Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Good Reading

I am asked to recommend books at times ( to be candid, not all that often). If I mention a book in a sermon, I am usually asked for more biographical information after the sermon ( to be candid, by one or two people, only). My wife and I share reading lists and pass books back and forth. I have a couple pastor friends who pass on good titles they have read and are interested in what I am reading. One of my sons is always looking for good reading and has taken a number of my suggestions and now he is suggesting good books for me to read, too. In sum, it seems to me that too many Christians do not read good books ( or any books!) and that, I find, there are too many good books and not enough time to read them or to even be aware of them! In the event that someone might want to know what good books I recommend, I thought it would be fun to blog about a list.

For those interested in spiritual theology (which sounds daunting and what I mean by that is anyone who wants to think deeply about life as spiritual) I would point them to any book by Eugene Peterson. For pastors, especially, I testify that he has saved my life. I mean I could not have survived pastoral ministry without his writings. I also recommend anything by Dallas Willard, Confessions by Saint Augustine, C. S. Lewis's books and the long trail of reading that reading Peterson and Willard put you on.

One thing Peterson taught me long ago is that everyone needs a theologian, every pastor, for sure. Good theologians help you to think Biblically about everything. Karl Barth is the one I have chosen and over the years have read his works ( and am reading his works which are massive!). In his writings are an entire education in church history, and Biblical exposition, as well as, theology, and all at the intersection of culture. Eberhard Busch on Barth's life is very good, too.

Writers of Biblical commentaries are many and never ending. I have purchased way too many and most of them are gathering dust on my shelves. I like a commentary that does solid exegesis and then interacts with real life and church issues, past and present. Frederick Dale Bruner's commentary on Matthew (two volumes) does that and is my favorite. It is a commentary for pastors but it is equallty accessible for a layperson who wants to study God's word. I like Genesis commenaries because Genesis is the beginning of everything we are, as human beings made in the image of God. Its all in there. Bruggeman, von Rad, Thelicke ( on the first chapters, only) and Wanderings, a history of the Jews, by Chaim Potok are good guides. Bruggeman and Peterson on 1 and 2 Samuel and Ian Provan on 1 and 2 Kings bring insight and understanding to the OT historical period and show us why that's important for us to this day. The Psalms are meant for our daily reading and prayer. Peterson, Bruggeman and Lewis have helpful studies on portions of the Psalter. There are many good commentaries on the prophets: John Bright on Jeremiah and don't miss Peterson's smaller volume on the same book, and Elizabeth Achtemeier is a good name to know as she has written well on a number of the prophets. An OT book that I overlooked for a long time is Esther and Karen Jobes has helped me to see why this book should not be overlooked today.

In the New Testament, there are names like Raymond Brown on John, Gordon Fee on Corinthians and Philippians, Marcus Barth on Ephesians, and Peterson and Eugene Boring (exactly the wrong name for a commentary writer!) on Revelation.

I will never understand why many Christians see fiction as a waste of time. We love stories and novels are just good stories. Novelists are keen observers of human life, as well, and help us understand ourselves and this life we live in - and some help us get pointed to God, too. How can someone go through life and not read Dostoyevsky? Get started in fiction. Read Books and Culture, a review of current books that comes out six times a year. They have some great suggestions. Check out the NY Times book review section. Get a list of the novels considered classics and start reading.

Finally, for now, there are some authors that are able to show how Christianity makes sense today. It is not that they answer all our questions for they know that all our questions are not all answerable. It is Christian faith, after all. But, they deftly illustrate how sensible our faith is. Phil Yancey is one writer who immediately comes to mind. Read whatever he has written. C. S. Lewis, of course, too. Earl Palmer, Leslie Newbigin, Miroslov Volf... and don't bypass a surprising new book by first time author William Young called The Shack.

I love reading history, especially biography, too, and I wish I had had history teachers who taught the way some of our current writers of history write. Alan Jacobs has written a wonderful biography of Lewis called the Narnian. Malcolm Muggeridge reports on a life of reporting in Chronicles of Wasted Time and the slim volume three is the story of his late life Christian conversion. New understandings of the exciting ( and not to be taken for granted) birth of our country are many in the books by David McCullough. Read Paul Johnson. On church history there is Mark Noll and George Marsden. (to be continued)

Friday, June 13, 2008


We are recently returned from Hawaii. It is a place I told my wife I would never want to go. Living on an island, as we do, it was not my idea of vacation to visit another island. Oh, but what an island! I was wrong, very wrong. We chose the Big Island for our first vacation trip to Hawaii. I hope it will not be our last. It was delightful: the warm weather, the fruit, the flowers, the smells, the Kona coffee, the vast black fields of old lava flows, the aloha spirit, etc. If relaxing is what vacations are all about, it was the best ever. We stayed at a nice resort on the water, right on the water. Even though we were five stories up we could hear the waves pounding the lava rock coast. It was loud! I had trouble sleeping. I was mesmerized watching the surf during the day but I wished for a switch to turn it off at night. During my morning Bible reading I was reminded of those places in the Psalms that use images of pounding surf. Let the sea roar! Psalm 98 says. It is praising God! It was roaring, indeed. Psalm 29 states that the voice of God is over the waters and in them the God of Glory thunders! Though the waters roar, Psalm 46 counsels, we will not fear. I confess that waking up to pounding surf when you are not used to it produces momentary panic. And then there is Psalm 42 which I pondered for a few days. Deep calls to deep in the thunder of your waterfalls, all your waves and breakers have gone over me, is the way the Psalmist puts it. Looking out at these waves which were breaking at least ten feet high or greater and considering the force contained in them, I was sure I did not want them breaking over me! The Psalmist was reflecting on a particularly difficult time of his life. He felt crushed by the waves of life. Yet, he was not without faith, for he says that the breakers are God's breakers: Your waves and breakers go over me. Now, I never saw that before either. These breakers that threaten my life are from God? How so?

I doubt that the Psalmist knew how to surf but within eyesight of our lanai were many surfers. I have never surfed, either, so I was amazed at the way the surfers rode the waves to the safety of the coastline. It was obvious no one was going to go against the flow of the ocean. These surfers had learned to go with the flow and avoid being crushed by the force of the waves and have a thrilling ride at the same time. I wondered if this was what the Psalmist was telling us. You can either go with the flow or be crushed. We cannot control life. Right now, life seems out of control. We are being battered by high energy prices that seem to have no end in sight, increasing inflation, falling stocks, and and ongoing banking crisis - to name a few of the waves rolling over us. For some of us, those are not even the most important waves we are battling right now. The hope we have is what the Psalmist offers to us. These primeval forces are not chaotic. God is in control. Those waves are HIS waves! The God of the Bible who cares for us. Therefore, we will not fear. But what we have to do is learn to ride the waves. You see hope is not enough; we need to learn the art of surfing. The Psalmist gives us a few basic moves. He reminds us that these are God's breakers. They have a name and God knows we are in the midst of them. He sees the end to them even if we don't. They are breakers of love -verse 8- powerful, loud, scary but they come out of the loving heart of God. He will not let them harm us in the permanent and eternal sense. So, sing while you surf. Don't neglect worship as we tend to do when we are going through hard times. When we feel least like praising is when we need to do it the most. When the crashing surf keeps you up at night sing or listen to songs of praise. And pray, pray to the God of your life, who is over your life and who you have given your life to. When you are in the pounding surf, don't worry a bit about what someone else might say to you or about you. You might feel foolish, or out of your depth, or not exactly like a good Christian role model for the moment .... and people tend to criticize or judge from a distance ... but you are in the waves and riding the surf and to take your eyes off God will make it so much harder to surf. Learn how to go with the flow and avoid being crushed by the waves of life.