2016 Summer Reading: Books by Eugene Peterson, Leif Enger, and Sky Jethani

Warren Buffett, the investing genius known as the Oracle of Omaha, says he spends 80% of his day reading. Bill Gates, the billionaire founder of Microsoft reads for an hour every night before he goes to bed. Dave Ramsey, the immensely popular author and radio host, reads a book a week.

It has often been quipped that if you want to be a leader, you will be a reader. If you want to succeed, you seek deeper understanding of the world around you. Reading expands your mind, broadens your thinking, and sharpens your mind. There are even studies that say it staves off dementia in older adults.   Reading is of immense practical benefit.

But I have a better reason for you to read.

Christians read because we are people of the Book.

Our faith is transmitted to us in the form of one of the most intriguing anthologies ever compiled.   And for us to plumb the riches of the Bible, we do well to sharpen our reading skills against other types of literature.   Have you ever considered that reading epic adventures like the Odyssey or Beowulf could help you better appreciate the books of Samuel or Kings?   Books on leadership may shed light on the dynamics of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job.   Poetry helps us approach Psalms, Lamentations, and the Prophets.  Put simply, a broad reading program will only enrich your approach to scripture.

Reading also gives us the opportunity to hear how other people apply and live our faith. When we read other Christian authors, it is like sitting down with a friend and learning from their struggles and stories.

These are but some of the reasons I commend a summer reading list to our congregation every year. For 2016, I’m recommending a few of the most helpful books I’ve read over the past year. We will have these books available in the entry foyer by the office – I hope you’ll pick up one or two of them to enjoy this summer.

Happy reading!   Russell

2016 peace like a riverPeace Like a River by Leif Enger. Told from the perspective of 11 year old Rueben Land, this is a story about family, betrayal, redemption, sacrifice, and faith. This story begins slowly but builds in intensity, culminating in a breathtakingly beautiful conclusion. This is a fine example of contemporary literature that takes faith seriously without approaching it in a trite manner.


2016 skye jethani

With by Skye Jethani.   In this concise book, Jethani suggests that the dynamics of faith are worked out in the prepositions. Do we primarily relate to God as above us or under us? Do we think of God as for us or against us?   He encourages us to deeply reflect on what it means that God is with us. Don’t let the simplicity of the concept fool you, there are deep and helpful spiritual truths to be found in this book.


2016 eugene petersonA Long Obedience in the Same Direction by Eugene Peterson.   Peterson’s reflections on the Psalms of Ascent has become a contemporary spiritual classic. This is a book that I have come back to again and again in my life, and I’ve always benefitted from it.

This article originally published in the June 2016 edition of the Covenant Courier.


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The Bible in a Year Challenge – Week 9 (Feb 21-27)

(c) Palace of Westminster; Supplied by The Public Catalogue FoundationOn Monday, Feb 22, Reformed Christians remember the adjournment of the Westminster Assembly in 1649.  This collegium of august theologians produced the Westminster Confession and Larger and Shorter Catechisms – documents that profoundly shaped the course of British and American Christianity.  This Assembly held one thousand one hundred and sixty three sessions over a period of five years, six months, and twenty-two days. They were known for their solemn fasts and long hours of prayer.

Notes for the Week

Walking by Faith: A key theme in the Mark readings for this week is faith. We see this explicitly in Jesus’ jibe for his’ disciples lack of faith during a storm (Mark 4:40), in his commendation of the sick woman who approached him. (Mark 5:34), and in his marveling at the lack of faith of the people of Nazareth (Mark 6:6). Implicitly, the concept of faith undergirds the parable of the sower (Mark 4:1-20) and the parable of the growing seed (Mark 4:26-29) In the words of the book of Hebrews, “Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” (Heb. 1:11). Simply put, faith is putting our trust in the Lord for all things, and receiving the good that come from God’s hand.

