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.

C.

Carpet Cleaning on New Year’s Eve

I just spent most of New Year’s Eve shampooing the carpet of my rental house on a cold, wet, winter day. Oh, and I slept in the hallway last night on a temporary bed pad. What do these two things have in common? Puke.

The entire family is sick and have been for three days now. It started on Thursday with Karis throwing up, then Titus, then Bethany, and then Avery. I’m the only one still standing. Even as I type there are fans and heaters running all around the house trying to dry the carpet, Bethany and Karis are sleeping, and I’m hoping the washer and dryer will make it through “Pukapocalypse 2016.” (as one friend called it). Tomorrow I’m leading the singing at church and I’m hopeful that I can hang on long enough to actually get through that before this thing hits me too.

It’s all kind of ironic really. The day before the sickness hit we were with some friends who are pregnant with their first child. They were just asking questions about raising kids and tips and insights and Biblical thoughts and we had a good discussion I thought. One of the things that Bethany brought up was being selfless. There’s something about parenting that reveals just how selfish we are and we have to fight it every day. And that’s exactly what I have been having to fight the past three days.

Every time I have to put on some rubber gloves to clean something or empty a bowl or clean the floor or wash a towel or change a bed sheet…I have to fight my selfishness. I have felt that more in the past three days then most. Did I plan for my week of “vacation” to be like this? Of course not. But it’s what the Lord knew I needed. For sure we hate sickness, but worse than throwing up all day is the sin that clings to our hearts week in and week out. Where the stomach flu lasts for a day or two, sin continues to kill and destroy throughout the year.

I woke up in the hallway this morning not ready for another day of sickness. I could tell my own attitude was not one that reflected the light of Christ, which is probably why the Lord had planned for this to continue today. Because just like I was cleaning the carpet of the filth, the Lord is “cleaning up” (so to speak) my heart. I come to this conclusion often when I reflect and write, but I think it’s one of the themes of the New Testament: God is trying to make us look more like Christ each day! He wants us to “…be transformed by the renewal of our minds” (Romans 12:2). That takes time, it takes work, it takes seflessness, and sometimes it takes a little (or a lot of!) puke to remind me of that.

S.

Sleep and Vitamin C

I could probably summarize my day in just the title of this post: “Sleep and Vitamin C.” Essentially, that’s all I’ve done today is sleep and taking as much vitamin C as I can. I think today was worse than yesterday and my energy has just been completely sapped.

Last night I tried to find some NyQuill around the house, but we don’t have any. I thought we had purchased some in the States, but I guess I was wrong. We have had friends, even other Czechs, try to find that kind medicine here and they turned up nothing really similar to it. I don’t know if there are regulations or not against it over here, but man I sure could’ve used some last night. I ended up taking some Tylenol PM just to get some sleep which was helpful, but it’s just not the same as NyQuill.

We’ve gone back and forth today about whether we should chance going to Prague tomorrow or not. Unfortunately, the place we’re staying won’t allow us to change our reservation so I guess we’re planning on leaving tomorrow morning on the train. My other fear is that I’ll be stuck laying around and sick in bed. I’m hoping that rest tonight will be really good for me and that the Sudafed that I found will help me sleep.

As a family, I can think of no other time in our lives that we’ve been as sick as we have been in Czech Republic. I recognize that there are ebbs and flows to sickness in family, especially with young kids, but it sure does make it difficult. The past two days we have had to cancel our Czech lessons because I’ve been sleeping and our Czech teacher cancelled tomorrow’s lesson because she is sick!

I realize the common cold is temporary, momentary, and light, but when you fill up a trash can with tissues throughout the day it’s hard not to focus on anything but the moment. Despite all the sickness, I know I am supposed to keep my focus on Christ. Lord willing, I can do that better tonight and tomorrow.

C.

Czech After Dark

I should probably stop going to the store here at night. It seems that every time I do something eventful happens.

Tonight I took the kids to the store and it actually takes me longer to get the kids into the car than to drive there. You could almost walk, but it’s just far enough to make it worth taking the car for a quick trip. As we were driving, there was one car in front of us that was about to turn into the same store parking lot. All of a sudden they swerved left as if to avoid something. I wasn’t following them closely so I slowed down, but through the headlights I realized what they were trying to swerve around: a woman.

Praise the Lord, they missed her but it definitely shook them up because I saw them hit the brakes and pause for a moment while I was coming up behind them. The woman was stumbling around the edge of the snowy sidewalk with a large purse and as we passed her I realized quickly that she was drunk. There weren’t many other cars around so I stopped my car not far past her and turned around to watch her in hopes she would get back on the sidewalk safely. To my surprise, she did the exact opposite. She walked in to the middle of the road and began raising her hands and walk straight towards the oncoming traffic. I could see headlights coming down the road and because of how dark and not well lit the street is I thought I better turn around and do something!

I flipped the car around at the store entrance. Titus said, “Daddy why are we going back?” and I can’t really remember what I told him because I was a little worried in that moment. My plan was to either warn the oncoming cars by flashing my lights or try to think of something else so nothing terrible would happen. Thankfully, by the time I got back on the road she had moved herself toward the sidewalk but was struggling to stay standing. The kids and I drove by her again and I just watched to make sure she was going to stay off the street, which it looked like she was. I genuinely thought in that moment that I was going to witness something horrific which is why I turned my car around. Praise the Lord, nothing happened.

I realize in some sense that drunk people are relatively common around the world, and I’ve seen my share of them in the States. But I have definitely seen more here in the past 8 months than I’ve probably seen in my life time. According to some sources, Czech is ranked 6th in a list of “alcohol consumption per capita.” On Thursday morning I went to the store at 10am and it was very busy. The one thing that stood out to me was that 80-90% of the shopping carts had numerous large bottles of beer or some kind of alcohol. It’s very prominent here. I also realize that beer and alcohol aren’t the problem in this country. They are simply the manifestation of a bigger problem, a heart problem the Bible calls sin.

Whether sin comes out in drunkenness, anger, selfishness, lying, or pride, it’s all the same in the eyes of the Lord. It’s universal for all men, including me. In fact, outside the grace of God, I’m really not much different than a drunk woman playing a horrific game of chicken with oncoming traffic. But that’s the beauty of the gospel of Jesus! He gave his own life for all of that sin. One of my favorites verses in the Bible is in John 19 when Jesus says, “It is finished.” Those are His dying words, but they mean life to the world. “It is finished” means that sin has been conquered. Every sin that has ever been committed in the past, present, or even in the future has been paid for by the blood of Jesus. As one songwriter wrote, “It is finished. It is done. To the world Salvation comes. Hallelujah, We’re alive. Hell was silenced when You cried “It is finished.

After leaving the store with the kids, I found myself scanning the sidewalk for the woman. I didn’t see her and hopefully she made it to where she was going safely. I don’t know where she stands with the Savior, but if it’s true that this is one of the most atheistic countries in the world then it’s likely she doesn’t have a relationship with Jesus. This is just a deep reminder to pray for her and this country. It’s also a reminder for myself to continue to push hard into the language so we can communicate the truths of the gospel with the people we meet and come in contact with or even the ones we see stumbling down the street.