Best Books for 2011

Considering we’re over two weeks into 2012 and I’ve had this on my to-do-list since the end of December, it’s time for me to compile my list of favorite books I’ve read and reviewed in the last year.  But I’m going to do this a little differently than you’d probably expect.  I’m not going to pick my highest-rated books based on my reviews, but I’m going to list the books that have had the biggest impact on my life.  Yes, I read for enjoyment, but most of the books I’ve reviewed on this blog have also been because I’m seeking to learn and grow, so at the end of the year I’m looking back to reflect on which ones led to the most growth and change in my life.

So here goes – my best books of 2011 – and what I learned from them (for the record, these are listed in the alphabetical order, not in rank-order):

  • Beautiful Outlaw by John Eldredge – This one almost seems obvious, given my love of Eldredge’s works, but when you also consider that I’ve reviewed other books by favorite authors (Yancey and Lucado to name a couple) and not included them on my list, you’ll realize this isn’t an exercise in listing my favorite authors. No, this is an exercise in listing those books that had the biggest impact on my growth over the past 12 months. It’s sad to say, but when I looked at the list of all my reviews I found myself saying, “Wow – I don’t even remember what that book was about!” That’s not the case with this one, though. Beautiful Outlaw challenged my view of Jesus in a way that few other books have ever done so. While I have some reservations (mentioned in the two reviews I post), I put this book down with a desire to know Jesus more personally and deeply than I had when I started – and it motivated me to spend more time in the Word and in conversation and fellowship with Him and others. To me that’s the mark of a book leading to change and growth.
  • Behind the Veils of Yemen by Audra Grace Shelby – just like Now I Walk on Death Row and While the World Watched helped me once again see the world through another’s eyes: this time through the eyes of those who are lost believing the lies of Islam. And it opened my heart to the necessity of reaching those people through my own actions – including gifts and prayers.
  • Church Diversity by Scott Williams – take Transformational Church and combine it with While the World Watched and you have an idea of the impact of Williams’ book. This book challenged me to think about worship and leadership in many new ways, it confirmed much of what I thought was happening in situations I was facing at various times throughout the year, and it offered insight into how I needed to approach some of those situations. This book is definitely deserving of being named to my list.
  • Jesus, My Father, the CIA, and Me by Ian Morgan Cron – Here’s the surprise book on my list, especially considering I gave it such a horrible review. But here’s why I’ve got to put it on my list of best reads: it caused me to reflect on how often I share Jesus with other people and ask myself the question, “Do others see Jesus in me?” My complaint about the book was that it didn’t focus me enough on the life and work of Christ – which then convicted me to say, “How can I do a better job than this book did?” I guess it’s like the old adage that says “You can learn just as much (if not more) from a non-example than you can from an example.” As I said in my original the review, the book is an absolute blast to read – it just didn’t have the focus I was looking for. But, six months after I read it, I still find myself thinking about it and recognizing it had a positive impact on my spiritual growth, so I’ve got to put it on my list.
  • Money & Marriage by Matt Bell – I wish I could say that all our money struggles were fixed after I read this book and that I was able to take every suggestion Bell had and put it into practice. What I can tell you is that it did lead to changes in how I view and manage money – all for the better – and so in that sense this book marked the beginning of a slow process for the better.
  • Now I Walk on Death Row by Dale Recinella – Here’s a book that tells the story of a real-life person who gives up everything this world counts as precious and trades it for the opportunity to minister to “the least of these”. I’m not suggesting everyone needs to be a prison chaplain, or even that I am looking to be one, but this book helped remind me there are lost and hurting people everywhere who need the love of Jesus – and that it is possible to be an agent for good in a lost and hurting world.
  • Radical by David Platt – to this day I still think back to the seemingly simple challenge Dr. Platt refers to as “radical” (read your Bible, pray, and give). And to this day I still struggle to do it! One of the best lessons I learned from the book, though, is the importance of sharing Jesus with other people and being motivated to do it. Platt’s comment that there “is no plan B” has been on my mind practically every day for the past year – and I find it convicting and motivating.
  • Simply Sacred by Gary Thomas – I’m still reading this book every day and finding more and more truth in it than the first time I read it. Melissa and I have been working through it as our daily devotional now for a couple of months and the insights Thomas shares have caused me to really examine my own beliefs and behaviors as I work to match them up with what God has called us to be and do. And since it’s the book we’re using for our couple’s devotional, it’s also challenged me to reflect on how we can grow spiritually as both a couple and family. Perhaps more than any other book on the list, this book has led to real change in how I act.
  • Transformational Church – I’ve spent the last eight years studying and working to better understand what it means to worship and what a church should be. Transformational Church is one of the best book I’ve ever read that answers that question. Without going into a lot of detail, the concepts and teachings in this book are ones that I applied in my own ministry and ones everyone in ministry should study, learn, and implement.
  • While the World Watched by Carolyn Maull McKinstry – I really didn’t anticipate or plan for this to be a “Top 10” list, but I guess it has ended up that way. This book really helped me see what it was like to live in a segregated society through the eyes of a black person. While segregation is something we learn about in school, since I was born after it was illegal (and because I grew up in the North) it was never anything I experienced. When I moved to North Carolina eight years ago I was shocked by the amount of racial tension I found here. While the past certainly doesn’t justify certain actions and policies that are present now, it absolutely helps explain them. This book really helped me see the world through someone else’s eyes.

