My Top Books of 2016

It’s about that time of the year again when I emerge from my hobbit hole just long enough to share with you my top books from this past year. Upon reflection, 2016 wasn’t that great of a reading year for me. Even as I survey the list I have a hard time remembering what some of them were about or why I even read them. Some of that had to do with the books I read, some of that had to do with the nature of the year.

Unlike years prior, I didn’t set a reading goal. I just kind of went for it. I was reading on average about five books a month up until I got in August and then it all kind of tanked. Still not clear why. Still, I managed to sneak in some books in December to help get me to 53 (well, 54 if you include the CrossFit Level 1 Training Manual which was 225 pages). Of the 53, sixteen were non-religious reads, 36 were religious. Fourteen fiction. Roughly seven literary nonfiction.

A word before I dive in: as much as I disagree with this division when it comes to life, typically when I make this list I break it down into two categories; religious and nonreligious books. When I first started this, it was a way of ensuring my secular reads got some attention – and ensuring I was reading secular things in the first place – but this year it felt the secular books outshone the religious books in terms of quality. Next year, I might not divide them up and let every book fend for themselves. Anyway, here are my top five from each category.

Of course, there’s something to be said about timing and applicability of the book to my state at the time of reading.

Non-Religious Reads:

Just Mercy – Bryan Stevenson

This book won’t break your heart. It will shatter it. I don’t know if a book has ever made me cry but I could feel the tears welling up in my eyes almost every chapter. I never really was an advocate for the death penalty but this book took it to a whole different level. I can’t recommend this one strongly enough.

Between the World and Me – Ta-Nehisi Coates

Like Stevenson, Coates leveled me. Writing to his son who is becoming aware of racial inequality in America, Coates gave voice to what I felt but at times wondered if I was crazy for arguing. A bit nihilistic and pessimistic in tone, but that’s largely a product of Coates’ worldview. Still, if I could memorize any book from start to finish, it would be this one.

The Art of Asking – Amanda Palmer

Call me a musical heretic but I never was big on The Dresden Dolls. This book matches Palmer’s lyricism: inflated, overblown and yet winsome for that exact reason. If I recall correctly, there are no chapters, just sections. Much like the cover, she stands naked before us; sharing deeply and vulnerably from her story. While you may feel uncomfortable at times, you can’t help but let her into your heart.

Big Magic – Elizabeth Gilbert

Every once in a while, you need that one person that tells us to go for it. Gilbert is that person. The temptation with creativity is to make it an elitist’s activity. Gilbert gives you permission to create because you love it, regardless whether or not you’re good at it. She gives you permission to fall in love with the process.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child – JK Rowling

Rowling could’ve sold me a blank book and it still would’ve made the list. While critics might have issues with the story, the book’s nostalgia factor alone makes it a winner. How could I not grin from ear to ear watching the friendship between Albus Severus and Scorpius develop? How could I not swoon as memories of Hogwarts came flooding back? Harry as a father struggling to get it right? Perfect. It was a book I didn’t want to read fast and yet couldn’t help it.

 Religious Books:

 

The Final Battle – C.S. Lewis

Right when I thought 2016 was a total wash, I started The Final Battle and instantly had to recant. This book reminded me of everything I loved about fiction. Both tragic and heartwarming, Lewis has a unique ability to stir deeper theological questions through literature. An extremely satisfying end to a wonderful series.

In Name Only – Eddie Gibbs

 This very well might’ve been the single most important book I read this past year. Here, Gibbs tackles the topic of nominal Christianity and the problems inherent within it. As I operate in the Caribbean where Christianity is engrained in the culture, this book gave name to a lot of things I’d been noticing but couldn’t quite describe. Not to mention it’s one of the only books out there on nominalism – or nominality as he would call it. I’d be interested in him updating this.

Teach Us to Want – Jen Pollock Michel

Michel wins because of sheer surprise. I honestly had no idea what to expect with this read and, in fact, I almost skipped on it because I thought it might’ve been a book for women (chauvinist confession). But Michel highlights that to want is to be human, the real battle is to replace our desire for small things for a desire for better things. This book rocked my world first because the subject matter, then because how well-written it was and lastly because it showed me a lot about a secret attitude I had towards female writers.

The Call – Os Guinness

There’s a reason why this is a classic. Guinness walks us through the different facets of calling, remembering that we can’t speak of calling without talking about the caller. This book is filled with gems from start to finish.

