Five Books I Loved in 2019

Any book-lover knows that there are bad books, good books, and books that leave a permanent mark. There are some books that for one reason or another imprint on your heart and leave you a different person than you were before. For me, books such as The Lord of the Rings, Of Mice and Men, and Les Misérables have stuck with me for years after I read them for the first time. While it is not every year that I read a book quite as impactful as these, I have to come find that there are certain books that require some reflection. Too often I put a book down – even a particularly good book – and move on to the next without letting everything settle. So as 2019 came to a close, I tried taking some time to reflect on some of my favorite books from this last year and reconsider why I appreciate them.

I will not be providing summaries or reviews of the following books. Rather I will simply be reflecting on my experience of reading them and what I liked most about them. If you want to know more about the books listed, I encourage you to look them up and read them for yourself.

These are also not necessarily my favorite five books or “the best” that I read last year. These are just five particular books that I wanted to reflect upon and share with others.

With that said, here are five books I loved reading in 2019:

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak – There is a reason this book is so popular. My wife read it years ago and adored it but for some reason I just could not bring myself to pick it up. But when the library book club chose it last February, my time finally came and I enjoyed every moment of it. The unique point-of-view that a personified Death gives the reader is a hook from the beginning. Yet it never becomes a gimmick or a crutch. The true strength of this book is in its characters who struggle to truly live in a world surrounded by death.

I have read numerous books about life in Nazi Germany, both fictional and non-fictional. But despite the bleak subject matter and the potentially morbid point-of-view, this book was able to charm me. Any reader knows the power of books, but The Book Thief shows that their real power is in who we share those books and stories with. I read it back in February and I do not believe I read a better work of fiction the rest of the year.

A Farewell to Mars: An Evangelical Pastor’s Journey Toward the Biblical Gospel of Peace by Brian Zahnd – Let me begin by saying that I am not a pacifist even though I have long been sympathetic and attracted toward pacifistic views. This book did not make me a pacifist but it did push me closer in that direction.

I truly appreciated reading about Zahnd’s personal journey as he wrestled with issues of war, violence, and nationalism from a Christian perspective. This is another book that I read toward the beginning of 2019 so it has been a while, but what I remember most from A Farewell to Mars is not so much about violence and peace as it is about idolatry. It is so easy to place more faith in country and violence than it is in God.

This book is convicting and challenging. I am sure that many would strongly disagree with what much of Zahnd has to say. But at the very least he is posing questions than anyone following Jesus has to wrestle with. Not least of which is the question: do we just believe in Jesus as a means to salvation or do we actually believe in the ideas that Jesus taught and lived? One of the many quotes from this book that has stuck with me is, “We forget that when we see Christ dead upon the cross, we discover a God who would rather die than kill his enemies.”

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott – If you have never read Anne Lamott, stop reading this right now and pick up something (anything) by her and start reading. Thank me later.

I read several great books by Lamott this year but it was Bird by Bird that encouraged me to begin writing again. Although I have not written as much as I would like to this past year (I will blame becoming a parent on that detail), I can honestly say that I doubt I would have written much of anything other than Sunday sermons if it had not been for this book. The simple reminder to take things one step at a time – “bird by bird” – has been invaluable for me. On almost a weekly basis as I look at all that I have to do, I find myself saying, “I’m just going to have to take this bird by bird.”

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman – I thought I would hate this book. It is a book I would never have picked up on my own. I remember almost rolling my eyes when it was passed out at book club – it looked like some kind of bad Rom-Com. But I was reminded that one of the reasons I joined the library book club was to make myself read things that I would not otherwise read. So I gave it a try and I am better for it.

In the early stages of the book I wanted to rename it, Eleanor Oliphant is a Batman Villain Waiting to Happen. But as I continued, I decided a better name would simply be Eleanor Oliphant Needs a Hug. This is a powerful book about a broken woman coming to terms with her past and finding healing and redemption. It is at times tragic and painful to read but I ultimately found it hopeful and important. Sometimes we have to learn that there is power in naming our pain and brokenness. We have to come to a point where we acknowledge that certain things that have happened in our lives are not okay or normal. It is okay to acknowledge that everything is not “fine”.

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson – I have never read a book that made me so angry. There were times I had to put this book down because I could actually feel my face turning red with rage. The true stories of injustice that Stevenson shares in this book are heart-wrenching and infuriating.

There was a time in my life where I considered becoming a lawyer and doing similar work to what Stevenson does. Although the Lord led me in a different direction, I could not admire the work that Stevenson does more. He has become a bit of a hero of mine. If you have not seen his TED Talk, watch it here.

If there is one word I could use to describe this book, it would be “Important”. This is a book that needs to be read.

I have come to find that we need to completely rethink how we do criminal justice as a society. Right now it seems to be, “Well, someone broke the law…let’s lock them up in prison and hope that they’ll come out better.” What if we asked questions like why did this person do such and such and how can we help them find redemption and healing?

Stevenson repeats throughout the book: “Each of us is more than the worst thing we have ever done.” We need a criminal justice system that understand that fact.

This book angered and challenged me like no book ever has. Besides issues of criminal justice, Stevenson offers painful reminders of the issues of systemic racism and prejudice that continue to plague our country. This is a dark book, but Stevenson does offer hope to those of us who acknowledge our brokenness and have eyes to look with mercy upon the brokenness of those around us.

It was these powerful reminders that made Just Mercy stand far and above any other book I read this year. Suffice it to say – this one left a mark.

Baby Patience

Let me confess that I am not the most patient person in the world. That is not to say that I do not do well with waiting. I actually think I am rather good at waiting for things – just give me a time or a date and I can wait it out as good as anybody and perhaps better than most. I like it when there is a plan and things go according to that plan. So if the plan involves waiting then I see that as just something that needs to happen.

Give me a plan and I will be just fine.

So here is my problem: lesson one of having a baby – babies don’t do plans. Babies think about plans like they think about trigonometry – they don’t. They do not know about your plan and they do not care about your plan. They will literally defecate on your plan and give you an evil sweet smile while doing it.

And it is here that I discover my lack of patience.

Last Tuesday was the day that my wife went back to work after maternity leave. I was able to rearrange my schedule so that Elliana is with me on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Tuesday was thus the first time Elliana was stuck with me – and just me – for a whole day.

We gave it all a dry run on Saturday. I fed her with the bottle and she did great. I put her down for a nap. We got along just well on Saturday with Amanda watching from a distance.

Then Tuesday hit. The plan was that Elliana would sleep in until at least 8 or 8:30 which would give me some quiet time in the morning to read. You already know where this is going: 7:20am and it’s “Rise and shine and…too early!!!!” I get her up and changed and everything was going well. Then I warmed up the bottle and apparently Elliana decided to go on bottle strike between Saturday and Tuesday because she was not having it. After only four months as a father, I would not say that I am proficient in baby, but I am pretty sure she was telling me, “I’m not a dummy – this ain’t a boob, and you ain’t mommy” (I am pretty sure there were some expletives in there as well but I decided to censor the translation).

So we begin the day and she is tired and hungry. Tired and hungry babies tend to be loud babies. But I know how to deal with this! She loves her pacifiers! Pacifiers, well, they pacify her. And…nope. Elliana seems to have decided that she’s a “big girl now” and does not need pacifiers. If she has something to say, she will say it and she will not be pacified. She is a strong, independent baby who don’t need no pacifier.

And that was just the first hour.

Things continued in much the same way for the rest of the day, though I was able to rock her to sleep and keep her asleep long enough to watch an afternoon movie. But by the time 5:00 rolled around, we had both lost our patience with each other. I was much too slow to read her cues. I was inefficient at warming up her bottles, changing her diapers, and just about everything else. And she was – well, I suppose she was just a baby about the whole thing.

We were sitting on the couch waiting through the final hour for mommy to get home and were both exhausted. Elliana was screaming as she had much of the day and I was staring at the ceiling thinking about how terrible of a father I was. I was angry and frustrated and more than a little part of me wanted to just yell at her to just shut up. But as I looked at those big, blue eyes of hers, I realized that I was not really frustrated with her. In truth, I had not even lost my patience with her. I had lost patience with myself. I believed that I should be “super daddy” who took care of all of her needs perfectly. I believed that I should be “super husband” who had cleaned the house, made a warm dinner, and kept the baby happy while mom was at work. And I could not achieve any of those things.

It was then that I cried. I did not plan on crying but it just came out. And then I started sobbing. I told Elliana that she got to cry all day and now it was my turn. The fascinating thing was that as soon as I started crying, she stopped. She kind of just looked at me with curiosity as she watched her daddy ball his eyes out. I hugged her tightly and told her I loved her. It was almost like we both decided: she had been crying all day and I had done my best to comfort her, but now she was going to let me cry and comfort me – just for a moment.

And that is all it was – a moment. Because five minutes later she was crying again and I was rocking her and doing my best to soothe her. But I needed that moment to learn a little patience.

I do not need to be “super daddy”. I do not need to be the best daddy in the world. I just need to be her daddy and learn patience with myself so that I can in turn extend patience to her. It will take me some time, but I will learn it in baby steps.

Wednesday morning came around and we were ready to do it all over again. The day began much the same way. I jumped in the shower at 7:15am and was out in another minute because Elliana decided it was time to wake up early again. As I picked her up out of her basinet I told her we needed to talk.

“We both lost our patience with each other yesterday – and we’re stuck with each other again today. So here’s the deal, kid. I promise that I will be more patient with you today than I was yesterday. I would like to ask if you can be a bit more patient with me as well.” She gave me a smile which I interpreted to mean, “I’ll try.” We shook hands and agreed to the deal.

Suffice it to say – Wednesday went a whole lot better because I began the day with one plan and one plan only: patience. Patience was the plan. I can always stick with a plan. So I can say proudly that we both fulfilled the agreement and were more patient with each other (though I have to brag and say I did better job than she did).

We both are moving forward one baby step at a time.

Writing Time

I have been writing for almost as long as I can remember. I think, in my own way, I was writing before I even came to learn about letters and words. There are times I can recall from my earliest days of childhood where I would think up stories in my head and either talk or play them out in my room. Letters and words were only the tools I needed to call what I was doing “writing”.

One of my favorite assignments in school was when we would have to take all of our spelling words and use them in a story. I remember one story I wrote from 1st grade about an Orca whale who read the Bible. Never mind the fact that whales cannot read and that paper turns to mush under water. If I could write it, I always felt like it made it real somehow. Words and stories open up possibilities that can exist nowhere else – not even in the movies.

As I grew older – I am not sure if I have ever grown up – no matter how often my dream career changed, I always thought writing was a given. After all, one can write regardless of what one does to pay the bills. But here is where I have discovered the limits of writing: you cannot write time.

All throughout my life and all throughout my education, I was always able to find time to pursue my enthusiasm for putting words onto an empty page. I was perusing through an old thumb drive the other day and was a bit surprised by just how much I had written: short stories, poems, incomplete novels, and more. There was a time I was blogging fairly regularly and enjoying it immensely. I even managed to complete a novella. But then life happened.

Life happening does not mean “bad things” in any way. It just means that I got busier with other, more important things. Back in 2013, my life changed pretty dramatically in just a couple of months. In September I got married. In October I began pastoring a church. It would be fair to say that writing was no longer a top priority. I suppose that would be okay if that were only for a season – but it’s safe to say that five and a half years is a little more than a season.

That is not to say I have not written in the last five years! Actually, I write every week: a sermon manuscript. Of course, writing sermons is a significantly different kind of writing in my opinion. But I have also dabbed a bit in some creative writing. There have been the occasional blog posts and stories (most of which never got completed). But it has never been how I always imagined it would be. There just never seems to be enough hours in the day.

My life is once again about to change significantly: My wife and I our expecting our first child this July! Just as I was writing this, my wife called me over to feel her tummy and I was able to feel our little baby (“Spud”) kick for the first time. Anticipating this baby is like nothing else I have every experienced.

But I have come to a realization over the past couple of months – it’s now or never. If I do not make the decision to make writing a priority now then it will never happen. I will lose this hobby that I once dearly love. Life will always be in flux. There will always be other things that need to be done. And the reality is, there are not looking to be any more hours added to the day anytime soon. I am stuck with the same measly 24 hours as everyone else. Boo!

I cannot write time any more than I can make time. What I can do is find time. Over the past few weeks – thanks largely to the encouragement of my wife – I have taken just 30 minutes to an hour each evening to practice my writing. It is not much but it is more than I have been doing for the last five years. What I have found is that there is actually more time available than I have ever known. In our day and age of social media and endless information in which to scroll, it can be frightening to realize how much time we waste.

We all only have the same 24 hours a day. What we do with that time reflects our priorities. I can say that writing is a priority – but unless I can demonstrate that with my time, I am full of bologna.

Time is seemingly becoming a more valuable resource by the day. After five years in ministry now, I have discovered that time is one of the last things people are willing to give. Many people will write a check long before they will contribute their time. Time is a resource. But unlike money, we are all pretty much on the same playing field. 24 hours is 24 hours.

Looking at my future, I realize that I do not have a clue how much my life is going to change once we have this baby. But what I do know is that I love this baby, my wife, Jesus, my ministry, and myself far too much to lose something that I have loved for so long. The last thing I want is to allow resentment to gain a hold of my heart to where I start blaming the people that I love for taking away from me something that I love doing when the only person I could really blame would be myself.

So I am beginning the habit now of writing every day (or just about every day, at least). I am frustrated with how rusty I am! But at this point, it does not really matter if what I write is worth two cents. I am finding life and energy that I had not even realized I had been missing over the last few years. And with a baby on the way, I need as much life and energy as I can get!

Sabbath and the American Dream

monday-reflectionsWhat do we value as a society?

One of my favorite movies over the past several years is Nightcrawler directed by Dan Gilroy and starring Jake Gyllenhaal. The film tells the story of Lou Bloom who is a persistent and focused hard-worker. Lou decides to start his own small business as a filmmaker of sorts, videotaping nighttime events such as car accidents, burglaries, and the likes for a local news station. He is quite good at his job and the business expands.

The story begins with Lou desperately looking for a job. It ends with him being the owner and manager of a very successful TV news business. Another great rags to riches story.

There’s just one problem: Lou Bloom is a sociopath.

He tampers with crime scenes to get a better shot. He manipulates the police and creates crimes of his own by withholding information. He blackmails a colleague to fulfill his own sexual cravings. Lou has no problem exploiting law enforcement, crime victims, as well as his co-workers in order to advance his own life and career.

Yet society rewards him because he is a hard-worker

Granted, this is a fictional story. It never happened. Yet, perhaps in some ways, it happens every day.

It comes back to that question: what do we value as a society?

Oftentimes, if we are honest with that answer, we value hard-work, diligence, and, ultimately, productivity. The American Dream is the idea that we can be anything we want to be if we pull ourselves up by our bootstraps (whatever those are) and get it done.

In theory, we say we value ideals such as honesty, integrity, and morality. But consider George and Matt:

George is physically strong, agile, and attractive. He has been in the work force since the day he turned 16. He has worked both blue-collar and white-collar jobs. His employers give him nothing but praise, calling him “self-motivated”, “focused”, and “persistent”.

Meanwhile, Matt is weak, underweight, and appears rather sickly and homely. In fact, he can barely walk without a cane. Matt struggled throughout his education and barely graduated high school. College was out of the question. His employers say that he is easily distracted, calls in sick too often, and has a difficult time understanding basic instructions.

Now, without saying anything regarding these two men’s integrity, which of these men will be primed for what society refers to as “success”?

So regardless of what we say we value as a society — the answer seems all too clear.

In fact, if we take a look at how we understand “success”, we continue to see that we put more emphasis on productivity than we do any notion of morality. We ask children “what they want to be when they grow up” and we expect them to give us the name of an occupation. A doctor. A teacher. An athlete.

We don’t expect to hear answers such as “a generous woman” or “a Godly man”. Those are not as easy to define and they are too abstract to be given the label of “success”.

So what we really mean is: “How are you going to be productive when you grow up?”

In such a culture where productivity and efficiency is praised above all else, those of us who desire to be faithful citizens of God’s Kingdom are in need of a reminder of Sabbath. In a world that is constantly praising business, we can take time to step away from that world and find rest in the arms of God. We need time to remember that God loves and values us regardless of our “success”, or lack-thereof, in the world.

Sabbath is not only about rest. It is also about refusing to worship the idols of production and the almighty dollar. It is declare to a world that says, “You can pull yourself up by your bootstraps” that no, we cannot. We cannot lift ourselves up on our own. We need the grace of God. We need the Lord’s help. We need Jesus.

Monday Morning Sermon: Give Us Today Our Daily Broccoli


                        Photo by PDPics licensed under CC0 Public Domain.

“‘This, then, is how you should pray:

‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
    on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
    as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
    but deliver us from the evil one.’”

Matthew 6:9-13

The older I get the more I realize how blessed of a childhood I had. I grew up living the American Dream in so many ways. I had a nice house in a nice neighborhood. My parents are still together to this day – happily so. My sisters and I got along for the most part. Every night for dinner we would all eat together at the family table. You don’t see pictures of families like that very often anymore and that’s a shame.

Yet even for a healthy family like mine, the dinner table was not always a peaceful place. Wars were fought at the dinner table and I was the cause for many of those wars. Now, what you are probably thinking is that I was a spoiled brat causing problems or something. But once I share my side of the story you’ll understand that I was the victim. See, my parents kept trying to put this substance on my plate and, I’m telling you, it was something that the human body is not supposed to consume. It was green, it had a stem, and it had little leaves on the top. It looked like a little baby tree. They told me, “Andrew, you don’t get to leave the table until you eat all those little trees.” I’m thinking, “You’re trying to kill me, aren’t you?”

So I came up with some battle strategies. Plan A: I just cry and scream and whine until they give in. Plan A never worked very well; I just got spanked and then I had to eat the baby trees anyway. Plan B: Milk is opaque. When you put the trees in the milk they become invisible. Plan B didn’t work; they found the trees when dumping my milk so then I would have to eat milky trees. That’s where Plan C came in: I can just throw the trees on the floor and they’ll never know the difference. I tried that once and my dad caught me so I got in pretty big trouble.

Okay, maybe I was just a spoiled brat. Here I am, such a lucky kid who never has to worry about food being on the table and I spend my time complaining with what I have. What I really needed to learn as a kid was the Lord’s Prayer.

“Give us today our daily bread.” That doesn’t sound too complicated a thing to ask. It’s short. It’s simple. What else is there to say about it? This prayer is simply asking for God to provide for our needs. It’s not necessarily literal bread but it is the material needs that we have in this world. We already do that, don’t we? We ask for God to give us the things we need.

Well, I am not so sure that we do. Praying the Lord’s Prayer is difficult because it is asking God to interfere with our life, our boundaries, and our values. So, we often merely recite the prayer rather than pray it. We may say the words, “Give us today our daily bread.” But are we really asking God to do that for us – or do we feel that God has bigger things on His mind?

After all, there is unrest in the Middle East – God should be working to take care of that. There is a presidential election coming up next year – maybe God should be focusing on ensuring the right candidate gets voted in. There is the cliché that there are children starving in Africa – they need their daily bread. But we can take care of our own, right? We do not need God to provide that for us. After all, we live in America where we can work hard and provide for ourselves.

I spent some time this week looking up definitions for the “American Dream”. Every definition that I read had its own spin on exactly how to define it but there were some key words and phrases that I saw in just about all the definitions. “Opportunity”, “Equality”, “Freedom”, “Liberty”, “The pursuit of happiness”, and “hard work”. Essentially, we define the American Dream as the idea that, in America, you can be whoever you want to be if you work hard enough. You can achieve all that you want to achieve. You can have all that you need and want to have. Because in America all are created equal and we all have the opportunity to become successful.

In America, no one needs to provide our daily bread for us. At least that’s what we seem to believe. But remember – the gospel has a way of challenging our values. The one who believes in the American Dream does not find it necessary to pray, “Give us today our daily bread”. The one who prays the Lord’s Prayer rejects the American Dream because it is to admit that we cannot sustain ourselves and we are dependent upon the grace of God in all things.

See, we like to pretend that God has His little boundary in our life. He affects us spiritually. He makes us better morally. But we don’t need Him to provide for us materially because we can do that ourselves – at least we want to. We need God’s grace to save us from sin but we earn the food on our table. We earn the roof over our head. We decide what the bread that we need is. God just needs to stay in His boundary, right? Because otherwise, we become a little too dependent on Him and when that happens we lose control.

Now, don’t get me wrong – it is important that we work hard to put food on the table and to do what we can to make a life for ourselves. Praying this prayer is not an excuse for laziness.

There are some “preachers” out there who will say that they do not spend any time working on a sermon throughout the week. In fact, they’ll say that even come Sunday morning they don’t know what passage they’re going to look through. They’re just going to be led by the Spirit and preach what He is wanting them to preach.

I have a couple of words for preachers with that kind of mentality. One of them is lazy. Every Sunday morning, you bet I am praying desperately that God gives me the words to say and that I don’t get in the way of what He is trying to do. But if Sunday is the first time I’m expecting the Holy Spirit to lead me then I’m in trouble. Because I need to be praying that He leads me all throughout the week as I study, as I wrestle with the passage, as I write out the words that I want to use. When I write a sermon I work hard. Just because I am seeking for the Lord to lead me does not mean that I sit around all week and do nothing. But I also understand that no matter how hard I work, on my own strength my efforts will amount to nothing.

It’s good to work hard but we all have to realize that it is the Lord that sustains us not our own hard work. There is actually very little that we can control.

That is what I learned when I was little kid whining about eating my broccoli. You know what’s great about my parents: when I was a good kid, obeying all the rules, finishing any chores that were asked of me, my parents would put food on the table for me. And when I was not a good kid, when I didn’t obey the rules, and when I didn’t do what was asked of me, my parents still put food on the table for me. That was not a conditional thing and it was not something that I could control in one way or another by my behavior. They just provided for me. But I also didn’t get to choose what they fed me. Sometimes I had broccoli put on my plate and so I often found it easier to complain than to actually trust that my parents were seeking out my best interest.

It is much easier to complain than it is to trust.  See, when we complain we get to play the victim and everyone loves a good victim. Turn on the news and there’s always a new victim that we need to be sensitive towards. Kids are “victims” of bullying. Gays and lesbians are “victims” of discrimination. Christians are “victims” of religious persecution. Immigrants are “victims” of unjust legislation. Veterans are “victims” of an unthankful country. I do not mean to be insensitive because many of those individuals are certainly mistreated. But it illustrates how much we love to be the victim. It gives power behind our complaint. It allows others to feel sympathetic for us. It puts the attention on us. And it allows us to try to gain control back rather than being dependent upon God.

Praying the Lord’s Prayer doesn’t seem to give any room for complaining. Because we turn to our Father in heaven and ask Him for our daily bread – for what we need – and when we truly pray that prayer we believe He can and will provide for us. So there’s nothing to complain about. It’s out of our hands. There is nothing to worry about because we believe that God has it under control. He will sustain us.

Every time that I complained as a child about what parents fed me I was telling them that I did not trust them to give me what was needed. Every time that we complain we are telling God that we do not trust Him to give us today our daily bread.

To pray the Lord’s Prayer is to be reminded that God is our Father in heaven, and like the best of father’s here on earth, He’s going to provide for us. And yes, we need Him to provide for us. We need Him to give us our daily bread. It may not always be what we want. There will be times He may give us something akin to broccoli. But when we pray, “Give us today our daily bread.” We are praying with confidence that God will sustain us.

God cares about our physical needs and He is present in the daily circumstances of our life. God is not only “out there” making His will done, He is also providing us something as simple as bread. We work hard to do what we can but we understand that it is ultimately God who gives us the strength to do the work and it is God who puts the food on our table.

And this challenges us because we grew up believing in something called the American Dream. We believed that if we worked hard enough that we could decide what is best for us: what we need and what we want. The Lord’s Prayer rejects that idea because it says we are dependent upon God to sustain us. We have to trust Him rather than our own strength. So here’s a new dream, a better one I have found: We are a people who seeks that God’s will is done in this world and that is what we live for. We do not chase after our own desires or affluence, we live to be God’s hands and feet in this world. We don’t need, we don’t want the materialistic possessions that the world finds so important. And we trust that in the daily grind the Lord cares about us and for us and He will provide what we need to survive.

In this dream there is no room for complaining because God is present and we can trust Him to give us today our daily bread – even if it is broccoli.

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