A couple of months ago I had a book review of Practicing Thankfulness: Cultivating a Thankful Heart In All Circumstances by Sam Crabtree published on The Gospel Coalition (AU) website.
Ironically I read this while Melbourne was in its fourth lockdown, of which we’ve never really come out. So I will confess I wasn’t that impressed with the beginning of the book but as I read it more I found it did do something within me. It reminded me that there is reason for thankfulness and not simply being a grump for the situations we find ourselves in. It requires a mindset change, an attitudinal change.
As I say in the final few paragraphs of the review:
“So if you would like your heart to opened and exposed—perhaps even have a metal rake run over it—this book will do you a world of good.
I will confess I didn’t like every part of it. I felt the tone lacked a certain pastoral quality, and that it was overly firm in some places where a bit more grey and grace would have been helpful. For example, Crabtree seems to write off all complaining and frustration as being ungrateful for what God has given us. He doesn’t give room for complaint and lament like many of the Psalms we read, and almost suggests we need to ignore these types of feelings, tell them to shut up, and move on. Further, there was some discussion about topics that seemed unnecessary and forced in relation to the main themes. These make moments in this book seem simplistic and reductionistic at times.”
I’m getting in early this year by releasing my list of top reads a few weeks before we see the back of 2020. For the last six years I’ve posted about what I’ve read each year and I might as well continue the tradition into a seventh.
I’m not sure whether it was because of what 2020 became but I have smashed any reading goals I had this year. Each year I aim to read, on average, one book per fortnight, that’s 26 books per year. By the end of May I had reached that goal. What this meant was that I had plenty of time to read more over the coming months, and as it stands today I’ve read 53 books for the year. This is really pleasing and definitely my best reading year ever.
Throughout I’ve read a range of genres – sport biography, missions history, theology, politics, church leadership, fiction, biblical theology and commentaries, a couple of books my daughter is into, and more. There is a sense my reading this year was a bit more balanced than other years, which was also pleasing.
So, without any further ado, I present below a list of books I thought were 5 out of 5 stars. And if you’re interested in reading my top reads from previous years you can do so here too: 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019).
I started off the year wishing for more rest, space, and slowness in my life. This book articulated the importance of rhythms and rest and Sabbath, and many other spiritual practices that help ground us in life in God. I found this an excellent book, and it’s probably time to read it again. As I look at my bookshelves I do notice it missing so it evidently was kept by someone who borrowed it! Good books always disappear. In any case, this is a helpful book that gives rise to habits and systems in life that contribute to sustaining a life-long, well-paced, Christian life.
The best fiction book I’ve read, this year at least and possibly ever; although who can top The Partner by John Grisham–I digress. This is a serial killer crime thriller, one of Patterson’s first ever novels published in 1983. The suspense and the build up is terrific, and there’s a great twist at the end which gets you. It’s violent and disturbing, but what do you expect from this kind of genre? Top shelf fiction.
Improving in my vocation and my particular role as pastor is always high on the priority list each year. And this book was certainly a big help in doing so this year. I really appreciate everything Alistair Begg shares, his sermons, conference messages, and witings. Here he partners up with his former mentor-pastor Derek Prime and they take you through the theological and practical of operating as a pastor. I found this immensely helpful to think about in my role and in developing others in the ministry. It also provided many tips to help in areas of preaching, pastoral care, time management, and the like. This along with some broader chapters dealing with calling and vocation as a whole were useful.
The Chronicles of Narnia by CS Lewis
Once we got into lockdown for a second time I became obsessed about re-reading the Chronicles of Narnia. Since finishing the series again I have been listening to the theatrical audio series produced by the BBC and others. I’ve been listening to them as audiobooks while in the car and doing chores, and they were easily found on YouTube. They’re so good. Anyway, a particular shout out to The Horse and His Boy and also The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (my favourite of the series). If you’ve never read this series of seven short books that detail the story of Narnia then do yourself a favour. Lewis is such a good writer and his illusions to the Christian life are throughout.
