M.

My Favorite Books of 2021

Every year I attempt to read at least one book a month on average. This year I had set a goal to read fourteen books, but according to my GoodReads account I finished twenty-five. Now, I must admit that some of these books I started in 2020 and finished in 2021 because they were ones I read in order to help me with my study to preach. However, I do think twenty of them I read and finished within the year.

I have learned to love to read over the years. My preaching professor in college once said, “If you want to be an interesting preacher, you have to be an interesting person. If you want to be an interesting person, you have to read.” Well, I took him seriously. I’ve been reading more and more over the years, and I thought I would post my top ten from this year in hopes that it would encourage you to pick up and read! Here’s my top ten from 2021.

No. 10

Evidence Not Seen: A Woman’s Miraculous Faith in the Jungles of World War II
By Darlene Deibler Rose

This autobiography was recommended to me by Bethany who heard about while listening to a podcast. I think I read the book in two days because I couldn’t put it down. I would read, weep, read some more, weep some more, and keep reading! It’s a riveting story and one that every Christian should read to grow their faith and watch the hand of God work in miraculous ways!

No. 9

The Path to Being a Pastor: A Guide for the Aspiring
By Bobby Jamieson

I read this book along with our church staff and found it the most concise and most helpful I’ve ever read on aspiring to be a pastor. Many young men in the church need help understanding what the process to becoming a pastor looks like and this book is the book I will be handing them from now on. It’s Biblical, practical, and doesn’t overwhelm. Give this to the young men in your church!

No. 8

All The Light We Cannot See
By Anthony Doerr

I’ve only recently discovered how helpful novels can be to add to your reading diet, but this one needs to be on your “to-read” list. I believe they call it a historical novel in that it is set during a real historical period (World War II) but tells a fictional tale of two young people living at the same time. It’s incredibly creative how Anthony Doerr blends these two seemingly different characters’ stories. I loved this book and kept it by my bedside for an easy read before getting some shut eye.

No. 7

Spurgeon’s Sorrows: Realistic Hope for those who Suffer from Depression
By Zack Eswine

This is a book I bought after listening to a sermon by Patrick Schreiner on the dark nights of the soul that a friend had recommended to me. Through various trials this year, including tearing my calf muscle, throwing out my back, and even getting shingles, I found my own soul hurting and sorrowful. But in God’s kindness this book was a friend to me. Zack Eswine brings part of the life of Spurgeon to the forefront that many don’t know about. Spurgeon was open and honest about his own depression and I would gladly pass this book along to anyone suffering from “dark nights of the soul” or anyone trying to help a friend.

No. 6

Reset: Living a Grace-Paced Life in a Burnout Culture
By David Murray

Following Spurgeon’s Sorrows I felt I needed some practical insight into ministry as I considered ways in my own life that needed course correction. Reset was just the book for that and was an encouragement to me in having balance and consistency in my life, family, and work. One of the major takeaways for me from this book was the focus on taking care of my physical body which I have been able to do more effectively the latter half of this year. I loved this book and while it’s designed for men, there’s a companion book for women called Refresh written by David and his wife Shona which Bethany has also been enjoying.

No. 5

Raising Men Not Boys: Shepherding Your Sons to Be Men of God
By Mike Fabarez

In the last few months I’ve challenged myself to read a few different books on parenting, especially on raising my oldest son. Of the three books I’ve finished, I found this book to be very practical and helpful and just the one I needed to get my thinking straight and consider how I can be a more intentional father. This book is focused on raising boys (of which I have two), but I do find that some of the principles and concepts would transfer to my daughters as well.

No. 4

Adorning the Dark: Thoughts on Community, Calling, and the Mystery of Making
By Andrew Peterson

Andrew Peterson is known as a singer/songwriter, especially for his song “Is He Worthy?” and his Christmas album “Behold The Lamb of God.” He’s also known for his children’s novels “The Wingfeather Saga.” But did you know that he has written two non-fiction books as well? Adorning the Dark is the first and you could almost call it a book about songwriting, but that would be way too narrow. Blending his own story while teaching how to be creative this book is a great gift for those in your life who feel like artists. But Andrew would probably argue with me about that because he is quick to proclaim that everyone is creative because we are created in the image of the Creator!

No. 3

The God of the Garden: Thoughts on Creation, Culture, and the Kingdom
By Andrew Peterson

If I’m going to read one Andrew Peterson book, why not read the follow up? Sometimes I tell people this is a book about trees, but like his first book, it’s way more. This book challenged me to think about place and how we need to “grow where we’re planted” so to speak. Masterfully this book takes the planting of trees and again weaves his own story and love for God’s creation to challenge us to see the world through the lens of God’s creation and His Word. The chapter on “the weeper in the trees” paints an incredible picture of Christ!

No. 2

Love Walked Among Us: Learning to Love Like Jesus
By Paul Miller

I wish I could hang out with Paul Miller. I wish that I could sit at his feet and listen to him talk about the man Jesus. That’s because it seems that in every one of his books I learn more about the man that Paul loves. This book will help you love Jesus more too. It’s one of those books that I probably need to read every other year and just be reminded how loving Jesus is and how I still don’t look like Him. Paul Miller can help us all do that and this book is one of the tools he uses.

No. 1

Living Life Backward: How Ecclesiastes Teaches Us to Live in Light of the End
By David Gibson

It took me all of 2020 and the beginning of 2021 to read this book. Not because it’s a long book, it’s only 176 pages. It took me a while because it was my companion book as I preached through the book of Ecclesiastes. I didn’t want to get too far ahead in it and I wanted to savor it. In fact, in many ways I feel like I’m still reading this book in the same way I’m still reading the book of Ecclesiastes. Few books have had a greater impact on my thinking on a book of the Bible than this one. And few books have had a greater impact on my thinking about life than the book of Ecclesiastes. Buy this book, grab some friends, bring your Bible, and get ready to allow it to open your eyes to one of the most misunderstood books in the Scriptures. When you’re done, enjoy your life. You’ll see what I mean when you finish.

O.

On Being Fragile and Calling 9-1-1

“Call 9-1-1”

Bethany had never told me that before so I knew this was serious.

“9-1-1, what’s your emergency?”

“Yeah, hi… my wife is on the ground and she’s experiencing some kind of chest pain. I don’t know what to do.”

After some basic questions about my location the operator asked: “How old is she?”

“Thirty-nine”

“What is she doing? Is she breathing?…”

“Yes, I think so… I don’t know. Yes… It’s hard to know. She’s breathing…”

“It’s OK. EMTs are on the way. You will hear lights and sirens. Make sure you stay with your wife… remove any pillows. Make sure the front door is open. Stay on this line.”

Just writing that brings me to tears. Because I don’t know exactly what I was doing or saying between that time and the arrival of the paramedics, but I remember being calm as Bethany turned pale and was in incredible pain. I think I asked my four-year-old son to help me unlock the front door and clear a path in the hallway to our bedroom, but it all kind of blurs together even just 36 hours later.

Don’t know why I took this photo, but I did.

Five EMTs made their way into our house. Bethany was still coherent, but in pain. They asked her a million questions, some of which I answered because she couldn’t. The one I remember loud and clear was “What is your pain level on a scale of 0-10, if 0 is nothing and 10 is the worst pain you’ve ever experienced?” Without hesitation Bethany said “8!” As they loaded her in the ambulance one of the EMTs said to me, “Go get her cell phone and charger.” I ran inside, grabbed it, ran back outside, laid it on Bethany’s lap in the ambulance, they shut the doors, and then they were gone.

I didn’t really cry until about nine hours later when I was driving home by myself from the hospital. Sure, I was tired. Yes, I was frustrated that the last time I had seen my wife that day was in the ambulance because Covid restrictions kept me out of the hospital. Yes, I didn’t love that most of the information I got that day was through Bethany having to text me because I couldn’t be there to get information directly. But it finally hit me… Bethany could’ve died.

By the time the ambulance arrived at the hospital Bethany’s pain had lessened, but she was still hurting. Her chest pain came and went most of the day. They ran EKGs and they were normal. They did a chest X-ray and found nothing. They did three rounds of bloodwork and saw “something” they didn’t like. Then Bethany texted me,

Spending the night😕possible start of a heart attack

“I’m really glad you told me to call 911” I texted back.

After a CT angiogram, it was determined that Bethany had a “spontaneous dissection” of one of her arteries. Without getting too specific here, it just means there’s something there that was restricting blood flow to her heart. Though uncommon, these can actually heal themselves and/or be healed through medication. Although relieved that we had some kind of answer, we recognized that this could’ve been worse and this entire day could’ve gone differently.

That’s why I cried on the way home. My friend Jeff called me and asked if Bethany was OK. I said yes, but… “I’m starting to get emotional. She’s doing great now, but I think it all just hit me.”

Life is fragile. We say it and we hear it said. I even preach it from time to time, especially to the high school students I get to serve at the church. But we forget it. There are so many days that go well, that run normal, and of which very little happens that causes us to consider just how fragile we are. I praise God for that in my life while I recognize that my experience is different than many even in my own church. Not everyone gets long periods of time where they are not reminded of their fragility. As a pastor I get a front row seat to the hurting and the long-term care that comes with it, both physical and spiritual. But because this is not my personal experience, and because life tends to just keep on going, I don’t always have to be confronted with the thin barrier between this life and the next.

Bethany is asleep right now in our bed. After spending two days in the hospital we were able to pull a Shawshank Redemption move and bust her out of there (OK, not exactly, but that’s how it felt!). Almost immediately after we got home she told our kids “I’m going to bed.” She was tired and weak and in need of rest. We ended up talking for a few minutes in bed before she fell asleep and Bethany admitted she was ready to meet Jesus. Maybe it was the meds talking, but I know my wife. She was and is ready.

I told her I’m glad it wasn’t today, but in the back of my mind I thought about what the the apostle Paul said, “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). Then he adds, “I am hard pressed between the two [that is, between living and dying]. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account” (1:23-24). He wrestled between his own impending death and the thought of being with Christ. He loved the church, but he loved Jesus more. That, I think, is what was behind what Bethany said. She loves me and our kids, but she loves Jesus more.

While studying the book of Ecclesiastes last year I came across a quote from a preacher who said, “None of us are getting out of this alive.” He was talking about this life and was just repeating essentially what Solomon wrote in chapter 3 of Ecclesiastes: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die…” We all know this to be true whether we want to talk about it or not: there is a time to die. And that’s exactly why in Solomon’s wisdom he wrote this a few verses later,

“He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man.

Ecclesiastes 3:11-13

Solomon’s advice is simply to enjoy life while you can. In light of the reality of death–whether it be today, tomorrow, or in the distant future–enjoy it all. Enjoy even the simple pleasure of a meal–this is God’s gift to man. That’s wisdom from God because you don’t know when the time will be.

S.

Somewhere Between an Artist and an Engineer

I’ve been thinking a lot about identity.

Dad was a building engineer. I say “was” because he’s technically retired, but not because he’s stopped. To this day he continues to build. His 5 acres in the rolling hills of Kentucky are filled with barns and buildings of which he and my mom have designed and constructed. Even now he’s got two more cabins he’s building on a small lake. One is for sale but “we don’t care if we sell it” my mom says. He also fix just about anything so I’m constantly calling him for help. Just a few weeks ago we fixed my toiled via FaceTime. When I call him he’ll say, “OK, what broke?”

My dad and mom designed and built my mom’s “art studio” in the backyard in Kentucky

Mom is an artist. I try to tell people that her work rivals some of the best painters they’ve seen, but you won’t find her paintings up in her house. Most of her friends have absconded with them over the years. Yet you will find her work throughout her home. The house itself is her work, including the custom bathroom she designed and my dad built that’s probably the size of my master bedroom. She has an “art studio” in the backyard full of painted wood pieces, crafts, and furniture of which she’s working on. To what end, I don’t know, but she makes beautiful things.

One of the few drawings my mom did when she was young that I found in my parent’s attic.

I have my father’s name and his height. He’s six-foot-one or as he says, “Six-two with shoes on.” I’m six-four without shoes on. But I have my mom’s nose, I think. Growing up people said I looked like my dad, but I’ve grown into my mom’s nose, eyes, and complexion. What does this have to do with identity?

History reveals identity.

Klyne R. Snodgrass, Who God Says You Are (p. 82)

Who our parents are does not determine who we will be, but as Klyne Snodgrass says, “History reveals identity.” As we spent some time with my parents this summer, I realized just how much I’m like them and how much I’m not. Mostly though, I saw how much I’m like them. I really do want to make beautiful, creative art like my mom, but I can’t draw. I love dimension and order and figuring out how things work, but I can’t build or even maintain my house. It’s probably why I got into digital graphic design years ago. I found in the computer a tool to create things that my hands couldn’t. All I had to do as figure out how the computer worked (engineer) and tell it to create what I wanted in my heart (artist). Sometimes I wish I had more identity as an artist than I do. Other times I wish I was more of an engineer. But in the end I’m somewhere between an artist and an engineer–longing for the ability to create by hand beautiful works while settling for the help of a machine to create what I can’t on my own.

P.

Psalm 131 Keeps Me From Sinking


In our home for at least the past year we have had a chalkboard sign that Bethany hand wrote Psalm 131 in its entirety on. At only three verses, I have now memorized it. But it hangs right beside our door the garage as we leave each day, and I often glance at it as I sit in our living room. It’s the Psalm that keeps me from sinking. What do I mean by sinking? I simply mean becoming overwhelmed. Or to keep with the original water analogy, Psalm 131 keeps me from getting in over my head and drowning.

Psalm 131, A Song of Ascents. Of David. (ESV)

O LORD, my heart is not lifted up;
    my eyes are not raised too high;
    I do not occupy myself with things
    too great and too marvelous for me.
2  But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
    like a weaned child with its mother;
    like a weaned child is my soul within me.

3  O Israel, hope in the LORD
    from this time forth and forevermore.

The Psalms are said to give voice to our emotions and this Psalm has become my voice. I am too often proud–that is, my heart is lifted up and my eyes are raised too high. Where this inevitably leads me to is anxiety and stress and a kind of “noise” that keeps me awake at night (as it has this very night of which I’m writing). Why is this? Where does this “noise” come from? It comes from an occupied heart–a heart with no room, or no space, or a heart with one of those neon signs that reads “no vacancy.” But what’s in there? Oh, you know, just things “too great and too marvelous for me.” The NIV of this verse speaks of these heart occupier as “great matters” and “things too wonderful for me.” Eugene Peterson seems to capture the sense of it well when he paraphrases verse 1 like this in The Message:

God, I’m not trying to rule the roost,
I don’t want to be king of the mountain.
I haven’t meddled where I have no business
or fantasized grandiose plans.

These great matters, or things too wonderful, or grandiose plans, these are the things of God. These are things that are beyond me. Truly, they are great. They are things I can’t control. I see them as things like issues with my children of which I can’t control. These great matters are relational dynamics of which sometimes I must wait on the Lord to see how he will work them out. They are pastoral counseling issues of which I sometimes need to lay at the feet of Jesus and simply trust him because they are too great. They are political. They are practical. Many of these areas are simply things I have no business meddling in.

So how does it keep me from sinking? David in this Psalm says he’s not proud. So first I need to confess my pride and come to a place of humility, recognizing that I am not God, not in control, and that there are things beyond me of which I’m not supposed to be Lord of. And then in verse 2 David says he’s calm and quiet. Specifically, his soul is calm and quiet. As pride fades, and control is released, the soul is calmed and quieted. The noise is gone. Like a little baby, no longer fussing and whining, but rather resting in the bosom of it’s mother, that’s David’s soul. And when true of me, it’s mine too.

But what about the stuff that I had been thinking about? What about the stuff that caused me anxiety in the first place? What is my soul to do with it all? The answer is verse 3: hope in the Lord. Find rest and hope in God. David Powlison wrote this about Psalm 131:3:

The LORD, Jesus Christ, is your hope. Pride dies as the humility of faith lives. Haughtiness lowers its eyes as the dependency of hope lifts up its eyes. You stop pursuing impossibilities when you start pursuing certainties. This simple sentence distills wonders.

David Powlison

“Pride dies as the humility of faith lives.” That’s the key. When my eyes are lower (pride is dead), hope lifts up its eyes (faith is alive). My hope is in Christ. I don’t have to have control. I don’t need to fret. I don’t need to let the “noise” rule my life, but rather the Lord Jesus Christ is ruler. He can handle the things that are too wonderful for me, in fact, he is handling them. Those things are his business and they’re none of mine. So when this Psalm is operative in my life, I’m not sinking. I’m not drowning. I’m not noisy. I’m composed and calm. I’m actually floating above water, holding tightly to my Lord, resting safely in his arms, without a worry.

David Powlison is convinced that Katharina von Schelge must have had this Psalm in mind when she wrote the hymn “Be Still My Soul.” Along with this Psalm, let these words refresh and still your soul.

Be still, my soul, The Lord is on thy side
Bear patiently, the cross of grief or pain 
Leave to thy God, to order and provide 
In every change, He faithful will remain 
Be still, my soul, thy best thy heavenly friend 
Through thorny ways, leads to a joyful end
Be still, my soul, thy God doth undertake 
To guide the future as He has the past 
Thy hope, thy confidence, let nothing shake 
All now mysterious shall be bright at last 
Be still, my soul, the waves and wind still know 
His voice who ruled them while He dwelt below