The Art of Dying – Rob Moll

With a title like that, how could I NOT pick this? The premise is an interesting one: we, as a people, have never had more time to prepare for our deaths and yet we’ve never been worse at it. We cling so tightly to life we’ve lost the spiritual art of dying well, demonstrating faith in the midst of it. This book made me simultaneously less and more afraid of death than I’ve ever been.

Honorable Mention(s):

Beautiful Feet – Jessica Leep Fick

I actually met Fick in Indonesia right as I was starting her book. While this book is about women in evangelism, I felt it was important for me to read and understand. There are problems women encounter that I will never know about or have to worry about because they’re not part of my reality. The first few chapters alone are worth the book. More than just being the female counterpart to Beau Crosetto’s Beyond Awkward, this book stands strong on its own.

How to Survive a Shipwreck – Jonathan Martin

 Honestly, this book probably would’ve made it in the top ten if it didn’t take me so long to read it. Not because the book was long or bad, I just was lackadaisical in reading it. Martin does what a lot of Christian authors don’t do in these books: writes the truth in ways that are transformative instead of simply transactional. Only thing was, I kept wondering what the heck was the shipwreck in his life he kept referring to. The man left his church, eventually got divorced, but I have no idea what triggered it.

Start Something New – Beth Booram

What if the dreams you have aren’t bad, but are actually God given? Booram takes us through first understanding the dreams that are inside of us then walks us through the realizing of these dreams and what happens when they die. Interesting concept.

Full List:

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Primal Fire, Just Mercy, Between the World and Me, Journaling as a Spiritual Practice, Soul Keeping, Prophetic Lament, Scary Close, The Furious Longing of God, The Spiritual Life, The Art of Asking, The Gift of Imperfection, My Horizontal Life (don’t ask), Invitations from God, Start Something New, Changing Faith, Big Magic, Jesus Behaving Badly, True story, The Leadership Ellipse, The Art of Dying, Theology Questions Everyone Asks, Slow Church, Percy Jackson 1-5, The Call, The Eclipse of Faith, Searching for God Knows What, The Weight of Glory, Depression: Looking Up from the Stubborn Darkness, Ordinary, Teach Us To Want, Turn My Mourning into Dancing, My Struggle 1 & 2, House of Olympus 1: The Lost Hero, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, In Name Only, Beautiful Feet, Chronicles of Narnia 2-7, Falling Upward, How to Survive a Shipwreck, Zeal without Burnout, True Friendship, Roadmap to Reconciliation.

My Top Books for 2015

Last year I posted my top five books of 2014 and thought it’d be good to do the same this year. However, because 2015 was such a good year for reading (in terms of both quality and quantity) I figured I’d share two separate lists: one for my top five religious books and another with my top five nonreligious books. While the religious ones outnumbered the nonreligious ones, I still felt I read more secular books this year than ever before. In total I completed 52.

I’ve also compiled a list for honorable mentions. Any and every one of these books deserved to be in the lists above it but I had to cut down somehow. The list, in no particular order, is as follows:

Religious

  • The Best Yes – Lysa TerKeust

Anyone who knows me knows I am the king of indecision. Terkeust argues that more often than not, the choice isn’t between something good or bad, but good and good. We have to decide not just between “no” or “yes” but our “best yes.” This book freed me up to be more decisive and trust with God with my decisions.

  • Culture Making – Andy Crouch

 Crouch asserts that in order to change culture, more than condemn or copy, we need to be create more of it. Crouch is one of those guys that make you feel and sound smarter while reading him. If you want to sound cool when people ask you what you’re reading, this is definitely the book for you.

  • Theirs is the Kingdom – Robert D. Lupton

I’ve said this once and I’ll say it again: if this book doesn’t break your heart, you’re either spiritually dead or Mother Teresa. I don’t know how you read this book without grappling with the poor and God who identifies with them.

  • The Insanity of God – Nik Ripken

 Can faith survive in a hostile environment? Ripken, as a result of his own hardship, goes on a journey to find out. Detailing stories of both hope and loss, this book will shake up your faith and make you wonder what you’re doing with your life in the best way imaginable. 

  • Jesus Feminist – Sarah Bessey

Quite simply, this book showed me why it’s imperative that we listen to our sisters and mothers in Christ. Bessey goes absolutely bananas on women in the Bible, patriarchy, “trouble text” and so much more all while loving Jesus. Don’t sleep on this book.

Nonreligious

  • To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee

Typically with classics one of two things happen: either you have a hard time understanding why it’s a classic or you are completely taken by it. To Kill a Mockingbird was definitely the latter. Not only was it ahead its time upon release, I would argue that in light of current events it still is.

  • The Paleo Solution – Robb Wolf

The Paleo Solution taught me that I actually enjoy reading books about subjects I know absolutely nothing about. Each chapter was an a-ha moment, explaining the science behind the way some of my closest friends eat. Wolf can get nerdy but it’s engaging. Want a change in your life and diet? I highly recommend this book.

  • The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao – Junot Diaz

I don’t know if I’ve ever been more thankful for the voice of a writer. Diaz is a genius. This book has so many strands running through it it’s ridiculous. There’s language, culture, mythology, pop culture, and so much more. This book will make you laugh, cry, and keep turning the pages as you learn the story of Oscar and his family.

  • Unbroken – Laura Hillenbrand

Hillenbrand singlehandedly reminded me why I love nonfiction. Sometimes the truth is stranger than fabrication.

  • The Innovator’s DNA – Jeff Dyer and Hal Gregersen

I’m not much of an entrepreneur or a business guy, it is helpful to think about innovation and see what principles can be applied to ministry. Dyer and Gregersen look at innovative companies and analyze their leaders to discover the common traits true of all innovators. Another good book if you want to sound cool at a social gathering.

Honorable Mention(s):

  • Invisible Man – Ralph Ellison

Another classic. I don’t know what else to say. Read it.

  • Redeeming Sex – Debra Hirsch

Sexuality is such a hot button issue in the church right now that it can be hard to know where to stand. Debra Hirsch kills it, analyzing the connection between sexuality and spirituality with humor, compassion, and grace.

  • Lessons in Belonging – Erin Lane

She doesn’t just call me out on my junk in regards to how I view the church, she does it while writing so beautifully I can’t even be mad.

  • The New Parish – Paul Sparks and Tim Soerens

I love learning about different expressions of church. It shows me what the church can be. The New Parish is a solid look at how church can ban together for the betterment of the neighborhood.

  • Soul Graffiti – Mark Scandrette

I had the pleasure of walking the streets of San Francisco with Mark back in May and as a result of our conversation he handed me this book. This book found me at a time when I was searching desperately for what it meant to really follow Jesus. Read this book and then do some of the experiments with me.

So there you have it. My top books for the year.

Full list: Invitation to Solitude and Silence, Fast Forward to Mission, Beyond Awkward, Sentness, The Best Yes, Follow Me, On Guard, Humility, The Paleo Solution, Culture Making, Exponential, The Beginning of Everything, Theirs is the Kingdom, Revangelical, Western Christians in Global Mission, Unbroken, Organic Leadership, Am I Called?, It’s Kind of a Funny Story, Simple Student Ministry, The Insanity of God, The Grand Paradox, The Pastor’s Justification, The Highly Sensitive Person, Insanity of Obedience, Soul Graffiti, Shadow Lands, Invisible Man, Daring Greatly, Lessons in Belonging, On Writing Well, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Innovators DNA, Death by Living, This Is Where I Leave You, Writing Down the Bones, The New Parish, The Pastor’s Kid, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Harry Potter 1-6, Jesus Feminist, Redeeming Sex, Creating a Missional Culture, A Poetry Handbook, Young Restless and No Longer Reformed, The Artisan Soul, Searching for Sunday

Here’s My EP if you want it:

Andy Crouch, in his book Culture Making, argues that cultural artifacts don’t actually change culture unless they’re made public. As long as they’re in a vacuum it is impossible for them to change the horizons of possibility.

For as long as I’ve followed Jesus one of the main questions I’ve wrestled with is what to do with my music. Since the age of seven, it’s all I’ve ever wanted to do with my life and when I found Jesus and discovered my calling lied elsewhere, I was perfectly content pursuing that. For the most part. In the back of my mind the question still lingered: Not everyone can play guitar. Not everyone can sing. Not everyone can do it simultaneously. Not everyone can write a song. Granted, I don’t do any of those amazingly, I still do them nonetheless. What does that mean?

A while back I announced that I wrote an EP and was hoping to record/release it in the near future. When I looked into studios to record the project it seemed like one obstacle after another came up, whether it was time or finances. To be honest, I struggle with the idea of spending thousands of dollars on something that’s only a hobby and not a calling. Heck, I struggle with the idea of spending thousands of dollars period. However, I believe the parable of talents, while very much referring to money, can be taken literally. God has given us talents. How are we going to use them? I want to use my talents for the building of His kingdom. Even if it’s not a calling or even a vocation (even if it’s just a hobby) I want to glorify him some way with it. This is my best attempt at a happy medium.