Faith in God’s Leading: One arena of faith is in following the leading of the Lord. Our God is continually on the move. In this week’s Numbers reading, we see detailed instructions for how to pack up and move the tabernacle. In chapter 9, we learn about the cloud of God’s glory that rested above the tabernacle: “whenever the cloud lifted from above the Tent, this Israelites set out; whenever the cloud settled, the Israelites encamped.” Similarly, Jesus was continually on the move in his ministry, preaching not only in Israel but also in the pagan cities of the Decapolis.

Faith in God’s Provision: Another arena of faith lies in trusting in God’s provision. We see this in the stories of God’s provision of Manna and Quail to Israel wandering in the desert. In Numbers 11:23, God challenges Israel to trust in His provision, asking, “Is the Lord’s arm too short?”  In Mark, the feeding of the five thousand is another instance when Jesus shows reliance upon God’s provision.

May we be challenged this week to increase our faith in Christ’s leading and providing for us.

Readings for the Week:

Sunday February 21

Old Testament: Numbers 1-3

New Testament: Mark 3 

Monday February 22

Old Testament: Numbers 4-6

New Testament: Mark 4:1-20

Tuesday February 23

Old Testament: Numbers 7-8

New Testament: Mark 4:21-41

Wednesday February 24

Old Testament: Numbers 9-11

New Testament: Mark 5:1-20

Thursday February 25

Old Testament: Numbers 12-14

New Testament: Mark 5:21-43

Friday February 26

Old Testament: Numbers 15-16

New Testament: Mark 6:1-29

Saturday February 27

Old Testament: Numbers 17-19

New Testament: Mark 6:30-56

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The Bible in a Year Challenge – Week 8 (Feb 14-20)

0940_Cranach_nR 001On Feb 16, we commemorate the birth of reformer Philip Melanchthon (1497).  A collaborator of Martin Luther, Melanchthon was a keen thinker who wrote the first protestant systematic theology.  He was known for his piety and his even headedness.  For more information about this under-celebrated reformer, check out the Christian History Institute’s website.

Notes for the Week

Atonement: This week’s readings put before us the idea of atonement. The breaking of God’s moral law deepens the spiritual separation between God and humanity. God provided atonement as a means of healing that separation. Atonement is a matter of reparation for wrongdoing and restoration of relationship. Sadly, we as humans are continually breaking God’s moral law, so we are in a continual need of atonement.

Leviticus 16 shows us that in addition to the regular sacrifices for atonement, God provided a great Day of Atonement, in which the high priest would offer a sacrifice on behalf of all the people of Israel.

Our New Testament readings from the book of Matthew show us Christ’s offering of himself as a great sacrifice of atonement for all his people across all time. In Matthew 27:51, the great curtain in the temple was torn in two, signifying that Jesus had fulfilled once and for all the work of Atonement that all the Levitical sacrifices pointed to. Thus, we see in a very clear way this week how the Old Testament finds its fulfillment in the New.

Feasts: Leviticus also lists a number of special feasts that Israel was to observe. These feasts were times of celebration and worship and adoration of the Lord. They remind us that all of time is God’s time. However these feasts point us to Christ as well – in part in the celebration of Christ’s victory on resurrection Sunday (which we commemorate as Easter), but also in the anticipation of the great end times celebration of the union of Christ and the church (Revelation 19:6-9).

Readings for the Week:

Sunday February 14

Old Testament: Leviticus 15-16

New Testament: Matthew 27:1-26

Monday February 15

Old Testament: Leviticus 17-18

New Testament: Matthew 27:27-50

Tuesday February 16

Old Testament: Leviticus 19-20

New Testament: Matthew 27:51-66

Wednesday February 17

Old Testament: Leviticus 21-22

New Testament: Matthew 28

Thursday February 18

Old Testament: Leviticus 23-24

New Testament: Mark1:1-22

Friday February 19

Old Testament: Leviticus 25

New Testament: Mark 1:23-45

Saturday February 20

Old Testament: Leviticus 26-27

New Testament: Mark 2

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The Bible in a Year Challenge – week 7 (Feb 7-13)

