Reading is the best. And reading is fun. And reading is vital. And reading is hard. And many other things.
I’m really thankful for the people who keep nudging me to read, recommending books to me, and even though I go weeks and weeks and weeks without really doing that, and then binge a bit on days off, I’m very glad that I’ve been able to sit on trains, buses, station platforms, sofas and a bed and learn from wiser people through reading what they wrote.
These are the things I learned from the top five books (of like seven and a half read, to be up front) that helped me most as a Christian in 2015. Bible and Four-Four-Two magazine excluded.
5) Ministry on My Mind, John Newton
More of a long pamphlet than a book, this is a collection of John Newton’s (as in Amazing Grace) random musings on entering pastoral ministry / being paid to do gospel work. It’s a beautifully written collection of his personal experiences as well as reflections on bits and bobs of Paul’s letters, and has been very helpful personally and in preparing for the 9:38 student conference in Birmingham, helping studes think about it themselves. The most interesting and encouraging insight to me was his re-telling of how he himself came to the decision to go and be ordained. No writing in the sky, but “my own serious deliberations, the advice of my best and most judicious friends and of course prayer”, or, in effect, what do I think? What do the best people in my life think? What does God think?
4) A Meal with Jesus, Tim Chester
Re-read this with some lovely people in our Churchcentral Life Group this summer, and was again so helped by it and inspired! What was God’s big strategy when he came to the earth? Knowing all the answers? Filling stadiums? No. “The Son of Man came eating and drinking”. Tim Chester unpacks this one core idea and reflects on food in the Bible, and while touching on communion, thankfulness and eating disorders, mainly unpacks the everyday opportunities meals and coffees and pints give us for relationships. Too weak to be an evangelist? Have a deep love for Jesus and share meals with people, and you’ll soon be doing it! Too busy to evangelise? 21 opportunities a week to share a genuine interaction as equals, friends, without adding anything to the diary. Such a helpful book because it is deeply theological while in almost every sentence being obviously applicable.
3) Preaching, Tim Keller
Was recommended this by a friend, and enough people I respect loved it, that I picked it up this term, but was pretty reluctant if I’m honest. Surely this would be as dry as it comes? But not so. Two big ideas – preachers need to be faithful to the text, and preachers need to be engaging to the culture. And beautifully written! Kind. Wise. Less like a textbook and more like a granddad sitting down sharing wisdom with his grandkids. I didn’t find it intimidating but inspiring. Really helped me “go again” thinking about this whole topic, as a young and only-occasionally speaker, by lifting my eyes to what is possible – being genuinely faithful while being genuinely engaging, not choosing between the two. Smashing.
2) Disciplines of a Godly Man, R. Kent Hughes
Has a book ever had a less attractive cover? Or a more intimidating title? I don’t think so. Hence why it’s taken four and a half years to get to it having been bought it by some mates at Uni. In a way I’m glad it took me this long, as I think the whole idea of “discipline” – working hard to try and be godly – has been such a consistently confusing idea to me as someone who had his eyes opened to grace, grace, grace. I know there’s this danger of being a “legalist” – someone who thinks God loves him more based on a good day (or reading a book with the words disciplines and godly in the title), and less on a bad day. But then the New Testament is full of “work out”, “do”, “do not”, “train yourself”. Having thought about this lots and being in 3% less of a muddle recently over it, I landed in this book and so glad I did. Basically, it’s 16 areas of life – fatherhood, speech, work, church, family and so on – with the biblical basis for working hard at it, musings on the costs/benefits of ignoring/working at it, and then practical steps to grow in godliness. It must have taken years to write, with reflection questions, examples, case studies and all good extra stuff like that. My favourite chapter was the final one – which spoke of how to genuinely put these things into practice, emphasising the need for realism, working on three things this year with clarity and energy not 16 with broad guilt and then inevitable discouragement. New Years Resolvers, take note.
1) The Plausibility Problem, Ed Shaw
But by far the best, most helpful, tear causing, emotive, informative, important book I read this year was the Plausibility Problem by Ed Shaw. Written by an evangelical Christian (which I am) who is sexually attracted to those of the same sex (which I am, at the time of writing, not), it’s an incredible insight into the reasons why this man thinks choosing to be celibate for the rest of his life is not, ultimately, after the tears, and pain, that still come, a “loss” but a “gain”, because he’s got Jesus Christ.
I am not qualified to write on “following Jesus is so good that I can choose to be celibate and trust him with his instructions on sexual activity”, but Ed Shaw is. It’s such a brave book, and such a sensitive book, and so practical, tackling the underlying reasons why our culture can’t even begin to stomach the notion of celibacy for Jesus (the cultural assumptions like ‘we are what we do sexually’, that ‘identity is tied up in sexuality’, that ‘to rob someone of sex is to rob them of intimacy’). But I genuinely think it’s all of these things only because it’s written by someone who has walked this path, made these decisions, cried these tears and yet asserts plainly and warmly that Jesus is the best thing that’s happened to him, not the worst. He’s a celibate man, attracted to men, who is very, very, very glad he’s a Christian.
As someone who is tempted to think loving our gay friends and family = pretending the Bible doesn’t say what it says, and sadly sometimes tempted to think being faithful to Jesus = being a bit awkward and confused by gay people, this book is just the most helpful thing around, tackling those two equally wrong ideas at their root. I am so thankful I read this book, I really want you to read it. Ed Shaw is one of the bravest people, and God calling him to write this book was a really, really, really, really, really good idea.
Read it in 2016.