So there you have it – my list of the most influential books on my life for the year 2011.  While I don’t make resolutions, I did start last year with a goal of reading at least one book a month – a goal I more than kept when I looked back and realized I reviewed 33 books last year.  While most were wonderful (and there are some I really considered putting on this list), the ones listed here are the ones that a year after reading them I can look back and say (without even looking at the list of my reviews), “I remember reading this book – here’s what I thought of it and here’s how it changed me.”  To me that’s what reading to grow is all about.  Sure, in reviewing the list of books I read I saw titles that caused me to say, “Oh yeah, I remember that – that was a great book!”  But their recollection needed a little reminder.  The ones on this list, though?  No reminder at all was needed.

So what’s coming next?  Here are some on my “To Read” shelf that will have reviews posted as soon as they’re completed:

  • Real Marriage by Mark & Grace Driscoll
  • Every Body Matters by Gary Thomas
  • Radical Together by David Platt
  • Out of a Far Country by Christopher Yuan
  • Why Jesus? by Ravi Zacharias
  • Doctrine by Mark Driscoll and Gary Breshears
  • Steve Jobs by Walter Issacson

That’s just a small list – thank you to all those who follow this blog and listen to my ramblings and reviews.  Hopefully you find them enlightening, encouraging, and maybe even a little entertaining.  Here’s looking forward to another year.


Book Review: Simply Sacred by Gary Thomas

If you have never read any of Gary Thomas’ books then this is a great first one.  Gary Thomas is one of my favorite authors, having written some of the books I consider to be the most influential on my Christian walk (including Sacred Pathways, Sacred Marriage, Not the End but the Road, Beautiful Fight, and Authentic Faith, just to name a few!) – in fact, he’s one of my top five favorite Christian authors.  So it should come as no surprise that last year when I read a post on Facebook by Gary Thomas that he was looking for volunteers to offer feedback on an upcoming book I jumped at the opportunity – and was ecstatic when I was chosen to participate.  So, that’s my disclaimer…

Here’s the deal: in Simply Sacred Thomas creates a devotional book with daily readings, one for each day of the year.  The selections are taken from his other books, essentially offering a sampling of some of Thomas’ best works.  For those who are turned off by books of this type, though (and by that I mean books that are simply selections of other works offered in devotional format), I have to honestly say that this is by far the best type of book like this that I have read.  Where as other books take selected readings and seem to randomly scatter selections across the year, Thomas’ and his editorial team obviously put a lot of thought and effort into selecting the passages for each day’s readings, making sure they are connected thematically and also ensuring each day’s reading doesn’t leave you feeling like you read only an excerpt and now you find yourself needing more.  Not only are the daily readings the perfect length for a short devotional, but they also each contain a punch that lead you to a deeper and more reflective walk with the Lord.  Additionally, each month focuses on a particular topic, but never in a forced way like someone was trying to make a particular reading match a particular topic – everything flows naturally from one reading to the next, much better than any other book in this style I have ever read (and I’ve read several).