It is imperfect by every stretch of the imagination. None of these songs were recorded with a metronome. My voice isn’t always on key, my guitar playing not always locked in. Every single one of these songs was recorded on unimpressive equipment in the guest room of my apartment during random hours of the day I knew my neighbors weren’t around. I know for a fact the files aren’t loud enough and I know for a fact the levels aren’t perfect. I know very little, if anything, about home recording. There wasn’t any intention of letting a single soul hear this with the exception of my wife and those who assisting with the project.

I don’t know if I’ll ever get into a studio to really record these but as I was listening to the EP again last night, I realized I wanted to share it with those who interested in listening and have been wondering where I’ve been musically. I very well may regret this tomorrow. I very well may regret this the second anyone (if anyone) listens to this. This could be extremely impulsive and not entirely aligned with God’s will. But for right now I’m proud of these demos, for what they stand for and what they mean to me and I want to capitalize the little bit of confidence I’m feeling right now.

Special thanks to: Adam Randall for encouraging me musically years ago and letting me know it’s okay to write about sadness. Sarah Alicia for releasing an amazing EP that literally reawakened the dream (buy Ocean on iTunes). Pastor Alson Ebanks of Church of God Chapel, George Town for glorifying God with music though it may not be your vocation (It Ain’t Over Till Your Over can also be found on iTunes). Shout out to Brett Mobley for letting me borrow his Stratocaster. N.T. Wright for saying the art we create in this life will be even more beautiful when God makes all things new. Of course, my wife, for being supportive regardless of whether the EP got recorded or not. Last, but certainly not least, God, for allowing me to experience the joy of creating and writing music again.

You can download my makeshift, bedroom recorded EP, Wounds & Scars, for free on dropbox and soundcloud.

Track listing:

  1. 7th & Shattuck
  2. Even My Subconscious Calls You Home
  3. Queen of These Suburban Streets
  4. Can You Hear Me?
  5. Will We Remember Our Regrets in Heaven?

If you like it, let me know. If you hate it, please don’t let me know you heard it.

My Top Five Books of 2014

Someone once told me that a good leader reads at least a book a month. Seeing as to how this same person read a book a week on average and was a phenomenal leader, I figured I should give it a shot. Eventually, I started keeping a running list on what I read for future reference. These are the top five books I found most enjoyable to read (in no particular order). They’re not necessarily the “best,” only the ones that took me off guard with their goodness.

  1. The Lost World of Genesis One – John H. Walton

Every so often you stumble on one of those books that completely shatters your view Scripture in the best way possible. This is one of those books. In a time where many people are torn between creationism and evolution, it’s easy to wonder where you stand. While The Lost World of Genesis One doesn’t provide any clear answer (I personally walked away with more questions than answers), Walton does a great job at helping us understand the context in which Genesis One was written and how that context informs the passage.

  1. The God Ask ­– Steve Shadrach

If you’d told me six months ago reading a book on personal support raising would be fun, I would’ve laughed in your face. As much as I love my job there are some parts that are more challenging than others. Personal support raising sits at the top of that list. Between your loved one’s misconceptions of what you do and the lies you, as well as the enemy, tell yourself, support raising is tough business. This book not only gives you hope it’s possible, this book will convince you it’s a privilege.

3. Glorious Ruin: How Suffering Sets You Free – Tullian Tchividjian

A book about suffering an enjoyable read? Granted a large part of that probably had to do with my lack of affliction, I found this book to be refreshing. Tchividjian neither dismisses suffering as real nor does he allow us to remain so eclipsed we fail to see the hope. Like a true shepherd, he embraces us while helping us find comfort in Jesus. It’s not about understanding why but understanding who is with us in our suffering.

  1. Unlost – Michael Hidalgo

I honestly didn’t have high expectations for this book. I got it free courtesy of my job and it sat on my shelf collecting dust for months. But when I read it I was glad I did. Hidalgo is one of those people who just get it. He pushes past all the “religious” gunk so we can get to the core of the matter and in doing so he invites the reader into the joy that can be found in following Jesus. I want my students to read this book.