I’ll admit, there was a theme in my reading regarding spiritual practices. This was another of at least 3-4 I read overall this year. Warren really writes in an engaging way, she’s so good. And here in The Liturgy of the Ordinary she writes in the intersection of ordinary life and the Christian faith. She takes big theological understandings and helps us see their relevance in the mundane everyday practices and rhythms of life. Whether it is waking up and making your bed, to preparing food and eating with others, or doing the dishes after a meal, each has relevance to the Christian life and at times it’s a mindblow. I highly recommend getting your hands on this, I even borrowed it from the local library!
Each year I usually read a few biographies and this year I landed on John Owen. Owen is a Puritan from the 17th century, and extremely influential in the Reformed and Presbyterian church. This book details his life alongside the theological contributions he has made to the faith. Owen is well-known for his writings and sermons, particularly around the doctrines of the Trinity, communion with God, and sin and sanctification. For example, when writing about communion with God he says:
“When the believer has a taste of this communion with his Savior, sin is bitter on the tongue. Furthermore, says Owen, the believer is on guard against sin, lest it should interrupt and disrupt this sweet communion he enjoys so much with his Savior. Owen writes: When once the soul of a believer hath obtained sweet and real communion with Christ, it looks about him, watcheth all temptations, all ways whereby sin might approach, to disturb him in his enjoyment of his dear Lord and Saviour, his rest and desire. How doth it charge itself not to omit any thing, nor to do any thing that may interrupt the communion obtained!”
I hung out reading the Sermon on The Mount for most of the year. It goes hand in hand with the themes of spiritual disciplines and grounding faith in action, among other things. And so to help understand the various sections of the sermon I read Carson’s commentary on it alongside. Carson is always clear, concise, and compelling. He’s one of the best commentators in the world and is highly regarded. This was originally a series of lectures turned into a brief commentary. Whether devotionally like me, or for preaching and teaching, I’d recommend dipping into this one.
Anyway, there’s my list for this year. Let me know what you read and enjoyed this year, I’ll add it to my list!
When we are aware of someone’s name then we are aware of who they are.
A name defines us.
Some parents put time and meaning into the names they choose for their children, others don’t think too hard but come up with a name they like . But a name defines who we are. It represents us. It identifies who we are. Further, with time and experience, our name may become synonymous with particular things; with a particular family, with a particular place (if we’ve lived there a while), with a particular industry or workplace or organisation, and perhaps even a particular character trait.
I mean, think about the last few months here in Melbourne, how many times have you heard the Karen used in the media? Right now Karen is the name that represents someone who is an obnoxious, entitled, complainer.
But of course, this doesn’t rightly represent all Karen’s. We feel sorry for those people who are actually named Karen and are very nice people. Not all Karen’s are complainers, just like not all Wally’s are wasteful with water.
As we survey scripture we find there are over 100 names for God, many describing and revealing the character and person of God. In Matthew 6:9, continuing on from last week’s post, Jesus teaches us to honour the name of God, to hallow it, to recognise it as holy.
As we come to our Father in prayer we are to recognise that we are coming before God in all his majesty, holiness, righteousness, and beauty. We are children of the One who is all-powerful, all-glorious, all-excellent, and all-holy. And yet in prayer we are able to come before him and enjoy and adore him.
With this in mind, what then does it mean to adore God? I often feel we have inadequate words when we try to describe our adoration toward God.
You see when we adore something in human terms we have our heads affirming our adoration, our hearts yearning toward that which we adore, and our hands open to act toward that which we adore.
We think, we feel, and we act in adoration.
There is a head, heart, and hands aspect to this.
If we adore our particular football team we will watch the games, go to the games, buy a membership, debate others about how superior our team is, wear the scarf, and think often about our team and the players.