Since receiving my autographed copy from Thomas (there’s another disclaimer), Melissa and I have been using it for our daily devotional every morning – and the short readings have led us to have some great early-morning discussions (however brief they may have to be at times!).  I can also say that while reading the manuscript last winter it opened my eyes to some of Thomas’ other works – motivating me to go and find some of the books I hadn’t read by him and they are now in my personal library (and I’ve started working through them!).  That’s why I made the comment that this book would be a great introduction to Thomas’ work.  If you’ve never read anything by him you could read through this devotional and as you found certain passages that speak to you it would allow you the opportunity to go and read the full book from which the excerpt is taken since each day’s reading records the source for the day.

So, I’m giving this book a 5/5 stars and will tell you to go and get yourself a copy – it’s something you can read slowly without feeling like you’re going too slow (since it’s designed to take you a year to go through), and yet at the end of the book I believe you’ll find you have a much deeper relationship with the Lord as you meditate on Thomas’ words.  For the record, I did receive a complimentary copy of the book in return for my honest (and not necessarily positive) feedback on the daily readings while it was still in manuscript form.


Love & War (Part I)

Cross Posted on Reflections of a Christian Daddy

I know this blog is entitled “Reflections of a Christian Daddy”, but I believe there are two key components to being a good Christian Daddy.  First is to be a solid believer (the whole Christian part), ensuring my walk with the Lord is where it needs to be.  It’s the same idea as when you fly on an airplane and they tell you that if the oxygen masks fall from the ceiling you need to put your own mask on before helping someone else (how can you help someone else if you’re passed out?)

The second key component is nurturing the marriage relationship, because I believe strongly (and have seen it reinforced over and over) that the best gift Melissa and I can give our girls is to have a strong relationship between the two of us.  About two months ago we started reading through a book together entitled Love and War by John and Stasi Eldredge (you can visit the Love and War website by clicking here).  They were actually running a promo earlier this year that if you were willing to blog about the book they’d give you a free copy.  Well, we already had the book and had started reading it, so we didn’t get a copy for ourselves but we did order a free copy to give to a friend of Melissa’s who was going through some struggles in her marriage.

Anyway, I am going to be doing some blogging about the book specifically, but today I just wanted to introduce the book to you.  We have also started a small group for married couples at our church that is following Sacred Marriage, a curriculum based on the book of the same name by Gary Thomas (you can visit his site by clicking here).  The whole thesis of his book (and this study) is to look at marriage as something which God uses to make us more like Jesus.  We have had our first two sessions and, while attendance hasn’t been what we had hoped for, we have had a great time learning together with others.

One final note.  This past week I was out of town at a church conference, so Melissa and the girls went to Melissa’s sister’s house to spend the week instead of spending it alone.  She drove me up to the conference on Monday and dropped me off, and then had to pick me up on Friday when it was over.  We decided that she would actually come up late Thursday afternoon so we could spend an evening together just the two of us, and we had a great time.  We got to just hang out, talk, and even went for a nice hike in the mountains (where the conference was); hike was a little over 3.5 miles and we went up to the ridge to watch the Sunset.  One of the really fun things was the top of the trail (perhaps the last 50 feet or so) was a short rock scramble, and it’s always fun getting to do something like that together.  It has been over a year since we got to spend a night by ourselves without the girls, and it was very refreshing to do so.