  1. Disunity in Christ – Christena Cleveland

I don’t know if there’s ever been a book that’s convicted me while simultaneously making me laugh but Christena Cleveland’s Disunity in Christ did it. Drawing deep from her well of sociological and theological knowledge, she exposes the forces that are secretly destroying and dividing the body of Christ and gives us hope for better. You’ll walk away feeling validated in your expression of faith but also challenged not to look down on others for theirs. And might I add: black woman? Boo-yah!

Bonus: Paper Towns – John Green

In reading books that often pertain to God, it’s easy to read to attain facts or new ideas and forget how to read with the heart. While fiction isn’t always conducive to productivity, sometimes it’s nice to get lost in a story. And that’s what happened with Paper Towns. It’s got everything I love: love, misadventure, and black Santas. Only qualm I have with this book is that the second section of the book lags on a bit, especially in light of the first. But aside from that, it was wonderful. My favorite from him so far.

Honorable Mention (only because I’m not done): Bonhoeffer: Pastor Martyr, Prophet, Spy – Eric Metaxas

Normally I rush through books like there’s no tomorrow but with Eric Metaxas’ sweeping biography on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I’ve been taking my sweet time. As someone who didn’t pay attention in history class, this book is catching me up on all the things I missed. I love this book and so glad I saved this one as my last read of the year.

Day Zero: An Introduction

Here’s the deal:

Over a week ago I challenged myself to share my thoughts on an album I’m listening to every day for the next 30 days in December. Originally I was going to try to maintain my regular blog at the same time but writing a blog daily while trying to balance a weekly site hasn’t been going so hot. So for this week’s post I’m going to refer you to the introduction to my music blog. Hope you enjoy.

Albums I'm Listening To

When I was an undergraduate student I had a poetry professor who had us read particular poets each week. We’d come together to discuss the artist’s view on poetry, what ultimately made their style unique, and, in turn, we were asked to write a poem imitating their style. Though I wasn’t a particularly great poet and to this day don’t understand poetry for the life of me, it was in that class I came to appreciate the art form a little more.

It’s no secret that I’m a fan of music. Since the tender age of seven, touring the world with my best friends, playing songs I loved was all I ever wanted to do. When I first started blogging I thought music was going to play a bigger role my entries but as it turns out a lot of my weekly musings center on Jesus (go figure). Nevertheless I…

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The Idol of Productivity

Don’t ask me why but I recently watched some Hallmark-esque movie about a hopeless romantic who meets the man of her dreams only to discover he’s not actually what she wants. More interesting than the story itself was its side narrative of the main character’s sister, the sister’s boyfriend, and their recent engagement.

The story goes as such: right when everything seemed hunky-dory, their relationship took a turn for the worst. The wedding was around the corner and the man was nowhere to be seen. Every time they planned to be together, whether for dates or wedding planning, he “had to work.” This practically persisted the entire movie until one day the girl vanished, ignoring his phone calls. When he finally got a chance to explain, it turned out he’d been working all those hours to get her a legitimate engagement ring. She took him back; they got married, and presumably lived happily ever after.

At the end of it, all I could think about was how 1) flashing some fancy ring would not have worked that easily in real life (most people would’ve preferred time with the person to some object) and 2) how I know that because I’ve been there before. Not just with my wife, but with God as well.

I worship the idol of productivity. That is to say, I find my worth in what I can accomplish; and because no idol is satisfied without a sacrifice, what gets sacrificed is my connectedness to God.

Most people, when I say that, will ask me if I’m having quiet times and refer me to the tail-end of Mark 1 but that’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about those tender, solitary moments with Jesus that happens in quiet and stillness, unrushed and unhurried, the kind of moments that teach you how to remain in solitude with God even when you’re not alone. Like the man in the story I get so caught up in doing things for God, I forget all he wants is me. The issue isn’t that I’m not having quiet times. The problem is that I’ve quarantined God to those one or two hours so that I can get stuff done.

Beneath all this is my desire to people please. I’m so terrified of being perceived as a dead-weight disciple I do my best to produce and perform, compromising my relationship with God as I work to find my value in work and other people’s opinions. And that’s the problem, isn’t it? Sitting with God for extended periods of time feels counterintuitive.

But here’s the thing: in doing things by my own effort I’m wasting energy. Sitting in His presence allows us to discern his will and gain next steps. But more importantly, it allows us to separate who we are from what we do. We are no longer staff workers or leaders; we are His children whom He ransomed.

Working hard isn’t a bad thing. It’s a good thing. But too much of a good thing can become, as they say, a “God” thing. And that is idolatry, which I’ve been wrestling with for the past month.