800px-transfigurazione_28raffaello29_september_2015-1aThe Sunday before Ash Wednesday is the day that liturgical churches celebrate Transfiguration Sunday (known in some circles by the catchy name “Quinquagesima Sunday”).  On this day, we recall when Jesus’ full glory was revealed to Peter, James, and John (pictured here in a painting by Raphael).   The texts we read this week are from the Levitical sacrifices and from the chapters leading up to the crucifixion.  As we enter into the season of Lent, let us remember that Christ’s full glory was made perfect in his sacrifice for us.

Notes for the Week

This week’s readings are laden with controversial topics: end times, Old Testament purity laws, the judgment of God, proper worship practices, etc. When dealing with difficult passages, keep some basic principles in mind:

The whole Bible is God’s revelation: The pieces fit together and complement one another – sometimes by contrast, sometimes by development. One of the advantages to a Bible in a year program is that you begin to read the work as a whole and see how. You don’t have to have answers immediately on any given passage – be patient and keep meditating on the scriptures.

Christ is the interpretive key to all the scriptures: Jesus teaches that he didn’t come to abolish the law and the prophets, but to fulfill them (Matthew 5:17). As you read the Old Testament scriptures, as yourself “how does this passage point me to Christ?”   For instance, as you consider all the sacrifices and burnt offerings of Leviticus, meditate on how every sacrifice points to the work of Christ on the cross.

Christ makes the main things plain: Remember that Jesus teaches the two great commandments are to love God with all your heart, soul and mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself. He then punctuates that statement with “All the law and the prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:34-40). This helps ground us through disagreements. Christians disagree a lot about how the end times will play out. There are many different ways to interpret passages like Matthew 24. However, Jesus clarifies what is important through the parables of Matthew 25 (especially the parable of the sheep and goats): kindness to the needy, service to the frail, loving those in need.

Daily Readings

Sunday February 7

Old Testament: Leviticus 1-3

New Testament: Matthew 24:1-28 

Monday February 8

Old Testament: Leviticus 4-5

New Testament: Matthew 24:29-51

Tuesday February 9

Old Testament: Leviticus 6-7

New Testament: Matthew 25:1-30

Wednesday February 10

Old Testament: Leviticus 8-10

New Testament: Matthew 25:31-46

Thursday February 11

Old Testament: Leviticus 11-12

New Testament: Matthew 26:1-25

Friday February 12

Old Testament: Leviticus 13

New Testament: Matthew 26:26-50

Saturday February 13

Old Testament: Leviticus 14

New Testament: Matthew 26:51-75

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I Should Have Loved This Book, But I Didn’t: A Review of “Ready Player One”

Ready player OneFull disclosure:  I am a Gen Xer.  An 80s geek-child.

I spent my teen years as a Trek loving, comics collecting, D&D playing, all-things-Spielberg fanboy.  I geeked out on EPCOT’s Spaceship Earth (the original ride, with the Walter Cronkite voiceover).  I saw the original Dune in theaters and liked it.  When other kids went out on Friday nights, I stayed home and watched Doctor Who on PBS.  I had a Starfleet Technical Manual, the Amazing Spider-Man Annual #21 (where Peter Parker gets married to Mary Jane), a TRS 80 computer with a tape drive, the Atari ET game cartridge (among many others), and Rush’s 2112 on audio cassette.

Ernest Cline’s 2011 smash hit novel Ready Player One should be a book just for me.  Set in a world obsessed with 80s geek culture, this little quest narrative centers on a hero conversant with all things 80s.  It’s a sci-fi nostalgia set-piece drama with plot dynamics straight from that decade.

I should have loved this book.

But I didn’t.

Don’t get me wrong.  I had fun with it.  Cline certainly knows his 80s trivia, and it’s a lot of fun to watch him show off.  He kept me turning pages at a fast clip.  He clearly worked hard on the book and I found it tremendously entertaining.

So what’s my complaint?  No complaint.  Cline did his job, he deserves every shekel that he earns.  I’m glad for him and his success.

I just can’t join my voice to the thunderous chorus of fanboy and fangirl adulation.  I can’t hail this as a great book, a wise book, or a book of which I would say ‘you gotta read this.’    It’s a confection.  A guilty pleasure.  A fling.

Here’s some of the things that I think kept this fun book from being a great book.

(WARNING – there be spoilers ahead.  Proceed at your own risk)

1) The protagonist doesn’t grow.

To succeed in his quest, the main character, Wade Watts, must call upon his considerable prowess – in this case a remarkable command of trivia, video game skill, and the ability to hack into computer systems.   The challenges he faces come fast, increasing in intensity and difficulty.

But Wade never fails.

He does go off in a wrong direction;

he gets distracted from his mission;

he faces unexpected challenges of colossal magnitude;

but never once does he try something and fail.

Without failure, there is little room for growth.  Failure leads to self-examination, to exploring new horizons, to reassessing motivation.  Failure is the refining fire that helps us use our skill with wisdom.  Wade never goes through any of that.  By the end of the book, I have no sense that he is any wiser than when he began.    I base this conclusion in large part from my next quibble …

2) The “lesson learned” contradicts the plot of the book.

When Wade “wins” the quest, he has the chance to meet a computer simulation of his deceased hero, James Halliday.  Halliday had created the elaborate virtual reality world, called OASIS.  When Halliday learned he was dying he developed a special quest in OASIS – the winner would inherit Halliday’s vast fortune and be given control of the virtual reality empire.  To win the quest, the main characters had devoted their entire lives to mastering trivia about Halliday’s life, learning his favorite movies by heart, learning to play his favorite video games at mastery level.  In order to succeed at the tasks in the quest, they had to completely check out from the “real world” and master the fantasy world of James Halliday.

When Wade meets the computer avatar of Halliday, he receives this puzzling instruction:

“I need to tell you one last thing before I go.  Something I didn’t figure out for myself until it was already too late…. I created the OASIS because I never felt at home in the real world.  I didn’t know how to connect with the people there.  I was afraid, for all of my life.  Right up until I knew it was ending.  That was when I realized, as terrifying and painful as reality can be, it’s also the only place where you can find true happiness.  Because reality is real….  Don’t make the same mistake I did.  Don’t hide in here forever.”

In other words … you dedicated your life to this false world so that you could win my quest, now forget about that.  Because what’s really important is real life.

Doesn’t that seem to be a massive contradiction?  Doesn’t the lesson kind of undermine the quest?  Shouldn’t the challenges of the quest itself have been building to that great lesson?

3) Victorious geeks can become omnipotent bullies:

By the end of the book, Wade has achieved the true geek dream – defeat the bad guys, win the girl, show off your prowess, and attain omnipotence.  In winning the quest, Wade gets absolute control over OASIS.  He becomes, in effect, a god.

I have little confidence in his abilities to use this power well (see point 1).

Sure, his girlfriend has convinced him to use his vast wealth to feed the world.  That’s great.  Helping people in abstract is great.

But dealing with actual people is really difficult.

And Wade has a definite character flaw – one that is endemic in geekdom:  disdain.  Wade shows the geek’s disdain for anyone who doesn’t share in his geekery.  This comes out in his occasional breaks from the narrative to rant about sociopolitical opinions.  It comes out in the attitude toward the antagonists.  It comes out in random interactions.

For instance, Wade goes undercover, taking a job as a customer service representative for the machiavellian corporation that seeks to win the quest and control virtual reality.  His very first customer encounter is a call from a crude individual who was less than technically competent.  Without hesitation, Wade retorts with “Sir, the only problem is that you’re a complete f****** moron.”  His customer service skills do not improve from there.

It’s an ugly side to geekdom, but it exists.  When you’re a bullied underdog, disdain can be a helpful survival tool.  However, when you suddenly go from bullied underdog to most powerful man in the world, it’s pretty hard to shut the disdain switch off.

And disdain plus power equals tyranny.

Wade thinks he’ll use his fortune and power to make the world a better place.

Just remember, that’s what Anakin Skywalker thought too,

That’s also what Ozymandias from Watchmen planned on,

And Rassilon, the greatest of the Time Lords, became bent on destruction of the space time continuum.

I looked up some Amazon reviews, to see if I was alone in my thoughts on this.  I found this helpful little quote from a user called Narutakikun:

“There’s also a weird tone of arrogant mean-spiritedness to this book. It’s a little hard to describe, but it reeks of that attitude you get at a comics shop if you say that you really don’t know that much about Green Lantern or that Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was actually a pretty okay movie. The author’s taking occasional breaks to beat you over the head with his sociopolitical views doesn’t help, either. The whole “geekier than thou” thing just doesn’t work for me. It definitely keeps the book from being as “fun” as a lot of people have claimed.”

Without the growth, without the lessons learned, the hero is set up to quickly morph into a villain.  Given what we read in the book, I fear that Wade is likely to become Syndrome (from the Incredibles) or Titan (from Megamind) – or even worse, the Lord Ruler (from the Mistborn Trilogy).

In sum, the 80s were a wonderful decade.  But remember, they spawned the 90s, a decade of irony that undercut the earnestness of the 80s.  There once was a famed 90s song that made reference to:

a bad play where the heroes are right
And nobody thinks or expects too much
And Hollywood’s calling for the movie rights
Singing hey babe let’s keep in touch
Hey baby let’s keep in touch

I can’t help but remember that lyric when I consider the Ready Player One movie coming out in 2017.  Don’t think or expect too much.  Just enjoy it for what it is.  A fling.

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2016 Bible in a Year Challenge – week 6 (Jan 31-Feb 6)

ansgar2On Wednesday, Feb 3, liturgical churches commemorate St. Ansgar, who in the 9th century was sent to evangelize Denmark, Norway, and Sweden.  Today, he is known as “The Apostle of the North.”  Here, Ansgar is depicted by the great 19th c painter Gustaf Olaf Cederstrom.

Reading Notes for the Week

The Tabernacle: This week’s passage contains detailed instructions for the creation of the Tabernacle, which was the portable temple that the Israelites carried with them while wandering in the wilderness. As you read, imagine the rich detail, the visual impression that such a structure would have made. Notice that God especially appoints craftsmen and empowers them by the Holy Spirit to make everything that He had commanded. Among other things we learn from these passages, we learn that God cares about beauty, the arts, and excellent craftsmanship.

God With Us: Everything in the tabernacle was designed to communicate that God is with His people. This truth is driven home in Exodus 40 when the glory of the Lord comes in the form of a cloud and settles over the tabernacle. Later Jewish commentators would refer to this special presence of the Lord as the Shekinah, or glorious presence of the Lord. This is the concept that John will appeal to in his gospel when He writes “The Word became flesh and dwelt among men.”

Inclusion of the Gentiles: Much of Jesus teaching in these chapters of Matthew entails a critique of religious hypocrisy and a proclamation that non-Israelites will be allowed to partake in the kingdom. This teaching will come in its fullness when Jesus imparts the Holy Spirit to the church. Then, truly all believers will enjoy the presence of God’s presence in their hearts. Then, by grace, we will experience the glories that were but hinted at by the tabernacle so long ago.

