Prayer for Growth, Newton

My poem of the week this week is this powerful hymn from John Newton. I find it deeply challenging and instructive. It is a reminder of God’s good purposes in trials and that the ease which I so much crave is not always the way of life.

I asked the Lord that I might grow
In faith, and love, and every grace;
Might more of His salvation know,
And seek, more earnestly, His face.

‘Twas He who taught me thus to pray,
And He, I trust, has answered prayer!
But it has been in such a way,
As almost drove me to despair.

I hoped that in some favored hour,
At once He’d answer my request;
And by His love’s constraining pow’r,
Subdue my sins, and give me rest.

Instead of this, He made me feel
The hidden evils of my heart;
And let the angry pow’rs of hell
Assault my soul in every part.

Yea more, with His own hand He seemed
Intent to aggravate my woe;
Crossed all the fair designs I schemed,
Blasted my gourds, and laid me low.

Lord, why is this, I trembling cried,
Wilt thou pursue thy worm to death?
“‘Tis in this way, the Lord replied,
I answer prayer for grace and faith.

These inward trials I employ,
From self, and pride, to set thee free;
And break thy schemes of earthly joy,
That thou may’st find thy all in Me.”

Left Out!

Looking back over quotes from my reading this past year, I realized I had failed to record three books on my master list which meant they were not included in my year end post. And two of them would have vied for inclusion in my top 10!

Since I left them out, I wanted to mention them and commend them to you as well.

First, An Honest President: The Life and Presidencies of Grover Cleveland, by H. Paul Jeffers. I really enjoyed this portrait of Cleveland and hope to write a column drawn from it. Jeffers is convincing in his main thesis, that Cleveland was a particularly honest, principled man. Whether or not one agrees with Cleveland on each issue (and he dealt with significant issues which reverberate today in importance) his candor and principle are compelling. His willingness to veto items or to push them forward knowing they will hurt his candidacy but doing what he thought was right won me. We need more political leaders like this.

Then, the two which would need to fit somewhere in my top 10:

Ryan Holiday’s  Courage Is Calling: Fortune Favors the Brave (The Stoic Virtues Series) is excellent. In fact, it was so good I asked and received permission to write a review of it for the Southwestern Journal of Theology. It should be out soon. While not Christian in perspective it has much of value as it encourages taking responsibility, not hiding behind blaming others, and taking risks for what it good and right.

Then, I greatly enjoyed Hal Poe’s completion of his C. S. Lewis bio trilogy, The Completion of C. S. Lewis (1945–1963): From War to Joy. As in the two previous volumes this is an engaging read. I did not want to put it down. And as he tells Lewis’s story he overturns long held assumptions based on information from Lewis’s letters and other primary sources and draws out lessons for today. As scholars are beginning to note, this three volume biography has set the new standard for Lewis studies.

Best Reads of 2022

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Each year I keep a list of the books I read all the way through, typically with brief notes, as a way of tracking my thoughts and a way to look back on each year and see some of what influenced me. So, in this post I have drawn from that list some of the best books I read this year with slightly edited versions of the notes I jotted down after reading them. These are only books that I read all the way through and do not involve commentaries and reference works I’ve used. You can see my assessment of new Bible reference works from the past year in the Fall 2022 issue of Preaching Magazine.

I selected a Top 10 from the books I read this year. These 10 aren’t listed in a particular order, and they made this list for various reasons ranging from sheer enjoyment to level of impact on me. Following the Top 10 are some more books I enjoyed reading this year (in no particular order) as well as some disappointing ones.