When we adore a person we will think about them, we will talk to them, we may have a photo of them on the wall, we will seek out the best for them–we want to be with them.
In prayer, as we show our adoration toward God, we come to him through relationship but we also come to him for who he is. We are drawn to God because of his greatness, his magnificence, his excellencies, his works for us and our world.
It can be stated rather crassly that the adoration component to prayer is simply repeating back to God how good he is. But I think this misses the point. We may well be telling God how good he is when we pray in adoration, but we do so because we recognise that God is God and we are not.
We are, after all, in a relationship with the God of the universe who has done things we cannot comprehend or understand, and whose character is displayed and told to us through his scriptures. Psalm 8 is a good example of adoration toward God, and we would do well to pray this Psalm as a prayer ourselves. It reads,
1 Lord, our Lord, how magnificent is your name throughout the earth! You have covered the heavens with your majesty.
2 From the mouths of infants and nursing babies, you have established a stronghold on account of your adversaries in order to silence the enemy and the avenger. 3 When I observe your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you set in place, 4 what is a human being that you remember him, a son of man that you look after him? 5 You made him little less than God and crowned him with glory and honour. 6 You made him ruler over the works of your hands; you put everything under his feet: 7 all the sheep and oxen, as well as the animals in the wild, 8 the birds of the sky, and the fish of the sea that pass through the currents of the seas.
9 Lord, our Lord, how magnificent is your name throughout the earth!
The whole Psalm resounds not only in praise for what God has done, but recognises the greatness of God. How majestic is your name in all the earth! It is a true Psalm of adoration toward God.
Jesus teaches us in the Lord’s Prayer that to begin prayer in adoration is prayer that highlights God’s goodness and greatness. It honours God’s name as holy. May we do this in our prayers during this time.
This continues our series in the Lord’s Prayer. More posts can be found at the following:
It was about 10 days ago that I heard of the passing of JI Packer. What came to mind when I heard this news, as oddly as this may sound, were pleasant and appreciative memories for someone who has had an impact on my faith–from my view of the Bible, my view of theology, and in many ways, my view of God.
My first introduction to Packer, that I can remember, was reading his book ‘Among God’s Giants’ (an early version of ‘A Quest for Godliness’). It was a book that outlined puritan history and gave mini-biographies of a number of significant puritan pastors and theologians. In my records, because I’m that kind of guy, I can tell you that I finished reading that book on the 5th of February 2007.
Only a few months later I finished reading (1st May 2007, for those who are interested) the book he is most known for, ‘Knowing God’. What I remember is that this book had a profound effect on me. In my notes on this book I wrote a one sentence summary saying, “Orthodox theology focussing on the Calvinistic doctrines, and making them clear.” Seems apt. But it is also a book I have gone back to again and again. There is a sense of refreshment when reading Knowing God. Not only is it dripping with biblical truth, it is written in such a clear and concise way.
When I first read Packer I was doing Christian mission work in a small village in the mountains of the Middle East. I was teaching students and connecting with people who were culturally, ethnically, and linguistically different to me in so many ways. It’s a time I remember fondly, it was a challenge and an adventure. But it was also the place where I experienced the most growth as a believer that I can remember. More than my upbringing as a pastor’s kid, more than my theological degree at college, and more than serving in the local church. And so it was here with Packer, and many other great Christian books, that I found my place theologically. I may have been walking with Jesus for nearly 10 years by this point but it felt like this was the first time I was hearing the gospel and amazing truths of the God I worship. I mean, just listen to how he speaks of the grace of God!
“In the New Testament, grace means God’s love in action toward people who merited the opposite of love. Grace means God moving heaven and earth to save sinners who could not lift a finger to save themselves. Grace means God sending his only Son to the cross to descend into hell so that we guilty ones might be reconciled to God and received into heaven.”
