Favorite Books of 2020

I read 106 books in 2020.

I read 106 books in 2020. It was a hectic year, one in which my reading waxed and waned. Yet, I’m pleased with the book total.

Many people ask:  “How do you read so many books?”  Or they ask the more offensive question: “But do you really read all of them?”

Here are my tips for reading more books:

Be Selective in the Books You Read.  Nothing slows down reading like a bad book.  Thus, you must be selective.  I only pick up books that I’m sure I will enjoy or books that I know contain information that will be helpful and useful.  I know the topics I will enjoy.  I know the authors I will enjoy.  I read reviews upon reviews upon reviews.  Each week I listen to the New York Times Book Review podcast and number of other book podcasts.  I actively seek out book recommendations.  It is extremely rare that I ever pick up a book simply because “It looks interesting.”

Build a large “To Be Read” stack.  Deciding which book to read next causes a major bottleneck in your reading totals.  You can destroy this bottleneck by building a TBR (To Be Read) pile.  In my office I have a large number of stacks that function as my TBR pile.  When I finish a book, I merely pull a book from the top.  Remember from my first suggestion:  These stacks have been curated.  I don’t have to “think” but merely grab the next book.

Read A Handful of Books Simultaneously.  I have 3 to 5 books going at one time.  If I’m really enjoying a book – it gets finished quickly.  If I’m not enjoying a book – it gets finished slowly (rarely not at all).  Sometimes you’re in a mood for something serious.  At other times you’re in a mood for something lighter.  Reading a handful of books at one time keeps you from getting bogged down.

Take Books With You Everywhere.  This is an ongoing joke in my household.  I take books with me every time I get in the car.  I mean every. single. time.  You’ll be surprised how often you find yourself waiting … a great time for reading a few pages.  When I meet people for lunch I’m often waiting for them to arrive.  A great time to steal 10 minutes of reading.  Remember, for a book a week you only need 3.5 hours a week.  You can easily gain an hour of reading a week by stealing 10 minutes a day here and there.

On to my top 8 books of 2020. I want to stress that these are my favorite books that I read in 2020 (they made have been released in years gone by).

Book of the Year

DIARY OF A PASTOR’S SOUL: THE HOLY MOMENTS IN A LIFE OF MINISTRY BY CRAIG BARNES

Diary of a Pastor's Soul

I have loved the writings of Craig Barnes since I attended a conference he led during my seminary days.  The Pastor as Minor PoetSacred Thirst,  and When God Interrupts sit on my shelf of favorite books.  This release surpasses all of his previous work. Barnes is the president of Princeton Theological Seminary. He began his presidency in January 2013 after a lengthy time in pastoral ministry.  He writes with the brilliance of a scholar but the heart of a pastor.

Diary of a Pastor’s Soul is written as a work of fiction.  It is built around the premise of a pastor logging his thoughts as he completes his final year of pastoral ministry.  Yet, the stories ring true to Barnes’ life and ministry.  To this reader, it appears Barnes has merely collected his favorites stories and lessons learned and crammed them into a one year narrative.  It works.

I read this book in three sittings.  Every few minutes I was forced to stop and read passages out loud to my wife. This is a clear indication that a book is a winner.  When I began the book I made a social media post stating it was the front runner for my book of the year.  Here it is as my favorite book of 2020. It is also in contention for my Mount Rushmore of books. This is required reading for pastors.

What I like most: Barnes speaks the language of pastors.

Biblical Studies

Redeemed!: Eschatological Redemption and the Kingdom of God by Boyd Hunt

I knew nothing of this book until I stumbled upon it at a used books store. Best $6 spent on a book all year. Boyd Hunt was Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Prior to writing this post I googled his name to see when he passed onto glory. I was touched reading of his life and ministry through his obituary.

It is hard to describe this book. From the back of the dust jacket:

“What does God want for His creation? What is His purpose for us today? What is He telling us in the Scriptures?

The answer to these questions can be summarized in a single word: redemption. In this exhaustive study, Boyd Hunt demonstrates that God’s aim – in times past, present, and yet to come – is to bring all of creation under subjection to Jesus Christ. Beginning with Pentecost, progressing through history and continuing on to the final judgment and beyond, Dr. Hunt helps the reader to see

  • the Holy Spirit as the effector to God’s purpose on earth;
  • the kingdom of God present between Christ’s first and second coming;
  • how the Spirit of God works through the church and individuals;
  • the vital connection between redemption and the consumption of history under the reign of Christ.”

With all of that – the book does not underdeliver! It’s technical yet renderable. It is dense yet chapters are short and quick to read.

What I like most: It addresses a neglected topic. Far too many people suffer from a malnourished eschatology. Hunt addresses eschatological redemption in a way that impacts today and tomorrow.

Spiritual Formation

THE JOURNALS OF JIM ELLIOT EDITED BY ELISABETH ELLIOT

Reading “Through the Gates of Splendor” early in the year sent me down a reading hole of all things Jim and Elizabeth Elliot. I’ve loved the Jim Elliot story since I was introduced to it in my college days. I’m surprised I never read his journals before now. 

This work is nothing fancy. It is a slightly edited collection of Jim Elliot’s journal. The only edits are extremely sporadic notes for context. Other than that, the entries are merely Jim’s daily thoughts which consists of his reflections on Bible readings. Occasionally you might get a reference to personal details – mostly scant details in regard to places where he was preaching or leading a revival service. The journals show Jim’s passion to seek the Lord and his love for the Bible. It is fascinating to read a college student work through the Bible in the original languages and mark down translation notes and reflections.

Here are a few quotes:

“Father, let me be weak that I might lose my clutch on everything temporal. My life, my reputation, my possessions, Lord, let me loose the tension of a grasping hand … Rather, open my hand to receive the nail of Calvary – as Christ’s was opened – that I, releasing all, might be released, unleashed from all that binds me here.”

“If the Church is to be purged, her leaders must first be judged.”

“God, I pray, light these idle sticks of my life and may I burn up fo rThee. Consume my life, my God, for it is Thine. I seek not a long life but a full one Like Yours, Lord Jesus.”

What I like most: This book makes a spiritual hero look human. Yet, at the same time, it increases my admiration for the man.

Letters to a young Pastor: Timothy Conversations between father and son by Eric Peterson and Eugene Peterson

I will read anything produced by Eugene Peterson. You can read of my affection for Sweet Eugene here.

When Eric Peterson became the pastor of a brand-new church, he turned to dear, old dad. Eric and Eugene exchanged letters with great frequency and deemed them Timothy conversations. This book is a collection of Eugene’s side of the conversation. You’ll find eleven years of correspondence between a father and son – thoughtful words on what it takes to be a pastor.

Here is a little taste:

“And so it is hard for pastors to be content with this low-profile existence when expectations are so otherwise. I know that for me, this tension between wanting to please my parishioners and wanting to truly tend for their soul formation was constant and never went away. I kept thinking there was a ‘solution” to it, but I never found it; I just had to keep working in the tension.”

This volume is followed up by “Letters to a Young Congregation” written by Eric Peterson. It is a collection of letters Eric wrote to his congregation in the church newsletter.

What I like most: Let’s be honest. I love Peterson. Period. If he had a written commentary on the funny page – it would probably make this list.

Leadership

Tempered Resilience: How Leaders are form in the crucible of Change by Tod Bolsinger

Bolsinger, associate professor of leadership formation and senior fellow for the De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Seminary, had a big hit with “Canoeing the Mountains.” I found that book to be great but it attempted to do too many things. Bolsinger avoids that criticism with “Tempered Resilience.” It is an extremely helpful book with a laser focus.

Healthy leadership is resilient leadership.  The resilient leader, according to Bolsinger, is one who is “grounded, teachable, attuned, adaptable, and tenacious.” Using the image of a blacksmith to represent the process of becoming a strong and resilient adaptive leader, Bolsinger makes the case that this process of becoming a tempered and resilient leader involves six steps:

  1. Working
  2. Heating
  3. Holding
  4. Hammering
  5. Hewing
  6. Tempering

The book draws wisdom from a wide variety of sources, including Moses, Martin Luther King, Jr., Ronald Heifetz, Edwin Friedman, Brene Brown and others. But more importantly, “Tempered Resilience” is firmly grounded in the difficult trenches of church life. If there ever was a time in which the church needed resilience – 2020 was the year.

What I look the most: The forge imagery is helpful. The content is timely.

Lead: 12 Gospel Principles for Leadership in the Church by Paul David Tripp

If you haven’t read Tripp’s “Dangerous Calling,” open up another tab and purchase now. It is a must read for pastors. “Lead” doesn’t make it into the “must read” category but its a good one.

Most leadership books are filled with fluff. Not here. The book says what it needs to say and no more. Tripp’s twelve gospel principles:

  1. Achievement: A ministry community’s time that is controlled by the business of the church is spiritually unhealthy.
  2. Gospel: To minister to God’s people in grace, leaders need to nurture grace in one another’s lives.
  3. Limits: Every leader is limited in their energy, time, gifts, and talents. It is important to recognize this to lead well.
  4. Balance: Leadership must mutually recognize that balance is needed to fulfill the various callings God gives to us.
  5. Character: A healthy leadership community understands that character is more important than anything.
  6. War: Gospel ministry is spiritual warfare.
  7. Service: Leaders are called to serve God’s people, not domineer over them.
  8. Candor: A leadership community focused on the gospel will be approachable and have the courage to love honestly.
  9. Identity: Where leadership gets their identity from is where they will lead from.
  10. Restoration: When the gospel forms a leadership community, it will be committed to fresh starts.
  11. Longevity: There can be no longevity without a gospel community of leaders.
  12. Presence: Church ministry is not possible without the presence of Jesus.

What I like most: This is a leadership book but it is really a gospel book.

Biography

Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom by David Blight

Third time is the charm. I checked this book out twice from my local library, but barely got started each time. It took picking the book up cheap at a used bookstore (and a vacation) to make it through the 800 pages. Third time is the charm and well worth the effort. Here it sits among my top 8.

This volume now appears to be the definitive biography of Frederick Douglass, the escaped slave who became the greatest orator of his day and one of the leading abolitionists and writers of the era.

As a young man Frederick Douglass escaped slavery in Baltimore, Maryland. He was fortunate to have been taught to read by his slave owner’s mistress. He wrote three versions of his autobiography over the course of his lifetime and published his own newspaper. His writings placed a spotlight on slavery, highlighted its evil, and made him one of the most famous and well-traveled men of his time.

David Blight penned this tome with new information held in a private collection that few other historian have consulted. I’ve enjoyed watching Blight in interviews discuss spending months with the collection held in the home of its owner.

What I like the most: I read “The Narrative of Frederick Douglass” in high school. This is that masterpiece even greater depth.

Presidential

The Last Republicans: Inside the Extraordinary Relationship Between George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush by Mark Updegrove

In 2016 George W. Bush lamented privately that he might be “the last Republican president.” I agree. The Republican party as we once knew it is over. What comes next? I have no clue.

In a book I finished in early January, Mark K. Updegrove tells the tale of two Bush presidents from their formative years through their post-presidencies. There is also much to say about the failed presidential candidacy of Jeb Bush.

Father Bush walked the straight and narrow. Jeb Bush described his father as a “near perfect person.” Son Bush walked the curvy and wide. His younger days of parties and drinking led to a spiritual transformation later in life. While different in most ways imaginable, both men held the highest seat in the land.

They reached the Oval Office in different ways and they were different presidents. Father Bush was viewed as a consensus-building thinker. He was ridiculed for breaking the “no new taxes” vow and could never shake the “wimp” image. He served one term. Son Bush carried the title and authority of the “decider” and ruled from his view of good and evil. He served two terms. Yet, history will be kinder to Father Bush.

What I like most: It might not be the highest accolade but George HW Bush is the greatest one-term president. I respect his presidency and his character. I want more written about him.

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