Are there some people on your Christmas gift list that have just stumped you year after year? You want so badly to give them something meaningful, but have no idea where to start when it comes to picking out a gift for this person. Or, have you been hit with the, “what is on your Christmas List?” question from others and don’t know how to answer? While asking for them to pay your water bill or buy you blinds for your home might be legit wants, they are probably not viable options. So may we (your church blog writers) suggest something? How about a book?
A book is an incredible gift to give and receive. It may not seem as shiny and extravagant as some other options, but the impact is real. A book that has the truth of the Gospel, that has who we are to Christ and that has who He is to us, a book that has real-life examples of what it looks like to walk with Jesus, to stumble and to get back up again…now that’s a gift. Below, Pastor Aaron Syvertsen, Andy Steen and myself (Mary Capalbo) all shared some our favorites. We read some of these years ago and they are classics, while others we just recently finished the last chapter. Regardless, they have all touched our hearts, caused us to think, and made a lasting imprint. Think about wrapping up one of these this year!
-Pastor Aaron’s Picks-
1. Making Sense of God by Tim Keller
This is a great book for everyone, regardless of what “camp” you’d put yourself in: atheist, agnostic, Christian, spiritual but not religious, etc. Keller levels the playing field in his comparison of worldviews and cultivates a groundwork for the Christian worldview without being pushy or condescending.
Excerpt: “Where did the thought come from that some things are owed to all persons, regardless of their social status, gifts, or abilities, just by virtue of their being human? While it is popularly thought that human rights were the creation of modern secularism over and against the oppressiveness of religion, the reality is that this concept arose not in the East but in the West, and not after the Enlightenment but within medieval Christendom. As Horkheimer in the 1940s and Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s recognized, the idea of human rights was based on the biblical idea of all people being created in God’s image.”
2. On Reading Well by Karen Swallow Prior
Right from the outset, Prior makes the case that good fictional literature is only good in that it raises the moral character of the reader. Before I read her book, I’d be apathetic toward that statement, but afterwards, I’m in full agreement. This book has literally transformed the way I will approach by reading diet, which has been woefully negligent of incorporating classic works of fiction.
Excerpt: “In addition to shaping individual experience and character, great literature has a role in forming the communal conscience and public virtue. We can understand a great deal about a culture—its strengths, its weaknesses, its blind spots, and its struggles when we examine the literature that it not only produces but reveres.”
3. The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of the Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson
Wilkerson explores the “most underreported story of the twentieth century” by tracking the real- life stories and experiences of three African-American men and women. In doing so, she pulls the curtain back on a massive, culture-shaping movement that the majority of people (especially white people like me) were never aware of. I couldn’t put this one down, and as a Christian Pastor, it did much to make me ponder on how this can and should impact the way I raise my children, disciple the church, and be more explicit in proclaiming the implications of the gospel towards racial reconciliation in our country.
Excerpt: “Ultimately, according to the Harvard immigration scholar Stanley Lieberson, a major difference between the acceptance and thus life outcomes of black migrants from the South and their white immigrant counterparts was this: white immigrants and their descendants could escape the disadvantages of their station if they chose to, while that option did not hold for the vast majority of black migrants and their children.”
4. When the Church Was a Family by Joseph Hellerman
It has only been in the last couple hundred of years where the church became far more transactional than relational. People “go to” church once or twice a week to get something from it, and (so they think), keep God happy and on their side. The Bible and early church present a far better, more life-giving model: people are the church, and the way they operate is akin to a family. To separate the two is dangerous at best, destructive at worst, and ultimately is a function of the selfish individualism that pervades our culture.
Excerpt: In Scripture salvation is a community-creating event. As Cyprian of Carthage expressed it using yet another pair of family metaphors, “You cannot have God for your Father unless you have the church for your Mother.” Indeed, as we have seen throughout our discussion, we simply cannot separate the two. To be sold out to God (and thereby actualize our justification) is to be sold out to God’s group (and thereby actualize our familification). We need to cultivate both the vertical and the horizontal dimensions of what happened to us at salvation, as we seek to mature in the Lord.
No category of book has impacted me more than Christian biographies. Reading about how
faithful men and women have given their lives for God’s kingdom stirs me more than just about
anything. So without further ado, here are five I highly recommend:
1. A Chance to Die: The Life and Legacy of Amy Carmichael by Elisabeth Elliot
A book about an extraordinary woman written by an extraordinary woman. Amy Carmichael served for over 50 years in India. A woman of incredible resolve, she remained single and childless but became a mother to many.
Excerpt: “The preoccupations of seventeen-year-old girls–their looks, their clothes, their social life–do not change very much from generation to generation. But in every generation there seem to be a few who make other choices. Amy was one of the few.”
2. The Life and Diary of David Brainerd Edited by Jonathan Edwards
After being expelled from Yale college in 1742, Brainerd began service as a missionary to the Native Americans. Seeing little success in several places he moved on to a tribe of of the Delware near Trenton, New Jersey. There he witnessed many come to Christ through his preaching. At only 29 years old, Brainerd became gravely ill and spent his last months in the home of theologian and pastor Jonathan Edwards, who edited and published Brainerd’s diary. Reading about Brainerd’s inner spiritual life made me feel like I was staring into eternity. An amazing, intimate account.
Excerpt: “Saw so much of the wickedness of my heart that I longed to get away from myself…I felt almost pressed to death with my own vileness. Oh what a body of death is there in me…Oh the closest walk with God is the sweetest heaven that can be enjoyed on earth!”
3. John G. Paton: the Autobiography of the Pioneer Missionary to the New Hebrides by John G. Paton.
Paton eagerly desire to spread the Gospel where no one had gone before. Previous
missionaries to the islands where Paton headed from his native Scotland had been beaten to death and eaten by cannibals shortly after arrival. Paton lived in constant danger of a violent death, and his wife and young child died of fever shortly after their arrival. Nevertheless, John Paton served faithfully in this mission field for nearly the rest of his life. Paton’s account of his own father’s faith has never left me:
Excerpt: “How much my father’s prayers at this time impressed me I can never explain, nor could any stranger understand. When, on his knees and all of us kneeling around him in Family Worship, he poured out his whole soul with tears for the conversion of the Heathen World to the service of Jesus . . . we all felt as if in the presence of the living Savior, and learned to know and love Him as our Divine Friend.”
4. Jonathan Edwards, A Life by George M. Marsden
Jonathan Edwards was arguably the greatest intellect America has produced, and certainly its greatest theologian. While popular knowledge of Edwards today is sadly limited to his “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” sermon, Edwards was a dedicated pastor who cared deeply for his congregation. His biblically based and carefully reasoned writings during the sometimes tumultuous Great Awakening helped guide the young American church during this era. Marsden’s biography of Edwards is just the best.
Excerpt: “I think Christ has recommended rising early in the morning, by his rising from the grave very early – Jonathan Edwards”
5. God took Me by the Hand: A Story of God’s Unusual Providence by Jerry Bridges
Jerry Bridges has been one of the most influential authors for me personally. His books, The Pursuit of Holiness, and The Discipline of Grace, worked like butcher’s knives on me, chopping away lots of fat and reminding me of the essence of the Gospel. Bridges’ point over and over: preach the Gospel to yourself every day. God’s grace is not just what saves us, it’s what we need to live our lives by. God took Me by the Hand is Bridges’ touching autobiography, written just shortly before his death in 2016.
Excerpt: “So where does the gospel fit into a ministry of challenge to the pursuit of holiness? The answer is that the gospel, rightly understood and applied to one’s daily life, is the only true and lasting motivation for the pursuit of holiness. It is the gospel that changes “I ought to obey God” to “I want to obey” out of gratitude for what He has done for me through Christ.”
1. One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp
Page after page, chapter after chapter, Ann takes her readers into her world and into her thoughts. She shares heartbreak and triumph. She writes sweet and challenging truths of Christ’s love and forgiveness and that ultimately He deserves total surrender and gratitude from us, His creation.
Excerpt: “But when Christ is at the center, when dishes, laundry, work, is my song of thanks to Him, joy rains. Passionately serving Christ alone makes us the loving servant to all. When the eyes of the heart focus on God, and the hands on always washing the feet of Jesus alone – the bones, they sing joy, and the work returns to its purest state: eucharisteo. The work becomes worship, a liturgy of thankfulness.”
2. The Best Yes by Lysa Terkeurst
I read this book with a pencil in hand and felt like I was constantly underlying and writing notes to myself so I would later remember Lysa’s challenging words. The Lord really used this book to help me gain valuable tools to assess what I’ve said “yes” to in life, and how to discern when it’s best to say “no.” She shares scripture and personal stories that encourage her readers to create margin in their lives and listen carefully to God’s leading in their own stories.
Excerpt: “Let’s use the two most powerful words, yes and no, with resounding assurance, graceful clarity, and guided power. All so people may see Jesus when they see us. Hear Jesus when they hear us. And know Jesus when they know us.”
3. The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom
I believe I was first drawn into the life of Corrie Ten Boom when my Mom read this book aloud to us when we were young. This auto biography takes you into the life of Corrie and her family during WWII. They were a Dutch family in Holland who sacrificed everything to rescue and share God’s love with Jews. As you turn the pages you are transported there. You can see their watch shop, where they hid the Jews in their home, the concentration camp, and the numerous miracles where God intervened and paved the way to bring His love and forgiveness to His beloved children.
Excerpt: “Today I know that such memories are the key not to the past, but to the future. I know that the experiences of our lives, when we let God use them, become the mysterious and perfect preparation for the work He will give us to do.”
4. Calm My Anxious Heart: A Woman’s Guide to Finding Contentment by Linda Dillow
This is one of my books that is worn down from reading multiple times over. Pages are ear marked and notes are jotted in the margins. It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve read it, the core of this book has met me just where I was. Linda does a tremendous job of reminding her readers to fully lean on and seek Christ alone. She addresses the stronghold of worry and the danger of “what ifs.” This book includes a 12-week Bible study to help readers slow down and really digest the material. It is a tremendous book that continues to have an impact on me years later.
Excerpt: “If we are to find contentment in the midst of trial and uncertainty, we must accept our situation as being purposely allowed into our lives by a personal and loving God.”
5. Through Gates of Splendor by Elisabeth Elliot
Elizabeth Elliot was the wife of Jim Elliot, one of the five missionaries tragically killed by the very people they were trying to share God’s love with. This book takes you on an incredible journey through the eyes of Elisabeth. The love that she and the other missionaries had for the Lord and for sharing His love and forgiveness with others is inspiring and truly incredible. God’s faithfulness is intertwined throughout the chapters and leaves you with a renewed trust in His perfect plan and a gratefulness for those who truly made the ultimate sacrifice so others might hear of God’s love.
Excerpt: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”