And then perhaps a word for today in waiting upon the Lord,
“‘Wait on the Lord’ is a constant refrain in the Psalms, and it is a necessary word, for God often keeps us waiting. He is not in such a hurry as we are, and it is not his way to give more light on the future than we need for action in the present, or to guide us more than one step at a time. When in doubt, do nothing, but continue to wait on God. When action is needed, light will come.”
And the whole book is like this…
What Packer brought through his books, particularly Knowing God, was a new sense of clarity and appreciation for the works and person of God. Not only was I reading about the God of the universe and with a God who I could have a relationship and commune with each and every day.
Today I have at least a dozen of JI Packer books, most of which I’ve read. Each time I dip into any of his works I am struck again by the irresistible clarity in which he writes about God and the thorough practicality of the doctrine he explains.
While I may never have met Packer in person, the amount he has written and the numerous sermons you can now find online, is a wealth and treasure trove for any believer. If you’ve never read anything of his then I would highly recommend doing so.
Packer has invariably influenced many people, the word over, but he has also influenced me–personally. His impact on my life and faith, on my character and the way I follow Christ is something personal. This week I’ll go have a look over a few of his books I’ve got sitting on my shelves, perhaps dip into another one I haven’t read and see what he says. Whatever the case, it will be impactful, it will ooze Christ’s centrality, and it will point me towards greater worship of God.
All this to say, Packer will have been enjoying the presence of his God this past week, and that the God he has known through veiled eyes will now be known in person and greater clarity than ever.
After a long absence I had a book review published at TGCA recently. I wasn’t really the intended audience of Choosing Love by Heidi Johnston, however it was still worth the read. It would be particularly helpful for parents to talk through with their daughters, or a youth ministry leader with their youth group or small group.
“From the outset, Johnston puts these themes of love, relationships, marriage and sex into perspective by reminding us that we are all created in God’s image: made for relationship, and therefore are to express our love and desire for one-another in the way God intends. The foundation of the imago dei, and the defining of love as that which comes from God, and shown through his Son Jesus, is an important truth to be understood for teenagers and adults alike.”
Excellent. This is an excellent book. Theology of sleep. Theology of rest. Theology of living by grace. Theology of sustaining ministry. Excellent. I don’t think I could’ve started the year off with a better book. In this age of hurry, burnout, and distraction this book is a good reminder we need to slow-down in this hurried life.
A different approach from Grisham in some ways. I found the storyline great, although I know plenty of people who didn’t. As usual it’s fast-paced, full of intrigue, and picking up themes of race and culture in the American South.
I haven’t read this since I read a children’s version when a child. It was good to listen to the audiobook and I found myself reminded of how good the story of ‘Christian’ is. Some terrific Christian themes and a good reminder of what it takes to remain faithful and persevere in the marathon that is the Christian life.
This was the best youth ministry book I read all year. It only came out mid-year and I was keen to get my hands on it. As I wrote in a review:
I have not read a youth ministry book which actually quotes Hebrew and Greek in its pages. But now I have. And it’s not just quoted for McGarry to look scholarly, it’s quoted to show the meaning behind a number of texts in the Old and New Testaments that build towards the book’s aim of,
…presenting a clear and simple but thoroughly biblical framework for thinking about youth ministry as the church’s expression of partnership with the family for co-evangelising and co-discipling the next generation. (p3)
Sam Allberry writes really well about biblical sexuality and same-sex attraction. A same-sex attracted minister himself, Allberry writes this brief book about the biblical understanding of homosexuality and what it means for those who are same-sex attracted. I found this a very helpful primer on these themes.
Continuing in a similar vein, DeYoung dives deep into the various passages in the Bible which speak of homosexuality. Furthermore, he writes to those who are critics of Biblical sexuality seeking to winsomely show the fault in their understandings. It is very good on the exegetical front and a good resource for teaching on such a topic.
A friend of mine from the USA, Mike McGarry, recently published this great book, A Biblical Theology of Youth Ministry. It’s an excellent read, and a much needed contribution on the theological foundations for youth ministry.
