a topic for another day.

Eighteen pages into the book, Ross references some comments made by a well-known worship leader. Here are the two paragraphs that have wrecked me for the last couple of weeks:

Often it feels to me as if, for many of our people, singing praise songs and hymns on a Sunday morning has turned into an affair with Christ. . . . Too many of us are far more passionate about less, temporal concerns such as getting ahead at the office, finding personal happiness in a hobby, driving a new car, or rearing well-balanced children. But we rarely ever get that excited about Christ Himself, at least on any consistent basis.

Except when we enter a sanctuary on a Sunday. Then for awhile we end up sort of “swooning” over Christ with feel-good music and heart-stirring prayers–only to return to the daily grind of secular seductions to which, for all practical purposes, we’re thoroughly “married.” . . . Christ is more like a “mistress” to us. He’s someone with whom we have these periodic affairs to to reinvigorate our spirits so that we can return, refreshed, to engage all the other agendas that dominate us most of the time.

I wonder how many of us are merely having “an affair with Christ”? I’m not casting stones here. I’ll be the first to acknowledge my guilt of singing and raising my hands from the stage on a Sunday only to turn back to the “secular seductions” (work, schedules, finances, and yes, sometimes ministry) when the alarm clock goes off on Monday morning.

I don’t have this figured out yet. In Paul’s all-too-familiar words, “I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.” (Romans 7:18) But “thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 7:25) who calls us his Bride, even when we treat him like a mistress.

When God Speaks Through a Coke

Each Sunday morning I lead a group of college and young adult aged men and women through some sort of Bible lesson, discussion, etc. (Yes, it’s a Sunday School class; there’s just something about the phrase “Sunday School” that makes me cringe a little.) Last Sunday we talked a bit about the account of Mary and Martha found in Luke 10:38-42. If you’re not familiar with the passage, Jesus applauds Mary for sitting at his feet, while encouraging Martha to be less concerned about the “many things” that cause her to be “anxious” and “troubled” and to be more concerned with him. Naturally, I encouraged the group to make time for the most important thing–their relationship with Jesus–in the midst of other important things–relationships, school, work, etc.

Then Wednesday happened.

Wednesdays are always busy days for me. On a typical Wednesday I’m usually up around 5am, at the church office at 9am, and finally get back home around 10-11pm. But this past Wednesday made a typical Wednesday look like a walk in the park.

The day started with a doctor’s appointment for Owen, which revealed a nasty ear infection along with some other medical issues that his pediatrician wanted to examine further. Then it was off to the lab for blood work (which, might I add, is absolutely miserable for a one year old and parents). I finally made it into the office around 12:30 where I managed to get caught up on Wednesday night youth group preparations before venturing back out to run some work errands, pick up O’s prescriptions, and swing by to check in on the family. I got back to the church building around 5pm, jumped right into youth band practice which ran right up until our gathering started at 6:30. For the next hour and half we sang, laughed at people eating disgusting flavors of jelly beans, sang some more, and talked about Jesus. No sooner than I had said “amen” on the closing prayer, Kelli informed me that we needed to take Owen to the hospital as a result of some of the aforementioned medical issues. So off to the hospital we went–and after an X-ray, a CT scan, some IV fluids and a lot of waiting, I finally laid down to sleep around 4am (which would’ve been later were it not for a self-sacrificing wife).

But what I didn’t tell you was that throughout the vast majority of that Wednesday I carried around a bottle of Coca Cola that I had purchased earlier in the day. It was one of those bottles from the “Share a Coke” campaign that had a random name on it. But for that particular Wednesday, I don’t think the name was very random at all. What was the name?

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Martha. You know–the Martha from passage I had just talked through the previous Sunday. The Martha that was so preoccupied, troubled, and anxious with her “many things” that she nearly missed the most important thing.

The Martha that I encouraged my group not to be that week was the Martha that I had been that day. I had gotten so caught up in doctors appointments, schedules, preparations, and yes, even ministry, that I had neglected just sitting at the feet of Jesus.

I don’t want to be the guy that over-spiritualizes every little thing–but what a subtle reminder to practice what I preach. More importantly, what a reminder not to miss the most important thing in the midst of other important things.

And clearly, God enjoys Coke more than Pepsi.

A Lesson from Lent

In an effort to try something different and new this year, Kelli and I decided we were going to partake in Lent. Before the 40 days of Lent kicked off on February 18 (turns out it’s actually more than 40 days) we each decided on a “lesser thing” we were going to give up in an effort to better focus on the “greatest thing”—the gospel. Kelli abstained from caffeine and sugar for the entirety of the 40 days while I took an extended vacation from social media. In addition to giving up our “lesser things” I also found a great Lent guide from The Village Church for us to walk through together as a family. The guide led us through a series of passages from the gospels as well as through a series of weekly fasts (food, TV and movies, social media, caffeine and sweets, radio and music, purchasing non-essentials, sleep—in that order) with the goal of “preparing [us] for the joy of Resurrection Sunday as we enter the sorrow and pain which preceded it.”

I wish I could tell you it was a time of incredible spiritual awakening. It wasn’t. I wish I could tell you that each and every week I led my family through powerful devotions full of deep and life-changing spiritual insights. That didn’t happen either. However, Lent did reveal something in my own life that I’m certain many can relate to.

Having decided to give up social media for 40 days, I deleted the Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram apps from my phone. What’s funny (or mildly disturbing) is that over the first few days of the fast I would mindlessly pick up my phone as if to jump onto Twitter or to scan through Instagram, only to realize that the apps were no longer available. So did I just put my phone down? No. I checked my email instead—you know, just in case I started getting emails from people who haven’t messaged me one time in the last three years. It didn’t take me long to realize that I’m overconnected.

We live in a world that makes it incredibly hard to power down and disconnect. The devices we carry in our pockets make it nearly impossible. We’re always connected. Yet in the gospels we have record of Jesus slipping away from time to time to pray in a quiet place. Jesus exemplified what it means to disconnect—and if Jesus exemplified it, I think we would do well to imitate.  If you’re like me and find yourself on social media quite often, let me encourage you to shut your phone (or tablet, or computer, or whatever you use) off every once in a while (maybe even for a whole week or weekend—gasp!). Unplug. Disconnect. Your husband/wife/children/family/friends will appreciate it—and you’ll benefit from it as well.