Top 10

  1. The Letters of Samuel Rutherford, ed. Andrew Bonar (Edinburgh, 1891)- Truly a spiritual classic. Six years ago I began reading slowly through these letters, and have been delayed several times. It is easy to get lost in certain parts, but there is much wisdom and richness here. The most profound reflections on suffering I’ve read. Strong, earnest counsel to those in suffering from one in the midst of it himself. I’m struck by the directness of his words to those in suffering and those facing death. Good examples of pastoral counsel. [I did not link to a copy because I couldn’t find a link to the one I have. There are abridgements, but I’d encourage you to get the full treatment).
  2. Fight for Your Pastor, Peter Orr- This is the best, concise treatment I’ve seen on how a congregation ought to support and help their pastors. I had our church buy a copy for every family in our membership in preparation for the coming of a new lead pastor.
  3. The Good Shepherd, C S Forester- I read this book because I appreciated so much the Tom Hanks movie, “Greyhound,” which was based on this book. I saw parallels to pastoral ministry and this was heightened when I saw the title to this book. The book is shot through with scriptural allusions. It is a great story and portrait of leadership: duty, sacrifice, put yourself aside and work of the good of others (which may explain my disappointment with the Hornblower novel; see “Disappointments”).
  4. How To Be a Pastor, Theodore Cuyler- Published in 1890, this is an excellent treatment of my main theme on pastoral ministry, the necessity of knowing your people and caring for them.
  5. No Apologies: Why Civilization Depends on the Strength of Men, Anthony Esolen- Vintage Esolen, no holds barred, exceptionally well written, convicting.
  6. Between You And Me: My Philosophy Of Life, Edgar Guest- I have loved Guest’s poetry for years, after finding R G Lee’s library filled with Guest’s books. So, I was excited to find this gem in a used bookstore recently. This book is a beautiful example of the general wisdom that used to be widely held in our culture.
  7.  Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America, James Webb- I did a dive into Webb this year and was fascinated by him. This was chief among his books which I read. I wish we had more democrats like Webb. His love of country is rooted in a love of family and knowledge of family line which is rare today. This is an insightful treatment of how history continues to shape our country. This book, written well before J. D. Vance’s Hilbilly Elegy, provides the background for much of what Vance explored. I also enjoyed Webb’s, I Heard My Country Calling: A Memoir, particularly his growing up, his take on Viet Nam, and his politics. His celebrated Viet Nam novel, Fields of Fire, was more crude than I expected. Too bad. It does portray the hardship and feeling of senselessness of the war. Having read his memoir, it is easy to see the autobiographical parts.
  8. The Lessons of History, Will and Ariel Durant- I also did a dive into these smaller books by the Durants- which I’ve loved! Durant writes exceptionally well and is someone worth disagreeing with. In this first book, they see religion as something to get over, even thought they recognize the good it has brought. Fallen Leaves: Last Words on Life, Love, War, and God, is a manuscript discovered after his death in which he sought to give his thoughts on most of the pressing issues of the day (1970’s). It is fascinating, even as I disagree deeply on God, religion, etc. as well as deeply in fundamental politics. However, I resonate strongly with where he ends up on many things related to culture, politics, education, human relations, etc. I also found very striking one of his early books, Tragedy of Russia, Impressions from a Brief Visit.  Will and Ariel were sympathetic to communism so in the early 1930’s they visited the Soviet Union and were repulsed by what they saw. This book is his devastating report on what things were really like in Soviet Russia.  
  9. First Blood, David Morrell- I gave this a try because I like the movie and heard the book was a bit different. I was surprised to learn the book had been commonly assigned in high school literature courses before the movie was made. The author’s retrospective introduction was intriguing as he explained what he was after in the book which is different from the movie. I can see how he sought to bring the Viet Nam war home to people in the US- what if these sorts of things were happening in our little towns. The novel is much more “in the heads” of Rambo and the sheriff. The sheriff is a bigger deal in the book, as are religious ideas. The book is both deeper and more religious than the movie. It is well worth reading.
  10. Lord of the World, Robert Hugh Benson- fascinating. Written in 1907 (one place said 1909) about the end of the world and eerie in its prescience. He imagines a century or so in the distance and how things have developed. He has mass commercial flight and what seems to be wireless telegraph, but no computers. But he writes about the rise of universal socialism, of the “collectivists” as opposed to the “individualists,” with Christians being the main individualists. The author is a Catholic priest so not surprisingly the Catholic church is the last holdout with all other Christians groups capitulating or joining Rome. Despite with my differences with Catholic ideas, this is a penetrating analysis as socialism is on the rise in the US. Tolerance is preached, though that means Christians must be kept out of the public square, and eventually- in the name of peace- exterminated. Human beings will worship, so they turn to the worship of man, which is also what is going on around us with the praise of who we are and the rejection of any idea of our fallenness.

Theology/Bible/Christian Living

  1. How the Church Fathers Read the Bible: A Short Introduction, Gerald Bray- very stimulating. Along the way Bray provides a good intro to doctrine, history, and hermeneutics. Engaging, accessible.
  2. Amidst Us Our Beloved Stands: Recovering Sacrament in the Baptist Tradition, Michael Haykin- This is a very good treatment of how Baptists have thought about and practiced baptism and communion. I have written a full review for Southwestern Journal of Theology.
  3. Chosen by God, R C Sproul- Returning to this classic reminded me of how great a teacher Sproul was and how much he influenced me.
  4. The Consequences of Ideas: Understanding the Concepts that Shaped Our World, R C Sproul- A well-done overview of Western philosophy. This book helped me think about how to get into ideas that shape our thinking and apply the scripture so that the biblical affirmations don’t just fall on the tough outer exterior.
  5. Merry & Bright: A Practical Guide to Celebrating Christmas to the Glory of God, Eric Smith- This is a helpful, enjoyable devotional. Eric’s devotional books have become sensational favorites in my family and my church because of their clarity, faithfulness, and grace. You can get Eric’s devotionals simply by contacting Sharon Baptist Church.

History/Biography

  1. The Causal & Casual in History, John Buchan (1929 Rede Lecture)- Enjoyable, interesting. He essentially argues that history cannot be seen merely as a science. He firsts tips his hat to some of the ways history can be seen as scientific but then argues it cannot be merely scientific because human nature and the vicissitudes of life fit no single paradigm or theory. He does this largely by pointing to a series of events (illustrative of many, many more) when large turns in history hinged on very minor things which could be seen as accidental. In this way he points to the very things which make counterfactual history so interesting and valuable to me. Many professional historians despise it, but I value counterfactual history not because it points to any different history we can know but because it illustrates the fragility of events and should point us to humility and even to ponder the sovereign hand of God in history. Buchan explicitly makes the point about humility and suggests the contemplation of God’s providence as well.
  2. The Whig Interpretation of History, Herbert Butterfield- Buchan prompted me to finally read this important work which I often see cited.
  3. The Origins of Wisdom: Chivalry, O. B. Duane- A nice brief overview of the history and ideals of chivalry. It does not scoff at chivalry as seems to be the custom today, but takes it seriously noting its weaknesses and decline but asserting its value and continuing influence
  4. Saving Bravo: The Greatest Rescue Mission in Navy SEAL History, Stephen Talty – An amazing story, even though the author meandered into the backgrounds of various other people in the story rather than staying on the main track, which I found distracting. The basic story of a middle-aged officer having to survive behind enemy lines for many days in Viet Nam and the US effort to rescue him- because he knew too much classified info to allow him to be captured- is fascinating, as is the effort of those who eventually rescued him. An inspiring story of perseverance, courage, bravery. The main guy does come off looking bad I how he grasped at fame after being rescued. The guy who rescued him, however, is great in how he dealt with adversity. Because of this I watched the movie “BAT 21” which tells this story, but it distorts the story and isn’t as compelling.
  5. Indestructible: One Man’s Rescue Mission That Changed the Course of WWII, John Bruning- fascinating story, well told. I had never heard of Pappy Gunn and here I learn what an influence he had on WWII in the Pacific theater, all the while worrying about his family who had been left behind in Manilla when the Japanese overran it.  There are many portraits here of perseverance, and it is compelling for that reason alone. Kids having appendectomies without being anesthesia and without antibiotics, the ingenuity and grit of Pappy as he came up with new ways to arm aircraft, guided planes into a makeshift landing strip with just a flashlight taped to a frying pan, and more! I loved the part where engineers in the US told Pappy his plans for arming certain planes could never work only for Pappy to tell him he’d already outfitted several planes in this same way on the field and they worked well!
  1. The Saga of Pappy Gunn, Gen George C. Kenney- I liked the previous book so I read this one by Pappy’s commanding officer. Not as exciting, but it was helpful to read the official take as well.
  2. River of the Gods: Genius, Courage, and Betrayal in the Search for the Source of the Nile, Candice Millard- she tells a story very well. I loved her previous three books, but the main guys in this story weren’t likeable.  
  3. Uncommon Valor: The Recon Company that Earned Five Medals of Honor and Included America’s Most Decorated Green Beret, Stephen Moore- This wasn’t the best in terms of weaving the different stories together, but it is a deeply compelling collection of stories particularly in terms of bravery and perseverance of these soldiers. I was struck by 1) how commonly these men thought of others over themselves, 2) the use of other ethnic groups in the region who disliked the Vietnamese, 3) how well the US soldiers treated the Montagnards(always put them on the rescue choppers first), 4) how often it seemed that everyone was injured 5) injured men carrying on like it wasn’t a big deal, 6) the resilience of the enemy even though they were getting hit with serious ordinance from jets, prop planes, and helicopters; but they kept coming
  4. The Swamp Fox: How Francis Marion Saved the American Revolution, John Oller- Very good! It was great to find a book that, while not hagiographic, did not mind affirming the heroic, especially of one whom I’ve appreciated since boyhood. Oller seemed to be careful with sources and in piecing together the evidence we have. Marion did not defeat the British army in the South, but he kept them from moving on to victory. In a sense he “held the fort” (metaphorically) for a few years until more help (in the form of Greene) could come. He did this while friends were killed and had their homes burned, while losing his own home, while being maligned by other SC militia leaders, while being looked down upon by the leaders of the Continental Army. He stuck with it and in the end was instrumental to victory.
  5. I Will Hold: The Story of USMC Legend Clifton B. Cates, from Belleau Wood to Victory in the Great War, James Carl Nelson- I am fascinated by Cates, but this book is just average. At the beginning and end it focuses on him, but in WWI it seems to lose focus on Cates and to slip into mere recounting of battle facts. Plenty of data, but not compellingly told. Still, I am glad there is at least this book on Cates. I haven’t found another.
  6. Legend: The Incredible Story of Green Beret Sergeant Roy Benavidez’s Heroic Mission to Rescue a Special Forces Team Caught Behind Enemy Lines, Eric Blehm- an amazing story.
  7. Leadership in War: Essential Lessons from Those Who Made History, Andrew Roberts- Roberts writes very well. More of a history book with some leadership lessons tacked on, but I love good history!
  8. Give Me Tomorrow: The Korean War’s Greatest Untold Story — The Epic Stand of the Marines of George Company, Patrick O’Donnell- interesting. I appreciated learning more about the Korean War, which I had known little about before the last year or so of reading. A compelling tale of perseverance.
  9. When Character Was King: A Story of Ronald Reagan, Peggy Noonan- I love Reagan and enjoyed Noonan’s account. The audiobook is significantly abridged even though it doesn’t indicate that.   
  10. The Last Hill: The Epic Story of a Ranger Battalion and the Battle That Defined WWII, Bob Drury and Tom Clavin- For the last few years I watch for anything written by these two men. This is another good one, history engagingly told. I learned new info on Pointe Du Hoc and I wasn’t previously familiar with “The Hill.” Powerful examples of perseverance
  11. Sailor and Fiddler: Reflections of a 100-Year-Old Author, Herman Wouk- I stumbled across this one. I have not read Wouk’d famous works, but was intrigued by the idea of reflections of a prominent author after 100 years! On that point, it was quite interesting.
  12. Portrait of a Father, Robert Penn Warren- Interesting. I can’t imagine this getting published except that the author was already famous. Still, good things here in terms of reflection on humanity, just usually oblique.

Fiction

  1. I enjoyed several Louis L’Amour novels again this year. How the West Was Won is a longer, wide sweeping novel, with the classic L’Amour focus on brave people willing to work hard. Matagorda and The Empty Land were good too. Here’s a quote: “We’re all responsible. … Law and order is a job for all of us. If we shirk it long enough we will have anarchy, and all we’ve built will be destroyed.” I also enjoyed some short story collections- which I hadn’t before. I searched for Bowdrie’s Law because Reagan alluded to Bowdrie in the ceremony honoring L’Amour. The Strong Shall Live is an enjoyable collection of short stories, especially “Bluff Creek Station,” which is a rich reflection on life.
  2. Deep Sleep(Devin Gray, Book 1) & Coming Dawn(Devin Gray series, book 2), Steven Konkoly- I continue to enjoy Konkoly’s stories. This series like several of his others deal with special agents thwarted high profile good guys. Action and intrigue. Language warning.
  3. The Two Towers,  & The Return of the King,J R R Tolkien- Just as good this time through. Full of lessons as Tolkien brings to bear all that he thinks concerning the way life ought to be and the realities of a fallen world
  4. The Black Tulip, Alexandre Dumas- Not the best from Dumas (Dumas was often paid by the word, and it shows here), but interesting especially with a view on the darker side of William of Orange before he became the Protestant hero in Britain.
  5. Maria Chapdelaine, Louis Hémon, – I listened to this because Anthony Esolen mentioned it. Only fair in terms of story but did represent hardy people in Canada wresting a living from harsh conditions while holding to one another and their Catholic faith.
  6.  The Little Minister, J M Barrie- Interesting story with some good insights on pastoral ministry, with examples of ministry ought to be, common problems (gossip, people watching a minister very closely and holding him to too high a standard, affectation, etc.).

Disappointments

  1. The Red Pony, John Steinbeck- I read this and thought, “So what?” With the Grandfather I could see some point- perhaps that the father wanted to live up to the grandfather but missed love. It seemed, overall, a rambling story without a point
  2. Right Ho, Jeeves, P G Wodehouse- finally completed my first Wodehouse. I tried one before but didn’t finish it. I was ready to stop this one shortly after starting but persevered. I appreciate watching slapstick but not so much reading (or listening to it). There were humorous moments, but overall, it was not an enjoyable experience, and I am glad to have finished it so that I might move on.
  3. Fightin’ Fool, Max Brand- Inferior compared to Louis L’Amour. Brand does have some good turns of phrase. This is more of a comedy, almost slapstick in places.
  4. The Black Monk and Peasants, Anton Chekhov- I don’t see the point in either of these stories unless it is to describe life in Russia at the time as miserable and brutish. The back cover describes these stories as “Two masterpieces of psychological insight”, but I don’t see it.
  5. The Happy Return, C S Forester- I did not like Hornblower at all. Perhaps we are to identify with his struggles, but he just seems to be a very poor model of leadership to me.

Spurgeon, To Lead You Must Love

“A man who is to do much with men must love them and feel at home with them. An individual who has no geniality about him had better be an undertaker and bury the dead, for he will never succeed in influencing the living…A man must have a great heart, if he would have a great congregation. His heart should be as capacious as those noble harbors along our coast, which contain sea-room for a fleet. When a man has a large, loving heart, men go to him as ships to a haven and feel at peace when they have anchored under the lee of his friendship. Such a man is hearty in private as well as in public; his blood is not cold and fishy but he is warm as your own fireside. No pride and selfishness chill you when you approach him; he has his doors all open to receive you, and you are home with him at once. Such men I would persuade you to be, every one of you.”

-C. H. Spurgeon. Lectures to my Students (Grand Rapids, 1970), 169.

Look to the Cross: A Good Friday Meditation

Good Friday

At this moment, on the anniversary of the crucifixion, we pause to “look on Him whom we have pierced” (John 19:37) We are among those who pierced him since it was our sin that held Him there, since it was our sin “that drove the bitter nails.”

We look, and what do we see?

  1. We see the horror of our sin

We are prone to take our sin too lightly

See here what it took to pay for our sin. Our sin was so deep, so bad, so treacherous that it took the death of God the Son to pay for it.

“Was it for crimes that I had done, He groaned upon the tree?”

Yes,

“Mine, mine was the transgression, thine the deadly pain”

“It was my sin that held Him there until it was accomplished”

Look to the cross and see the hideousness of your sin.

2. We see the satisfaction for our sin

This is what it took to pay for our sin, and it was done! We see here that the sins of all those who will believe are paid for. This is why it is Good Friday.

“Because the sinless Savior died, my sinful soul is counted free

For God the just is satisfied to look on Him and pardon me”

Look to the cross and know that your sin, all of it in all its horrible depths have been paid for, washed away, forgiven, if you are in Jesus. And if you are not, they can be if you will trust Him.

3. We see the love of God

Look what God was willing to do in order to rescue us from ourselves. Behold how he loves us!

“This is love, not that we loved God but that He loved us and sent His son to be the propitiation for our sins.”

“God demonstrated His love toward us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.”

“Here is love, vast as the ocean, lovingkindness like a flood

when the prince of peace our ransom, shed for us his precious blood”

“What wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of bliss, to bear the dreadful curse for my soul”

“How deep the Father’s love for us, how vast beyond all measure

That He should give His only Son, to make a wretch his treasure”

Look to the cross and see how deeply God has loved you. You are loved.

4. We see our pride shattered

There is nothing here of human accomplishment, but sin, rebellion, the rejection of God.

“Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded” (Rom 3:27)

“my richest gain I count but loss,

and pour contempt on all my pride.”

Look to the cross and be humbled

5. We see the only way

Jesus pleaded with the Father not to have to go to the cross if there was any other way. He went to the cross so there must have been no other way for redemption to be accomplished.

This then, the work of Christ received by faith, is the only way to salvation. There is no other name under heaven given among men by which we may be saved.

Look to the cross and see the only way of salvation. If you have not already trusted him do so. If you have trusted him, share that news with others.

“Thus might I hide my blushing face, While Calvary’s cross appears,

Dissolve my heart in thankfulness, and melt mine eyes to tears.”

“Here Lord I give myself away, ‘tis all that I can do”

Best Reads of 2021

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Each year I keep a list of the books I read all the way through, typically with brief notes, as a way of tracking my thoughts and a way to look back on each year and see some of what influenced me. So, in this post I have drawn from that list some of the best books I read this year with slightly edited versions of the notes I jotted down after reading them.

I selected a Top 10 from the books I read this year. These 10 aren’t listed in a particular order, and they made this list for various reasons ranging from sheer enjoyment to level of impact on me. Following the Top 10 are some more books I enjoyed reading this year (in no particular order) as well as some disappointing ones.

Top 10

  1. The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution, Carl Trueman- impressive work, wide ranging and explanatory of these ideas. Clarifying as to why BLM would include the LGBTQ+ agenda and opposition to the nuclear family. In fact, in light of this analysis I realize we should have expected it to rather than being surprised by it. This makes it clear that CRT and Intersectionality are no friends to Christianity.
  2. Fault Lines: The Social Justice Movement and Evangelicalism’s Looming Catastrophe, Voddie T. Baucham Jr.- Well reasoned, clear and direct. Convincing and devastating on CRT
  3. The Making of C. S. Lewis (1918–1945): From Atheist to Apologist, Harry Lee Poe- The second volume in Hal’s biography of Lewis (vol. 3 due out this coming year). Fascinating, insightful, and written with Hal’s wit.
  4. The Question of Canon: Challenging the Status Quo in the New Testament Debate, Michael Kruger- very good, carefully, calmly, intelligently, and overwhelmingly persuasively argued on the point that the establishment of a canon by Christians is not a later ecclesial intrusion but something that arose naturally from Christian teaching.
  5. When Books Went to War: The Stories That Helped Us Win World War II,  Molly Guptill Manning- Fascinating. I started it just because it was free and it looked interesting. I thought it might be about certain books written during the war, but it is an account of the effort to get books to our military personnel for free during the war. It is very interesting to see the interest in and concern for the intellectual life of soldiers as well and emotional health. I think emotional health still ranks high but I haven’t seen this sort of interest in intellectual stimulation. Fascinating info on the role and importance of reading material in the war as well as how much the soldiers enjoyed and appreciated the books. Makes me wonder how much this shaped the “greatest generation.” Also significant impact on the book publishing industry.
  6. With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa, E. B. Sledge- I had heard this was the quintessential war diary, and it was profound. No glorying in war here, but a frank discussion of the horrors of war, as well as how faith brought this man through.
  7. So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love, Cal Newport- Excellent. Useful for anyone, especially those starting college
  8. West Oversea: A Norse Saga of Mystery, Adventure, and Faith: Book 3 of the Saga of Erling Skjalgsson, Lars Walker- I finally read the follow up to Year of the Warrior and enjoyed it immensely. Walker gets in quite a bit of significant social commentary in this historical fantasy as well as numerous proverbial and witty comments which make it instructive and entertaining. I also read and enjoyed the other two books in the series: Hailstone Mountain: Book 4 of the Saga of Erling Skjalgsson, and The Elder King: Book 5 of the Saga of Erling Skjalgsson.
  9. The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett- Very good, rich with lessons for today. I hope to write an essay on lessons from this children’s story for today.
  10. The Children of Men, P. D. James- fascinating. Striking since the story is set in this very year, though written 30 years ago. Shot through with Christian imagery and some characters openly struggle with Christian faith and whether or not there is a god and if there is if he cares. Clear on the inherent sinfulness of man. The hero is quite broken and self-centered, but goes through a transformation in the novel, learning to love and to care for another. Still at the end we see him drawn by the seduction of power. The novel closes without showing us whether he resists this or falls to it. The last sentence of the novel seems to have been constructed deliberately to close with the words “the sign of the cross.” [I also watched the movie, but it is a very poor approximation of the novel]

Theology/Bible/Christian Living

  1. Your Old Testament Sermon Needs to Get Saved: A Handbook for Preaching Christ from the Old Testament, David King- I read this pre-publication and was happy to write a blurb for the book cover. An excellent resource for all pastors!
  2. The Ideal Bishop: Aquinas’s Commentaries on the Pastoral Epistles, Michael G Sirilla- Insights for the history of interpretation of the Pastorals and for historical understanding of pastoral ministry.
  3. In the Name of God: The Colliding Lives, Legends, and Legacies of J. Frank Norris and George W. Truett, O S Hawkins- Fascinating story, told in an engaging way. In the end I differ significantly with the way Hawkins applies lessons from the history, but I welcome any engaging interaction with Baptist history.
  4.  Being a Pastor: Pastoral Treatises of John Wycliffe, trans & ed by Benjamin Fischer- fascinating historical piece.
  5. The History of First Baptist Church, 1837-2005, Jack Hilliard- I enjoyed learning more of the history of the church where my family and I are members. Reminded me of the value of writing historical accounts and preserving information as we can.
  6. God’s Smuggler to China, Brother David- I really appreciated God’s Smuggler, so this book by someone who worked with Brother Andrew also caught my eye. More challenging and encouraging stories about bold risk-taking for the sake of missions.

History/Biography

  1. Co. Aytch: A Confederate Memoir of the Civil War, Sam R. Watkins- Another celebrated war memoir. Far more literary than I expected and a significant book. The author regularly states he is not writing an official history, but just recording what he saw. But, this puts him at the forefront of the move to look at history not simply from the viewpoint of the leaders and people of high station, but to look at things from the viewpoint of the everyday person. Highlights the horror of war, talks about how much the lowly privates suffered which the leaders avoided, and he provides a very chilling portrait of the effects of war. Anyone who fall into the glorification of war, could do well to read this narrative.
  2. The Greatest Minds and Ideas of All Time, Will Durant- I love how Durant writes, even when I have to disagree with him. This is how history should be taught, with verve, attentive to people, and with an eye to lessons, even in tentative, we can draw from the past.
  3. The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books: Christopher Columbus, His Son, and the Quest to Build the World’s Greatest Library, Edward Wilson-Lee- Fascinating story, but the books draws it out too long. I had never heard about this library.
  4. The Hero Code: Lessons Learned from Lives Well Lived, Admiral William H. McRaven- a great little secular book on key virtues. McRaven tells stories well and draws from good sources, largely his own experiences. For natural revelation, this is a good book. We’d be a lot better as a culture if people heeded his lessons.
  5. Jimmy Stewart: Bomber Pilot, Starr Smith- a fun read, good info on Stewart’s WWII career. Mentions his strong Christian upbringing, centrality of church to the family. When he left for the European theater, in his 30’s, his dad gave him a copy of Psalm 91 saying he was praying that psalm for Jimmy. Stewart was involved in serious bombing raids and aerial combat. He made some of the plans did the briefing for his group for the D-Day invasion.
  6. Agent Sonya: Moscow’s Most Daring Wartime Spy, Ben Macintyre- I love Macintyre’s writing, and this was another good one.
  7. Accidental Presidents: Eight Men Who Changed America, Jared Cohen- Interesting look at the transition of power when presidents have died in office. He tells the stories well, though his slant is apparent. He is very biased against Coolidge, and does not interact with Amity Shlaes at all. Then he fawns over FDR. He closes the book with the affirmation that the Constitution is a “living document.”
  8. Crazy Horse and Custer: The Parallel Lives of Two American Warriors, Stephen E. Ambrose- Ambrose is always worthwhile reading, and the intertwining of these lives is interesting.
  9. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West, Dee Brown- A long, sad, depressing tale. Saga of the depravity of man, and a resounding example of why we should not entrust our wellbeing to a government
  10. No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith, Fawn M. Brodie- A well written account of Smith’s life, which seeks to weigh the evidence carefully.
  11. Terry Bradshaw: Man of Steel, Terry Bradshaw with David Diles (1979), and No Easy Game, Terry Bradshaw with Charles Paul Conn (1973).- I found these in a church library and was intrigued because I grew up liking Bradshaw. They were really engaging reads. I had no idea Bradshaw was so outspoken about his faith early in his career. Staubach wrote the preface and spoke highly to TB. Quite open about his struggles.
  12. Last Stands: Why Men Fight When All Is Lost, Michael Walsh- The opening chapter is worth the book as Walsh holds nothing back critiquing modern, Western culture in the ways it has turned its back on fundamental truths our forebears knew to be basic realities of the world. A ringing endorsement of heroism and manliness as essential to the survival of any culture.

Fiction

  1. John Macnab, John Buchan- This is one of Buchan’s I had inadvertently missed, and it’s a good yarn. It involves some of Buchan’s standard characters (Leithn, Lamancha. Palliser-Yeates, Archie Roylance), but it is not a thriller of the same sort. There is no international intrigue, in fact there is no real bad guy at all. There is adventure and danger, but tis time for the sheer sport of it rather than to rescue someone or some country. In a way the men are seeking to rescue themselves, since they have sunk into an ennui which they can’t shake. So, this is sort of an adventure comedy.
  2. Castle Macnab: Richard Hannay Returns, Robert J Harris- This was significantly better than Harris’s first new Hannay book (mentioned last year). I liked the first one, but it was a little stilted, too obviously an imitation. This one worked on its own, and was compelling. In fact, I read it in one day. On Jan 1 I decided I wanted a fun read and started the book during the day. Then I stayed up til 1 am to finish it! This one is not set after Buchan’s originals but in the midst of them, once again pulling together beloved characters into a new adventure. Harris plays well off of John Macnab.
  3. The Old Man and the Boy, Robert Ruark- I loved this book, and it just barely failed to make my top 10. It is a beautiful account of a boy growing up enjoying the outdoors, free to roam, fish, hunt, and learn under the tutelage of a wise and caring grandfather.
  4. Planet of the Apes, Pierre Boullefor- Very interesting and very different from any of the movies. In this one they really do travel to a different planet. Rather than a Cold War warning (as in the 1968 film), the novel seems to be making a point about the treatment of animals, and perhaps racism, as well as suggesting the eventual end of civilizations and further steps in evolution. Also, I did not realize the same author wrote Bridge over the River Kwai, and that he was a spy in WWII. He worked in Asia.
  5. The Heist, Daniel Silva (Gabriel Allon series)- Another decent entry in this series. Silva has a gift for turning a phrase. A few examples:  “he came waddling into the bar a few minutes later with all the discretion of a train whistle at midnight.” “He wore a blue powersuit that fit his portly frame like a sausage casing ….” “Oliver Dimbleby was a sinner of the highest order, but his conscience bothered him not.”
  6. The Conqueror (Constantine’s Empire), Bryan Litfin- I enjoyed this historical novel.
  7. The Sky Pilot, a Tale of the Foothills, Ralph Connor- R G Lee said this novel played a part in his call to ministry. It is a well-told tale of ministry in the turbulent west, or faithful witness despite hardship.
  8. The Secret Adversary (Tommy and Tuppence Mysteries), Agatha Christie- fun, the lighthearted humor was engaging, but it did get tiresome as well. Overall I enjoyed it, though it almost lost me early on. Strikingly similar to Bulldog Drummond and Richard Hannay, both in general topic and in the portrayed threat- criminal mastermind, socialist uprising with infiltration of Britain by sinister elements aided by fifth columnists.
  9. Skystorm (Ryan Decker Book 4), Steven Konkoly- I read the first three books last year. A former CIA operative now working to rescue children from trafficking. A fun listen, good action, moral compass.
  10. Furious and Free: A Novel about the Maccabees, Elmer L.  Gray- well done, helps bring to life the history of this period. It isn’t great writing, but workmanlike and efficient. I grasped better the ups and downs of the period and realized how I had flattened it out in my mind due to brief treatments of it.
  11. The Broken Gun, Louis L’Amour- I didn’t realize when I started this one that it is set in (then)modern day. L’Amour draws on his cowboy research to write a western crime/mystery story. It is almost certainly highly autobiographical, as the main character seems much like how L’Amour saw himself and was: Western writer, knowledgeable of the West in history, careful researcher, also a man’s man, able to ride and shoot, and fight. Fun story
  12. Sitka, Louis L’Amour- great fun! This one spans the continent but centers on Alaska, particularly intrigue leading up to the sale of Alaska to the US. The main character’s friend, Robert Walker, was indeed a senator from MS born in PA as the story mentions.
  13. I enjoyed several other L’Amour novels. High Lonesome (the hero, a young man who has ended up taking up with bandits, must choose his path, and in the end honor wins out) and The Proving Trail, were particularly good. I rank The Proving Trail among his best. Utah Blaine was also good. Comstock Lode was also good, though it seemed to be stretched longer than it needed to be. The Quick and the Dead and Guns of the Timberlands were fine, but not as good as the others. Bowdrie I chose because Reagan apparently referred to Chick Bowdrie when he honored L’Amour. This is a collection of stories rather than one continuous story, and, though it was fun, I don’t think his short stories are as good as the complete books.
  14. At the Earth’s Core: Book 1 of the Pellucidar Series, Edgar Rice Burroughs- fun story. Follows the same formula as the Mars stories so at first I wasn’t taken with it. The fun won me over though as a completely different world is discovered inside the earth’s crust. I find it fascinating to note the basic assumptions about life and humanity in older novels like this. Here as in any others the humans can quickly master another language. Is that just necessary for the stories, or was there a greater assumption in past days that this could be done? Also, there are great assumptions about nobility, courage, not abandoning friends, defending women (even if they hate you), etc. In this one, the zeal and excitement about introducing greater weapons was interesting. There seemed to be no fear that this could bring negative implications. The story was serialized in 1914 and published in book form in 1922. One would think the horrors of modern warfare would have been evident by that time. Perhaps, though, the unchecked eagerness of the characters is intended to be recognized as foolhardy by the reader.
  15. The G-man’s Son, Warren F. Robinson [acc to cover], Edward O’Connor [acc to title page]- Published in 1936 and dedicated to J. Edgar Hoover! One of the “boys’ novels” of the time so it was interesting to see how it came across. Not as good as the Hardy Boys, to which it has many similarities. Written to engage boys and to hold in high esteem the G Men. Much about their sterling character and honesty, as well as intelligence, physical fitness, and bravery. Funny how ready the dad is for his boys to engage in pursuit of killers and for them to go into harm’s way. None of the carefulness of Mr. Hardy.

Other

  1. Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win, Jocko Willink and Leif Babin- Plenty of good insights for leadership, illustrated by stoires from the authors’ experiences as Navy SEALs.
  2. Joining the Mission: A Guide for (Mainly) New College Faculty, Susan VanZanten- I don’t often like these kids of books but this one was very helpful- thoughtful, insightful
  3. John Wayne: The Official Movie Book, Topix Media Lab- a lot of fun, listed all his movies, many I had never heard of. Provides an intro to all of his major movies and an assessment of the how good the movie was, ranking all of them in order. Helpful reminder of ones I want to watch again with the kids.

Disappointments

  1. Seize the Day, Saul Bellow- I’ve heard much about this author, so I gave him a try. Maybe I chose the wrong book. It never grabbed me but I pushed through. When I finished, I thought, “So what?”
  2. Casino Royale, Ian Fleming- A real disappointment. Bond is a scumbag. I knew that at some level, but it’s worse in this novel (the first one). Plus, this story just isn’t very good. I can’t imagine anyone reading this book and thinking it ought to be a movie.
  3. Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation, Kristin Kobes Du Mez- Full of insinuation, “seems”, “maybe”, lumping together disparate people and failing to note pieces that don’t fit her narrative. She documents sad things that have happened which we already knew were true. But her overall thesis is terribly overblown. Sad to see a Calvin prof scoff at inerrancy and to be shocked that 1980’s evangelicals would oppose the normalization of homosexuality.

Rutherford to a Pastor Under Trial

I really enjoy reading Samuel Rutherford’s letters. For several years now I have been slowly working my way through my 1891 copy, reading one letter most mornings. Many of the letters are great encouragement to pastors enduring difficult times. One I read in the last week is a prime example. Rutherford is writing David Dickson another leading pastor whose commentary on the Psalms is still available. Rutherford’s comments of trust in the final judgment and vindication by Christ are particularly helpful.

CCLX To Mr. David Dickson.

REVEREND AND WELL – BELOVED BROTHER IN THE LORD,

I bless the Lord, who hath so wonderfully stopped the on-going of that lawless process against you. The Lord reigneth, and has a saving eye upon you and your ministry; and, therefore, fear not what men can do. I bless the Lord, that the Irish ministers find employment, and the professors comfort of their ministry. Believe me, I durst not, as I am now disposed, hold an honest brother out of the pulpit. I trust that the Lord will guard you, and hide you in the shadow of his hand. I am not pleased with any that are against you in that.

I would [wish], I could make acquaintance with Christ’s cross, for I find comforts lie to, and follow upon, the cross. I suffer in my name, by them; but I take it as a part of the crucifying of the old man. Let them cut the throat of my credit, and do as they like best with it. When the wind of their calumnies hath blown away my good name from me, in the way to heaven, I know that Christ will take my name out of the mire, and wash it, and restore it to me again. I would have a mind, if the Lord would be pleased to give me it, to be a fool for Christ’s sake.  …

 Grace be with you.

Yours, in his sweet Lord Jesus, 

S. R. 

ABERDEEN, Sept. 11, 1637. 

A Sermon Series through the Psalms

I have heard of several pastors planning or considering a series of sermons in the Psalms through the summer. That is what we are doing at my church. If you decide to plan such a series, one of the first questions you have to address is which Psalms to preach. Here are a few thoughts for those wrestling with that choice.

First, relax. You can’t go wrong here. It is good to make thoughtful choices, but it is also possible to overthink things. You are choosing between different portions of God’s inspired word. In my first pastorate there was little time for advanced sermon planning, and some of you are probably in similar settings. As long as you are working hard to understand God’s Word properly and to apply it to your people faithfully, you are doing well. Whichever Psalms you pick will be fine.

Then, as you have time to plan ahead, there are various ways you could approach your choice of Psalms depending on what you hope to accomplish. You could focus on repentance, lament, or praise, though 8 to 10 weeks on just one of those themes might not work as well. You could also preach through some of the specific units in the Psalms, such as the Psalms of Ascent (120-134) or the Hallel Psalms (113-118). Then, of course, your choices will be affected to some degree by what Psalms may have recently been preached at your church.

If you want to give a good overview of the Psalter as a whole, I’d recommend some of the following psalms. Psalm 1 and 2 introduce the whole book, so they would be a good place to start. Some people think of Psalm 1 as the introduction since it comes first, but it takes Psalm 1 and 2 to give a proper introduction. Psalm one points us to God’s word as our source of life and blessing. Psalm 2 then points us to God’s anointed king, the Messiah, as the one whom we must obey. We eventually discover that these two come together in the person of Jesus Christ. And properly understood, He is the focus of the Psalter.

Then, I would suggest another pair of Psalms, 22 and 23, the crucified Messiah and the God the Shepherd. Psalm 22 is one of the most clearly messianic Psalms. The NT confirms that this Psalm points to the cross (Jesus quotes verse 1 on the cross). Then Psalm 23 presents to us the care of God for his people with the image of a shepherd, and this image becomes a central theme throughout the rest of Scripture, not just for God but for those whom God calls to lead and care for His people. The crucified one is our Shepherd.

Then, it would be very healthy to preach on a psalm of lament. These are characterized in various ways, but any of the psalms which show the psalmist crying out to God, often complaining to God about the wrongs he is suffering will be helpful to our people. Our society tends either to ignore suffering, thinking it impolite to talk about or to be indicative of a lack of faith, or to wallow in self-pity. None of these are healthy or helpful. The psalms of lament are there to give us words and models for laying our complaints before God in faith. Two possibilities are Psalm 37 and 73 (they stick in my mind because their numbers are the inverse of one another). These psalms wrestle with the age old problem of the prospering of the wicked- “If God really exists, why am I suffering while I try to obey him and those people who have no concern for God have everything going their way?” It is helpful to learn that we can bring this complaint to God and to see some of the answer to such concerns.

Then, I would want to include Psalm 100 because it is a classic psalm of praise. Note the implicit missionary theme since the call to praise God is addressed to the whole earth. Note as well that we are commanded to praise God. Singing is not optional, despite the fact that some men say they just don’t’ sing. It is important for us to reckon with the greatness of God which is worthy of our praise and to recognize that in response to such a God we must either sin or sing. And, if you’re preaching Psalm 100, it would be great to sing the old metered version of this Psalm, “All People that in Earth Do Dwell.”

I mentioned the Psalms of Ascent earlier, and if I was seeking to be representative of the Psalter I’d pick a couple of them. Psalm 127 or 128 are great family psalms and can fit Fathers’ Day well. Lastly, I’d want to conclude a summary series with Psalm 150, which serves as a climax and conclusion of the book. The psalms stand as prayers and praises to teach the people of God how to talk to God. Thus, along the way they deal with sin, suffering and trouble. Lament psalms are the most common. But as the Psalter draws to a close the focus is more and more praise, until Psalm 150 is unmixed and unbridled praise. This does not ignore the suffering and sin in this life but helps us to see that history is moving toward the time when all care dissolves into praise when Jesus returns and wipes away every tear.

Psalm 97, “Rejoice the Lord is King”

A couple of weeks ago I preached on Psalm 97 at my home church, FBC Jackson, on Psalm 97, titling the sermon, “Rejoice the LORD is King.” The psalm calls us to joy rooted in the fact the Yahweh reigns, that He is supreme and sovereign over all. Sadly, too often the doctrine of God’s sovereignty has become a bone of contention, rather than the ground of contentment as it should be.

Here is the video of the sermon: