Thursday, November 30, 2017

A Story of Faith and Fortitude

I recently began reading Anne Applebaum’s book Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine.  It is the story of how Stalin, the premier of Communist Russia, used a famine caused by his own policies of collectivization to destroy the leadership of ethnic Ukraine and prevent any threat of its future independence.  Applebaum is an excellent historian, winner of the Pulitzer Prize.  Her books are powerful, but also chilling.  Whether she writes about Communist Russia’s prison camps, the spread of the Iron Curtain over Europe or a deadly famine in the Ukraine, her stories are a dire warning about the power of government unrestrained by law and constitution.  They are also a reminder to us of the evils of Communism, especially in our day when Communism is becoming more and more attractive to the millennial generation.

But as I was reading Red Famine, something else hit me.  Although I did not realize it when I bought the book, my grandparents lived through the events Applebaum was narrating.  And in the midst of this turmoil and tumult, they kept their faith in Jesus Christ and passed down a legacy of endurance in the midst of difficulty to their descendants.

As some of you may know, my ancestry is Mennonite.  Both sides of my family originated from Mennonites who found themselves in the Ukraine in the days of the Russian Empress Catherine the Great.  My mother’s side of the family immigrated to Canada in the late 19th century and settled in southern Manitoba.  My father’s side of the family stayed in the Ukraine and lived through many of the events in Applebaum’s book.

The story that I was told when I was younger was that during the Communist Revolution in Russia, when my grandmother was about 12, my great-grandmother’s house was invaded by soldiers and she was shot before my grandmother’s eyes.  I had always assumed that the perpetrators were Russian soldiers, but according to Red Famine, they could have been members of any number of roving bands of soldiers and bandits that plagued the land at the time.  Applebaum tells stories of whole villages of Mennonites slaughtered during this upheaval.  My ancestors were at the mercy of whatever roving band was passing by.

Being hard-working farmers, my grandparents and their families were likely labelled as “kulaks” by Stalin and his followers.  A kulak originally denoted an individual who was wealthy, but as time passed the definition included anyone who opposed the effort to create collective farms or clung to ideas that were opposite to Communist ideals, such as faith in Jesus Christ.  Kulaks were killed, sent to the gulags in Siberia and exiled out of Russia.  Kulaks of German descent, like my family, were especially targeted.  The story my father told me was that his parents, now married, were sent to Moscow in about 1931.  They were told to board one of the two trains at the station.  The train they boarded exiled them from Russia, and paradoxically to freedom in the West.  The other train’s passengers were sent to Siberia.

My grandparents at my parent's wedding.
Their exile from Russia in 1931 spared them from the worst of the Ukrainian famine detailed in Applebaum’s book.  But it did not spare them from hardship.  Unable to immigrate to Canada because of health, they settled among other Mennonites in Paraguay. There they started with nothing, breaking virgin land, living in poverty and having 12 children, 9 of whom lived past infancy.  Their life was far from easy, and even after they immigrated to Canada in 1956 with their six youngest children (my father being the oldest of those six), they still did not have much.  But what they did have was a deep faith in Jesus Christ.

Sometimes I look at my life and I catch myself worrying about this and that, but in light of my grandparent’s story, my stuff seems so trivial.  I am sometimes concerned about finances, but in reality I have to admit I have more now than my grandparents ever did their whole entire lives.  I get concerned about the state of our country and its rejection of the Christian faith, but I do not have to face outright persecution and murder like they did.  I get concerned about health, but I have never been banned from immigrating to freedom because of it.  I get concerned about my kids, but I have not had three of them die in infancy.  My life is easy compared to the life of my grandparents.  And through all of that hardship and poverty, their enduring faith in Jesus Christ shines through.  In those times when I get concerned and struggle to trust God, I need to remember their faith amidst trials.  I am truly thankful for godly grandparents and the legacy of faith they passed down to their children, grandchildren and now great-grandchildren.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Book Review - God's Word Alone: The Authority of Scripture

As many know, this year marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.  5 centuries ago, Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses against indulgences on the church door in Wittenberg, Germany.  What he thought was an invitation to theological discussion kicked off a movement that has changed the world.

Many books have been written in the past year to honor this event.  For example, I am reading one biography of Luther presently and have another in my too-read pile.  Other books have dealt with the theological issues of the reformation and have even asked the question of whether the reformation is still important.  Some of the best of these books can be found in the 5 Solas series, a set of 5 books exploring the 5 Solas of the Reformation – sola Scriptura (Scripture alone), sola gratia (grace alone), sola fide (faith alone) solus Christus (Christ alone) and soli Deo Gloria (glory to God alone).

I recently had the pleasure of reading one of these volumes, Matthew Barrett’s book on sola Scriptura entitled God’s Word Alone:  The Authority of Scripture.  The discussion around the doctrine of Scripture – especially issues like inerrancy – never really ends.  The authority of God’s Word is being continually challenged, whether in lofty academic arguments or in day to day pastoral counseling situations where the counselee is not interested in submitting to what the Scripture commands.  Barrett’s book is excellent for anyone to read in order to bolster their confidence in the Scriptures and their understanding of the doctrine of the Word of God.

The book has three main sections.  The first is a historical survey of how people have understood the authority of God’s Word from the time of the Reformation to the present.  Barrett dives into the Roman Catholic view of authority that Martin Luther dealt with, the rise of liberalism and its denial of the Bible’s authority, and today’s postmodern world and its view of the Scriptures.  It is a very helpful survey and a good reminder of how over the centuries, people have challenged the authority of God’s Word in various ways, a pattern which continues today.

The second section of the book is journey through redemptive history.  Barrett explores the necessity of a Word from God, how God revealed his Word through the covenant relationships He established and finally how those covenants were fulfilled in God’s Word made flesh, the Lord Jesus Christ.

The final portion of the book is a theological survey of four of the vital components of the doctrine of Scripture – inspiration, inerrancy, clarity and sufficiency.  In each of these chapters, Barrett does a great job explaining the importance of these ideas, showing how Scripture itself supports them, and then briefly tackling how these ideas are under fire today, both from outside the church and also from people inside the church who carry the label “evangelical.”  This was the most valuable section of the book for me – it reminded me how rich and how vital each of these ideas are for life and ministry.

God’s Word Alone does not answer all of one’s questions about the Bible – few books attempt that.  But it is a great survey of Biblical truth, a rich source of well-reasoned argument and will be encouraging and challenging for the reader.  I highly recommend it for anyone who has questions or is just looking to solidify their understanding of or faith in of the authority of Scripture.  I have already begun another volume in the series, Faith Alone:  The Doctrine of Justification by Thomas Schreiner, and look forward to completing the series in the coming year.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Baby on Board

Earlier this year, my wife suggested that we pursue becoming foster parents.  This was something we had discussed from time to time and planned to do sometime in the future.  Well, for her, the future was now.  While I also shared her desire to be involved in foster parenting, there was part of me that was somewhat reluctant.  After all, we had almost raised our kids.  We only had one more at home, and she would be a high school senior.  I was looking forward to having time with my wife – time we did not really have much of in years past.
As we pursued getting approved to be foster parents, I filled out the paperwork, but admittedly was not as excited as my wife and daughter were.  This past summer, we had our foster training.  The crew in Bozeman did an amazing job in that training session, and as I listened to the plight of these kids in the foster system, my heart began to change.  As I heard about their feelings of abandonment and grief at being separated from their parents, God kindled a desire in my heart to be part of the solution.

A few weeks ago, after a couple months of waiting for background checks to go through, a state social worker did a home visit with us.  At that time, she informed us that she did not have anyone to place in our home at that time.  My wife and daughter really wanted to have a baby as our first placement, and there were no babies available at the time.  As a result, after the visit we resigned ourselves to wait patiently until there was a need.

Two days later I received a call on my cell phone at the office.  It was Family Services.  They had a 5 month old baby boy that needed a placement.  Were we interested?  I told her to call my wife, but yes, we would probably be very interested.  When Miriam got the call, she packed up the car with a car seat and hustled down to Family Services where she met baby “D.”

I came home from the office later that day.  I walked into the house.  Miriam was giving baby “D” a bottle.  When he saw me, he stopped drinking and gave me a big smile.  When I saw that smile, he had me.  I was smitten.  Immediately I felt I would do anything for this little guy.  I felt we were so blessed to provide a stable home environment for this little one until a permanent placement could be arranged.

We don’t know how long we will have baby “D”.  It could be another month, it would be longer than that.  His case is working his way through the court system.  It has been an adjustment to have a baby around again, since our youngest is 17 years old.  We wish he would do a little better job of sleeping through the night.  But otherwise, he is a joy and a delight. 

I pray for this little guy every day.  I pray that God would bless him and keep him.  I pray that one day, he would hear and accept the gospel and grow up to serve the Lord
.  I realize that he will probably not remember us.  That’s okay.  I just hope we can provide a place of stability and love until he can be placed in a home where he will be nurtured, cared for and raised in a safe environment.

For those considering foster care, I encourage you to take the leap.  Yes, there are tough times.  (Talk to us on a day when we are suffering from sleep deprivation, especially my wife.)  Yes, it will be tough to part with little baby “D” when his permanent placement comes through.  But the need is so great.  There are many children out there who need a stable loving foster family, whether for a week or a year.  With God’s help, you can provide that.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Book Review: A Theology of Biblical Counseling

We have all read books with titles that intrigue us and draw us in.  For example, I just finished an epic fantasy book entitled The Shadow of What was Lost.  As the story progresses, the meaning of the title is gradually revealed.  On the other hand, there are books where the title carries no intrigue at all.  A Theology of Biblical Counseling:  The Doctrinal Foundations of Counseling Ministry by Heath Lambert, is one of those books.  This book sat on my shelf for a number of months and I hesitated to pick it up because, frankly, the title communicated “dry” to me.  I finally picked it up because the author will be one of the speakers at a counseling conference I will attend later in July.

I am happy to admit that, although the title is not flashy, this book is anything but dry.  In fact, about halfway through the year, apart from the Bible, this is the best book I have read so far this year.  Lambert endeavors to survey a number of aspects of Bible doctrine, specifically bringing out the reasons why these truths are vitally important in counseling for both the counselor and the counselee.

Heath Lambert writes well.  He is obviously passionate about his subject.  And he does a great job beginning and ending his chapters with counseling stories that relate to the topic at hand.  These stories make each chapter – which is essentially filled with a mix of systematic theology and counseling theory – approachable for the reader.  Yes, you heard me right.  This book is primarily theology and theory.  If you are looking for a practical, step by step guide to counsel someone, this is not your book.  But if you want to develop the theological foundation for your counseling efforts so that you will be offering people solid biblical truth, this is the book for you.

The first three chapters of the book alone are worth the price of the book.  In chapter 1, Lambert argues that counseling, at its heart, is a theological discipline.  In chapter 2, he explores the topic of Scripture.  So much of the content of our counseling turns on what we think of Scripture.  Is it authoritative?  Clear?  Necessary for counseling?  Sufficient for the task?  How you answer these questions will set the direction of your counseling.  And in chapter 3, the author unpacks the doctrine of common grace and explores the pervasive effects of sin in our lives.  Throughout these chapters, he gently but firmly gives reasons why biblical counseling is a better alternative that other approaches to counseling, all the while showing the areas where medicine and even at times, secular psychological observation can be helpful to the biblical counselor.

The table of contents for the rest of the book looks very similar to any other systematic theology book on my shelf.  Lambert, in turn, explores the doctrines of God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, humanity, sin, suffering, salvation and the church.  In each case, he lays out the orthodox teaching of Scripture, but then makes specific application to how and why these truths are vital for various counseling situations.  He ends with an excellent summary chapter on the goal of theology.  As he puts it, counseling is taking what we know from theology and applying it to people who are suffering under the weight of all the kinds of pain this world has to offer, for the purpose of building their hope and increasing their joy in truly knowing Christ.

I think this is an excellent resource that belongs on the shelf of anyone who endeavors to counsel others from the Scripture.  We want to give those we counsel our best, but ultimately our best is only that if it is God’s best, counsel firmly grounded in God’s very Word.

Monday, June 19, 2017

God in the Killing Fields

As Donald Trump’s presidency continues, I hear more and more things from the left about how Trump and the Republicans are a danger to democracy.  I hear how Mr. Trump or a Republican Congress will take away our rights and our freedoms.  I believe it is wise to diligently guard those rights and freedoms enshrined in the Constitution.  At the same time, there is a sense that the people complaining about our rights and freedoms, from both the left and the right, should get some much needed perspective.

I say this, having just read Intended for Evil:  A Survivor’s Story of Love, Faith and Courage in the Cambodian Killing Fields.  The book, written by a college acquaintance of mine, Les Sillars, gives our current discussion that perspective.  While we carefully guard our rights and freedoms, Sillars tells the powerful story of Radha and the Cambodian people whose rights and freedoms were taken away completely by the Khmer Rouge Communists.  What may or may not be happening in our country is nothing compared to the horror visited on this Asian nation.

Sillars’ story is based on extensive interviews and, it appears, a friendship with, Radha Manickam, an Indian citizen living in Cambodia at the time of the Khmer Rouge takeover in the 1970’s.  From a wealthy Hindu family, Radha became a Christian as a young man.  Soon after his conversion, the country was taken over by the Communists.

Interweaving Radha’s personal story with a birds-eye view of what was going on in Cambodia on a national and international level, Sillars tells a story of lost rights, powerlessness and random murder.  The Khmer Rouge evacuated the Cambodian people from their cities, forcibly settled them in the country to grow rice, and starved and worked them to death.  Radha’s story is depressing at times and hard to stomach.  The reader wonders how one man, and ultimately how a whole country, could endure that much brutality.

And yet, God’s hand shines through over and over in the story.  God is a work protecting Radha, providing food for him, overseeing the circumstances of his marriage and ultimately helping him escape to the United States.  While Radha’s story is one of profound loss at times – most of his immediate family died in the killing fields of Cambodia - it is also one of hope, since God never lets go of one of his own.

Sillars tell the story of both the rise and the fall of the Khmer Rouge.  Interestingly enough, a recent issue of Christianity Today chronicles the amazing opportunity for ministry that exists in Cambodia at the present time.  Christians are at work in many areas, from standing against the sex trade to planting churches among Cambodian national.  As Intended for Evil makes clear, God is able to take situations and circumstances that are brutal and redeem them for His glorious purposes.

So, by all means, stand up for the rights and freedoms we enjoy in our country.  Thank God for them on a regular basis.  Make yourself aware of the places where those rights are being eroded.  At the same time, always remember we may not have those freedoms forever.  But if they go away, it does not mean God is no longer at work.  In fact, it may be that God has even more opportunities to work, redeeming painful situations and bringing hope in places where, humanly speaking, it should not exist.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Book Review: Clouds of Glory by Michael Korda

In May, the city of New Orleans removed the last of its Civil War monuments, a statue of General Robert E. Lee.  There has been great outcry by both sides of the political spectrum over the removal of these monuments.  The left is pleased to see them go, decrying them as continual reminders of the national sin of slavery and a debunking of the “lost cause” Civil War mythos.  The right, while agreeing with the evils of slavery, wondered out loud about forgetting our history as a nation and wondered whether the founders of our country, many of them slave-holders as well, would also soon be “removed” from public view.
In the midst of this discussion, I had the privilege of reading Michael Korda’s biography of Robert E. Lee entitled Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee.  I have read and heard much in recent months about this man from many sources, from media reports to Facebook memes.  Who was this man and how much of our perception of him, 150 years later, is accurate?

Korda’s book is massive – almost 700 pages of text, not counting footnotes – and his story is told well.  Except for a few instances of irritating repetition and a few factual errors, such as errors in dates that a good editor should have caught, Korda’s portrait of Lee is well painted.  Beginning with his early life in a prestigious but impoverished Virginia family, Korda follows Lee through West Point, marriage and the Mexican-American War, where Lee first made his mark on the national stage.  Many of Lee’s years in the Army, either as an engineer or cavalry commander, were years of boredom, drudgery and a lack of promotion.  That said, as a result of Mexican War heroics, he entered the Civil War with a rank of Colonel. After the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, both sides, Union and Confederate, sought Lee’s services as a commander of their armies in the field.  Only when Virginia seceded from the Union did Lee make up his mind, following his home state into the arms of the rebellion. 

The bulk of Korda’s book focuses on Lee’s years as a Civil War commander.  He was, without a doubt, the most brilliant of all the commanders on both sides of the war.  He took risks no other commander would take, and often he pulled them off.  Korda does a good job analyzing Lee’s strategical and tactical choices, marveling at his willingness to divine his forces in the face of the enemy.  At the same time, Clouds of Glory is not hagiography.  Korda criticizes Lee for the risks he took that did not turn out well.  He especially is concerned about Lee’s unwillingness to be forceful with his sub-commanders, all too often trusting them too much and leaving too much in their hands, which at times led to movement and attacks that were made too late to garner even greater victories.

Throughout the book, Korda addresses the glorification of Lee that is the product of historians like Douglas Southall Freeman and others of the “Lost Cause” persuasion.  While Korda considers Lee to be a brilliant general, he has little time of day for Lee’s most zealous apologists.  One area where those apologists focus their interest is on Lee and his slavery views.  While Lee did hate slavery, he also considered, as many Americans on both sides of the rebellion did in those day, that black Americans were inferior.  While Lee did not participate in the slave trade, he did own 200 slaves, all inherited through his wife’s family at the death of his father-in-law.  Despite his revulsion of slavery, Lee was unable to free his slaves prior to the Civil War due to the stipulations of his father-in-law’s will.

One of the things I appreciated most about Korda’s book was its emphasis on Lee’s religious faith.  While he does not make it a major part of the book, he does not shy away from matters of faith like many modern biographers do.  He is very clear that Lee is what he calls an evangelical Christian and that his faith in God’s will guided and directed his life to the end.   His mentions of Lee’s faith in God are woven throughout the book, as I believe they should be.

The book, while excellent, produced mixed feelings in me.  While I share Robert E. Lee’s faith, I cannot relate to his views of African Americans or his tolerance of slavery.  I don’t know how he mixed those views; that concept is foreign to me.  Like a number of Civil War icons, Lee is an enigma to those of us who see the world in a different way.  At the same time, Korda’s portrait is still eminently worth reading.  We cannot forget our history, especially the parts that make us uncomfortable, even while we forge ahead, committed to not repeating the mistakes of the past.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Scarlett Johansson, Monogamy and the Bible

In a recent interview, actress Scarlett Johansson admitted that she is not sure that people are designed to be monogamous in relationships.  “I think the idea of marriage is very romantic.  It’s a beautiful idea, and the practice of it can be a very beautiful thing,” said the twice married actress, “I don’t think it’s natural to be a monogamous person.”  Johansson considers marriage a “legally binding contract that has weight to it,” and a “beautiful responsibility,” but also remarks that marriage is a lot of work.

Ms. Johansson, I completely agree.  Marriage is a beautiful responsibility.  It is a lot of work.  And it is more assuredly NOT natural to be a monogamous person.  It is not natural for sinful human beings to commit themselves – ideally for life – to one partner in marriage.  But the fact that, until relatively recently, that has been the standard, accepted pattern in the western world is tribute to the foundational impact the truths of the Bible has had on our society.

I came across Ms. Johansson’s words while I was in the midst of reading a book about the very thing she is indirectly addressing – the profound yet often unseen and unnoticed impact the Bible has had in shaping western culture and society.  The book in question was The Book that Made your World:  How the Bible Created the Soul of Western Civilization by Vishal Mangalwadi. 
Mangalwadi is a social reformer, political columnist and Christian philosopher who was born and raised in India.  His eastern roots give Mangalwadi a unique perspective on the whole question of how our society has been shaped by the Bible.  With numerous examples from India, Mangalwadi presents a stark contrast between a culture like India’s that has only relatively recently been affected by the Bible and our own culture.
The very soul of western civilization, Mangalwadi argues, has been shaped by the Bible.  Our idea of humanity and basic human dignity comes from the Bible.  It is based in our understanding of the incarnation – the fact that Jesus became man meant that human beings are and continue to be objects of dignity and great value.  Our emphasis on rationality and thinking through things comes from the Bible.  Our minds have been understood as one of God’s great gifts to us.  They enable us to seek to understand a rational God and drive us to create a thinking civilization.  Even our emphasis on technology has its roots in Scripture.  The Bible portrays God as a Creator, the architect of the cosmos, not as a dreamer or a dancer as others faiths do.  When we create and invent ourselves, we follow a divine example.  And much of what the west has created over the years has brought liberty and freedom and the betterment of human existence.
Mangalwadi continues his argument, suggesting that many of the underlying concepts that we accept as a society come from Scripture.  Our idea of a hero, someone who refuses to bow before evil and falsehood, is biblical.  The godly pursuit of translating the Scripture from Latin into common languages brought revolution, freedom and other biblical ideas to many nations.  The idea of educating your subjects, as opposed to just simply ruling over ignorant people, is biblical.  Our quest for truth in science has its roots in our quest for the truth about the biblical God and how he created our universe.  Biblical morality, even though we are moving away from it, still has its affect.  Countries where the Bible has had influence for centuries are notably less corrupt.  The Bible’s emphasis on family, gender roles and marriage has raised the status of women, especially compared to many other places in the world.  The ideas of medical compassion and stewardship of wealth come ultimately from the Bible.
Now of course, people can argue that the world the Bible created is not all roses and sunshine.  I agree.  Anything and everything can be used for hurtful, ugly, self-centered purposes.  But is that the fault of the Bible, or is that the fault of sinful, corrupt human beings who take advantage of the freedom or scientific advancement the Bible set in place in our society?

The fact is, as Ms. Johansson’s interview reminds us, we are quickly moving away from being a culture influenced and shaped by the Bible.  Society is quickly laying aside the foundational ideas that the Bible has ingrained in us.  Unfortunately, what society is blind to is that the freedoms we enjoy, or the wealth we are privileged to have, or the responsible, democratic government we take for granted all exist primarily because of the Bible.  When we take that foundation away, what will be the result?

Monday, January 9, 2017

Best Books of 2016 – Fiction

My forays into fiction this year were a bit disappointing.  I did read some very good books. I read some fun books.  I discovered a few new authors and I finished a longtime series from one particular author, but very little that I read was truly outstanding.

Here are the best:

The Bands of Mourning by Brandon Sanderson.  Brandon Sanderson is one of my favorite writers at the present time.  This book is the conclusion of a spin-off series set in the same world as his best-selling Mistborn books.  A good story driven by great characters who have an awesome, often hilarious, interplay with each other.

Lamentation by C. J. Sansom.  A year with a new C. J. Sansom book is a good year.  Lamentation stars Sansom’s long time hero, hunchback lawyer Matthew Shardlake, who seems to get into some of the murkiest corners of King Henry the 8th’s England.  As usual, great historical research and a fine story make this one of the best fiction books I read this year.

Fever Dream, Cold Vengeance, and Two Graves by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child.  Preston and Child write fun mystery/adventure stories.  There is nothing too deep here, just lots of action and great story-telling.  Of course, it does not hurt that the stories center on FBI Agent Pendergast, a quirky, wonderful main character.  This trilogy of books focuses on Pendergast’s hunt to find the truth about his wife Helen.

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss.  Probably the best fiction book I read this year.  This is classic, epic fantasy with a twist – the legendary hero of the story does not appear to be what everyone thinks he is.  Book 2 – The Wise Man’s Fear - is almost as good.  I am eagerly awaiting book 3.

Furies of Calderon by Jim Butcher.  Book 1 of the Codex Alera series, Butcher has created an intriguing world and interesting characters.  I hope to read more of this series in 2017 and I am curious as to where he will take his story.

2nd Tier Reads – very good, recommended (in no particular order):
Ordermaster  by L. E. Modesitt Jr. (Recluse series)
Cemetery Dance by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child
The Crown Tower by Michael J. Sullivan
The Rose and the Thorn by Michael J. Sullivan
The Revenant:  A Novel of Revenge by Michael Punke
Cyador’s Heirs by L. E. Modesitt Jr. (Recluse series)
Heritage of Cyador by L. E. Modesitt Jr. (Recluse series)
The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss
Iron Lake by William Kent Krueger
The Death of Chaos by L. E. Modesitt Jr. (Recluse series)

3rd Tier Reads – okay, but somewhat disappointing:
The Wretched of Muirwood by Jeff Wheeler
The Lincoln Letter by William Martin

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Best Books of 2016 - History/Biography

I enjoy history and good biography – I have a book like this going all the time.  As you can see, I had a strange fascination with the books of Ken McGoogan and the history of the American West this year.  We will see what next year brings.

Here the books that stood out this year.

Custer’s Trials:  A Life on the Frontier of a New America by T. J. Stiles.  I always look forward to a new T. J. Stiles book.  In this book, Stiles portrays George Armstrong Custer, the Civil War hero slain at the battle of Little Bighorn.  Custer is portrayed as a man out of a place in the developing United States.  The only thing he does well is fight, which is what ultimately killed him.

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow.  While I realize the Hamilton is a Broadway sensation, I read this book to learn more about a man who is at times vilified, at other times forgotten as a founding father of America.  Chernow is an excellent biographer – his portrait is exhaustive, highlighting Hamilton’s brilliance as well as his failings.

A Time for Trumpets:  The Untold Story of the Battle of the Bulge by Charles B. MacDonald.  Written in the 1980’s, MacDonald’s book may have been superseded by newer research, but very few books do as well communicating the storyline of the grimmest battle on the Western Front during World War 2.  MacDonald was a participant, serving as a company commander in the midst of the fighting in Belgium.

One Day In August:  The Untold Story Behind Canada’s Tragedy at Dieppe by David O’Keefe.  The raid on Dieppe during World War 2 is part of the Canadian identity, and one of its tragedies.  Part of the reason for the tragedy is that no one really knows why so many lives were wasted for an operation that seemed to have no purpose.  O’Keefe, using new research, seeks to shed light on the hidden purpose for the costly raid.

Fatal Passage:  The Untold Story of John Rae, the Arctic Adventurer who Discovered the Fate of Franklin by Ken McGoogan.  Easily the best history/biography book I read this past year.  I am fascinated by Arctic exploration, and John Rae is one of the unsung heroes of it.  His accomplishments are many, including the first to find evidence of the lost Franklin expedition, even though today he is virtually unknown.
Gettysburg:  The Last Invasion by Allen C. Guelzo.  The second best history/biography book I read this year.  Many people have written many pages about the battle of Gettysburg, few have done it with such an excellent blend of writing and research.  I am looking forward to reading more of Guelzo’s books – I already have Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President on my short list.

The Earth is Weeping:  The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West by Peter Cozzens.  The story of the Indian wars in the west has been told many times, most famously from the perspective of the Indian in books like Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.  Cozzens’ portrayal of this period of American history is brilliant, well-written and profoundly balanced.

Those are the best, here are the rest (in no particular order):

2nd Tier books – very good, recommended.
Double Cross:  The True Story of the D-Day Spies by Ben Macintyre
Fierce Patriot:  The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman by Robert L. O’Connell (honorable mention)
Grant’s Final Victory:  Ulysses S. Grant’s Heroic Last Year by Charles Bracelen Flood
Strangers on a Bridge:  The Case of Colonel Abel and Francis Gary Powers by James B. Donovan (the true story behind the movie)
Last Stand:  George Bird Grinnell, the Battle to Save the Buffalo, and the Birth of the New West by Michael Punke
The Black Count:  Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss
Geronimo by Robert M. Utley
Escape from Davao:  The Forgotten Story of the Most Daring Prison Break of the Pacific War by John D. Lukacs
The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens who made England by Dan Jones
The Wilderness Warrior:  Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America by Douglas Brinkley
The Immortal Irishman:  The Irish Revolutionary who became an American Hero by Timothy Egan (Montana’s first governor)
A Decent, Orderly Lynching:  The Montana Vigilantes by Frederik Allen
Astoria:  Astor and Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire by Peter Stark
Tragedy at Dieppe:  Operation Jubilee, August 19, 1942 by Mark Zuehlke
How the Scots Invented Canada by Ken McGoogan
Wrecked in Yellowstone:  Greed, Obsession and the untold Story of Yellowstone’s Most Infamous Shipwreck by Mike Stark
The Wars of the Roses:  The Fall of the Plantagenets and the Rise of the Tudors by Dan Jones 
The General:  Charles De Gaulle and the France He Saved by Jonathon Fenby
Ancient Mariner:  The Arctic Adventures of Samuel Hearne, the Sailor who Inspired Coleridge’s Masterpiece by Ken McGoogan
If You Can Keep it:  The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty by Eric Metaxas
Valour Road by John Nadler (3 World War 1 heroes from the same Winnipeg street)
The Norman Conquest:  The Battle of Hastings and the Fall of Anglo-Saxon England by Marc Morris
Empire of the Summer Moon by S.  C. Gwynne
Augustus:  First Emperor of Rome by Adrian Goldsworthy (honorable mention)
Brilliant Disaster:  JFK, Castro and America’s Doomed Invasion of Cuba’s Bay of Pigs by Jim Rasenberger
Lady Franklin’s Revenge:  A True Story of Ambition, Obsessions and the Remaking of Arctic History by Ken McGoogan (honorable mention)
MacArthur at War:  World War 2 in the Pacific by Walter Borneman
The Greatest Knight by Thomas Asbridge

3rd Tier reads – good, but somewhat disappointing:
The Romanovs 1613-1918 by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Best Books of 2016 – Christian and Pastoral

It has come to that time of year again when I look back at the books I have read in the past year, and highlight the best ones.  As I have done in the past, I have grouped them into three broad categories – Christian/Pastoral, History/Biography and Fiction.

I had the privilege of reading a number of very good Christian books this year.  The best of them had a profound impact on me personally, which has filtered down to have a profound impact on my ministry and church life.  (That is how it should work, isn’t it?)  Here are 7 I consider the best, followed by a list of the rest.

AWE:  Why is Matters for Everything We Think, Say and Do by Paul David Tripp. Wow – what can I say?  Easily the best book I read this year.  When I read it, Tripp’s biblical teaching coincided with a difficult time in my life, and what that intersection produced was a realization that my eyes, which had been almost exclusively on my difficulties, needed to be almost exclusively on the glories and work of God.

Gospel Treason:  Betraying the Gospel with Hidden Idols by Brad Bigney.  Probably the second best book I read last year.  Bigney’s practical, hard-hitting teaching, combined with self-examination, let to some recognition of some of the idols that tend to rule in my life.  I spun off a Sunday School class using Bigney’s sermons, which has impacted many who have attended.

The Unquenchable Flame:  Discovering the Heart of the Reformation by Michael Reeves.  I have read 4 Michael Reeves’ books and he is currently one of my favorite authors.  The Unquenchable Flame is a history book filled with great insights and fascinating characters.  I have read much on the Reformation and he taught me some lessons I had not known.

Engendered:  God’s Gift of Gender Difference in Relationship by Sam A. Andreades.  Every pastor needs to be aware of the whole issue of sexual identity and gender in our current society.  Andreades’ book is a remarkable study of the blessing of gender differences.  Yes, those gender differences our spouse displays are meant to bless our marriages and families!  Highly recommended!

The Compelling Community:  Where God’s Power Makes a Church Attractive by Mark Dever and Jamie Dunlop.  This is a book, obviously, about community in the church. In many churches, community merely means having others similar to you to fellowship with.  Dever and Dunlop suggest that God would like to see much more than that in the church He placed on earth to display his love for the world.

Finishing Well in Life and Ministry by Bill Mills and Craig Parro.  This was a book suggested to me by my associate Chuck.  Bill Mills is a personal friend and a fine Bible teacher.  I was not sure what to expect from this book about ministry burnout.  After finishing it, I would say that anyone who finds themselves tired and frustrated in life and ministry can gain some great insights from this study of how the characters in Scripture finished well.

The Vine Project:  Shaping your Ministry Culture around Disciple-making by Colin Marshall and Tony Payne.  This book is the sequel to The Trellis and the Vine, another book I read this year.  The goal of this book is to give church leaders insight into nurturing a culture of disciple-making in their church.  The book is both encouraging and somewhat overwhelming at the same time, and the path it lays down will likely affect our church for years to come.

Those were the best, here are the rest (in no particular order):

2nd Tier Reads – very good reads I would recommend to anyone:
Side by Side:  Walking with Others in Wisdom and Love by Edward T. Welch
Recovering Redemption:  A Gospel Saturated Perspective on How to Change by Matt Chandler and Michael Snetzer
The Intolerance of Tolerance by D. A. Carson
The Secret of Spiritual Joy by William P. Farley (honorable mention, almost made the best of list)
Justification Reconsidered:  Rethinking a Pauline Theme by Stephen Westerhold
Acts: Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament by Edward J. Schnabel
Acts:  Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament by Darrell Bock
The Acts of the Apostles:  The Pillar New Testament Commentary by David G. Peterson
Acts:  The Church Afire by R. Kent Hughes
After Acts:  Exploring the Lives and Legends of the Apostles by Bryan Litfin
Think:  The Life of the Mind and the Love of God by John Piper
Good Faith:  Being a Christian when Society thinks You’re Irrelevant and Extreme by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons
The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel
Rejoicing in Christ by Michael Reeves (another honorable mention)
The All-Sufficient God:  Sermons on Isaiah 40 by D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones
The Imperfect Pastor:  Discovering Joy in our Limitations through a Daily Apprenticeship with Jesus by Zach Eswine
The Prodigal Church:  A Gentle Manifesto against the Status Quo by Jared C. Wilson
The Gospel for Real Life by Jerry Bridges
Is God Anti-Gay?  by Sam Allberry
The Trellis and the Vine:  The Ministry Mind-Shift that changes Everything by Colin Marshall and Tony Payne
Preaching the Cross by Mark Dever, J. Ligon Duncan, R. Albert Mohler and C. J. Mahaney
For the Glory: Eric Liddell’s Journey from Olympic Champion to Modern Martyr by Duncan Hamilton
Killing Calvinism:  How to Destroy a Perfectly Good Theology from the Inside by Greg Dutcher
Zeal without Burnout:  Seven Keys to a Lifelong Ministry of Sustainable Sacrifice by Christopher Ash
Hidden in the Gospel by William P. Farley
Theologians You Should Know:  An Introduction From the Apostolic Fathers to the 21st Century by Michael Reeves
The Crescent through the Eyes of the Cross by Dr. Nabeel T. Jabbour

3rd Tier Reads – good, but somewhat disappointing:
The Power of Loving your Church:  Leading through Acceptance and Grace by David Hansen
Acts:  NIV Application Commentary by Ajith Fernando
The Forgotten Awakening:  How the Second Great Awakening Spread West of the Rockies by Douglas McMurry