Readings for the Week

Sunday January 31

Old Testament: Exodus 25-26

New Testament: Matthew 20:17-34

Monday February 1

Old Testament: Exodus 27-28

New Testament: Matthew 21:1-22

Tuesday February 2

Old Testament: Exodus 29-30

New Testament: Matthew 21:23-46

Wednesday February 3

Old Testament: Exodus31-33

New Testament: Matthew 22:1-22

Thursday February 4

Old Testament: Exodus 34-35

New Testament: Matthew 22:23-46

Friday February 5

Old Testament: Exodus 36-38

New Testament: Matthew 23:1-22

Saturday February 6

Old Testament: Exodus 39-40

New Testament: Matthew 23:23-39

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Monthly Mini Reviews for January 2016

As we work our way through the 2016 52 book challenge, I’m going to try (once again) to offer monthly mini-reviews of the books I complete.  Last year, I fizzled out on this part of the project in February – we’ll see how well I do this year.

But first some observations about this year’s project:

About 10 of my friends are doing this challenge in one form or another.  I find that I get really excited to see their posts – I’ve discovered new books (some of which may make it on to my list).  Their progress helps keep me going.

I’m also really intrigued by the commentary that each book generates.  Some spark robust commentary, while others fall flatter than a dead flounder.  This is where the “social” in social media comes in.

Finally, I’m trying to “stage” photos of the books – picking a background and setting that evokes something about the book in some way.  I can’t do it for all the books, but I’m trying for most of them.  This hasn’t generated any commentary yet.  But hope springs eternal.

Now, on to the reviews:

Live, Love, Lead
by Brian Houston.

2016-01-05_1451971248I picked up this book at the library.  Many in my circles consider Houston a heretic, and I wanted to evaluate for myself.  I didn’t find anything glaringly heretical; indeed I could see how this book would be encouraging and inspiring.  However, I found it riddled with cliches (every other page mentions a “big, wide open life” that God has for you) and suffering from the same “bigger is better” bias of most megachurch pastor motivational books.

by Marilynne Robinson.

2016-01-06_1452044796This work of literary fiction (by that, I mean it is not an exciting, plot driven genre piece – it focuses on language, character, mood) has been sitting on my shelf for about a decade (every personal library should have some “aspirational reads”).  Wow.  Just wow.  What more can I say?  How about, “terrific verbal craftsmanship” or “philosophically weighty without being obtuse” or “a melancholy tale that made me think.”

Fool’s Talk
by Os Guinness.

2016-01-21_1453353186The latest work of Christian Apologetics from the winsome, thoughtful, and always intellectually vibrant scion of the famed Irish brewmaster.  I saw this at the library and couldn’t resist the cover.  This is a strong contender for my “Pastor’s Summer Reading Recommendations” for our congregation – wise, balanced, and very helpful in approaching apologetics as a lived practice.  My only quibble is that Guinness tends to repeat his points over and over again in different chapters.  Perhaps it is a pedagogical choice, perhaps it was the fault of an editor who didn’t have the courage to correct Guinness – either way, it is but a mild irritant in what is an overall worthy read.

Pilgrim’s Regress
by C.S. Lewis.

2016-01-23_1453556491You’ve got to hand it to Lewis for sheer audacity.  His first published book of prose is an allegorical conversion narrative, taking the main character on a quest through the intellectual landscape of the mid-twentieth century.  I read this about 20 years ago in my “enchanted by everything Lewis wrote” phase, and I decided to return to it this year.  I enjoyed returning to it, though I suspect it’s not really interesting to anyone who isn’t either a Lewis aficionado or a student of the history of philosophy.

All the Light We Cannot See
by Anthony Doerr.

2016-01-28_1454018018This book was a huge hit last year.  My mother gave it to me for Christmas.  I found it to be an engaging read: fine prose style, interesting characters that I cared about, a narrative structure that kept me on my toes.  Doerr conveys a romantic enchantment with the world and the tragedy that comes when our sins and circumstances crush that enchantment.  He holds out hope that such enchantment can be recovered after a fashion. Sadly, I thought the denouement (covering the last 40 pages or so) was a melancholy petering out of the tale that is almost cliche for our materialist era. It didn’t seem to fit the rest of this otherwise excellent book.

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