I reviewed the book and had the review published at TGCA. You can read the whole thing here.
You can find my review of A Biblical Theology of Youth Ministryhere.
My friend and colleague, Danny Hunt, recently wrote a book about being a second-chair leader. That is, a leader that has a boss.
It’s a short book but packed with wisdom and reflection from his 30-plus years of experience in church leadership. It is aimed mainly at those who are involved in church life, but would be suitable for other industries as well.
I was fortunate to read the book recently and have a review of it published on TGC Australia.
It’s a book I’d highly recommend. And it is a book I found time to write a reflection on to better process some of the content.
As it happens, I’ve had that reflection published as a book review at The Gospel Coalition Australia site. You can read it here.
“I couldn’t be more different from Jackie Hill Perry.
I’m a man, she’s a woman.
I’m white, she’s black.
I’m from the wealthier side of Melbourne, Australia. Jackie is from a rougher area in Chicago, USA.
I’m hetero, she’s a former lesbian.
There’s a few differences, yet at the same time we now find ourselves brother and sister in Christ. No matter the differences of the past, or the differences now, our stories intersect as part of God’s grander story in Christ. And what a privilege that is having now read Jackie’s memoir, Gay Girl, Good God.”
I found it to be a great memoir, exploring the intersection of God’s story upon Jackie’s story as she wrestles with her sexuality and upbringing. It’s well worth reading if you have the time.
Here are some short summaries of books I’ve read recently. I haven’t been reading as much as I’d like in recent time, but here are some of the books I’ve dipped into.
1. The Reckoning by John Grisham
This is the best Grisham book I’ve read in a long time. It is his usual fiction, but this time structured differently as he delves into one of the character’s past in particular detail. This is a very sad story in many ways, but keeps you interested as there are plenty of turns and twists and secrets, only to come together in the final few pages. A great read.
2. The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan
I hadn’t read The Pilgrim’s Progress properly, well, not that I can remember. I certainly remember the child versions I had when I lived at home. But thanks to Christian Audio I listened to it via their app. It was a great reminder of the trials and joys it is as a believer. This is Bunyan’s classic work and is an allegory for the Christian life, following Christian and his wife and family as they seek the Celestial City. Definitely worth the read (again) and encouraging for my walk with Jesus.
3. Gay Girl, Good God by Jackie Hill Perry
This is a memoir, which details Jackie’s life as she has wrestled with her sexuality and lesbianism. It tells of the horrific situations she has experienced in her childhood, everything from abuse, to being discarded by her father, to family breakdown, and more. But then she tells of how she has been be called by God to follow Him and in turn find her life transformed. This is a powerful story, and great story that points more to God than it does to Jackie herself. It’s certainly worth the read.
Scott is a youth minister up in Sydney and has written a whole selection of books for young people. This one targets the youth pastor and volunteers.
I found this book really helpful, and will most likely use some of the content to help train my leaders. It gives a good theological and ministry philosophy foundation at the beginning. The book then moves into more practical and specifics aspects of youth ministry, everything from team meetings, youth group meetings, how to prepare a talk, how to communicate to kids, parents, leaders, and the church etc. It also comes with good resources very clearly laid out in the appendices. And, it’s short – 100 pages or so.
I’d recommend this to any average youth pastor like me.
5. The Autobiography of William Jay by William Jay
I’m still working through this second half of this book but it is excellent. Jay was a minister and preacher in England during the 19th century. He was pastor of Argyle Chapel in Bath for 63 years. His story is amazing; but his reflections on life, discipleship, evangelism, church, and preaching, and writing are even better. He writes these reflections in 19 letters to his children, about ten years prior to his death. There is a wealth of gold in these letters and reflections, some of which I’ll no doubt write about in due course. You can read a little something I wrote about his views of writing memoir and keeping a diary here.
You can also read more book summaries I’ve written at the following posts: