The Books that Made Me—Pt 1
Windows to the Mind
As a kid, my dad used to tell me, "every book you read is a window you open in your mind." These words meant very little to me until I cracked open my first window, and light exposed the darkness of my ignorance. I was eighteen then, and now I am thirty-three, and I am still opening windows.
Some would think that I love reading, but the reality is that I hate reading. I hate it with a passion. I am a slow reader and have always struggled with comprehension, meaning that it takes me a long time to get through a book. Often I read sentences more than twice to understand, and if I still do not understand, I cross my fingers and push through, hoping I will understand later.
Why do I read then? I read because I love learning and communicating. In the areas that I am passionate about and in the work that I do, reading is the best medium to learn. I get excited about books because of the promise of information they hold, not for the experience of sitting in a chair and flipping through the pages for hours.
Over the years, I have read countless books. However, there are only a few books that have created a lasting effect on how I think and live. They are the books that shaped me into the person that I am today. And it is these books that I would like to share with you.
I will share these books in two posts. In this post, I will share the books that shaped me spiritually as a Christian and vocationally as a pastor. My desire is to introduce the books that made me and also to share a little bit of how they affected me. These books are by no means the best, but they are the ones that functioned as catalysts.
Shaped Me Spiritually
Note: the books are listed by publication date.
1. Confessions (397-400) by Saint Augustine of Hippo
Augustine of Hippo was a Latin church father from North Africa. In his book On the Road with Saint Augustine, James K.A. Smith calls Augustine a "cartographer of the soul." It was this description that caused me to read Augustine's Confessions and blog through them. In this book, Augustine chronicles his search for meaning and purpose in the world.
As I read through Augustine's experiences, I found myself identifying with Augustine in many ways. In his confessions, I found the wisdom of a man who struggled with the same doubts and insecurities that I do and found wisdom to prevail.
2. Humility (1884) by Andrew Murray
Andrew Murray was a Dutch Reformed Minister from South Africa. In this Christian classic, Andrew argues that pride is not merely a bad characteristic to have or a vice. It is death and hell itself. Humility is not merely a good characteristic or a virtue. It is life and the seed that blossoms into heaven. Humility is the doorway to holiness.
For years I was filled with anger and resentment toward colleagues, church members, and friends. As I read through this book, I realized that my feelings were rooted in pride. After reading this book, I realized that holiness was not a matter of moral perfection but of humility. Ever since I have been striving more and more for freedom and peace of humility.
3. Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic (1929) by Reinhold Niebuhr
Reinhold Niebuhr was an American Reformed theologian, ethicist, and professor. This book is a short compilation of his journal entries from when he was a young pastor in the Evangelical Synod of North America. This is not one of Reinhold Niebuhr's greatest works or one that he was ever proud of. But for me, it holds a meaningful place in my heart because it gives voice to many of my frustrations as a young pastor. Reinhold started pastoral ministry at the same age I did (23), and despite beginning 99 years earlier, our experiences are surprisingly similar. It is comforting to know that my experiences, doubts, and criticisms of the church are not singular but were also part of the process of one of the greatest ethicists of the twentieth century.
4. The Living Reminder (1977) by Henri Nouwen
Nouwen was a Dutch Catholic priest, professor, writer, and theologian. This book gave peace to my calling as a minister. If you had asked me, "what is a pastor?" I do not think I would have had a great response to give. While I would not have said it, my understanding was (based on the responsibilities people put on pastors) that a pastor was a CEO of a non-profit. But in this book, Nowen defines a pastor in one simple statement: A minister is a "living reminder of Christ". As a minister, I function under three roles that remind the congregation of Christ: 1. I am pastor (healer of the past), priest (sustainer of life in the present), and prophet (a guide to the future). In pastoral gentleness, Nauwen led me to live my life as a reminder of the one who heals, sustains, and guides.
5. In Celebration of Discipline (1978) by Richard Foster
Richard Foster is an American Quaker theologian and author. This book was my introduction to spiritual disciplines. It was immediately after reading this book that I successfully established a meaningful daily practice that silenced and shaped my soul. While this is not necessarily my favorite book, it is probably the book that has made the greatest difference in who I am today.
6. The Contemplative Pastor (1989) by Eugene Peterson
Eugene Peterson was an American Presbyterian minister, scholar, theologian, author, and poet. In the winter of 2015, when I was pastoring in Winnipeg, my car broke down. I found myself riding the bus in -40c for several weeks. During that time, I read this book.
In the cold of winter, Eugene's words challenged me so deeply that I would put the book down to examine if I was truly ready to embody what he was saying. It was one of the first times when I slowed down, listened to my breath, meditated on my life, behavior, beliefs, and God, and made decisions about who I wanted to be. For the first time, I was coming face to face with an ache to be holy.
As a young pastor, I desired to have a large stage with cutting-edge influence. But after reading this book, I decided that I did not want to be known for being cool, innovative, progressive, or smart. Rather, I wanted to be known for being a contemplative pastor.
7. God Was in This Place & I, I Did Not Know it (1991) by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner
Rabbi Kushner is an American Jewish Reformed Rabbi. In this book, Rabbi Kushner explores the story of Jabobs latter through the lens of seven historical rabbis.
This book truly taught me the meaning of 'nuance.' As I read through this book, I saw the story of Jacob through the eyes of seven Jews who lived in different time periods. When I finished reading the book, I remember sitting in the silence of my one-bedroom apartment and feeling the holiness of the moment. At the time, I was questioning whether I should continue as a pastor because of the doubts that I had. I was going through a faith deconstruction and terrible soul searching. But when I arrived at the end of the book, I felt at peace with my wrestling. Like Jacob, I verbally said out loud, "God was in this place, and I did not know it" (Gen 28:16).
8. Echo of the Soul (2002) by J. Philip Newell
Philip Newell is a Celtic teacher and author. In this book, Newell explores the sacredness of the body through Old Testament Wisdom literature and the lens of the Christian Celtic tradition. He looks back at a time before Christians viewed their bodies with suspicion to provide a biblical view of the body that bridges the body and spirit divide.
While I did not agree entirely with this book, the Celtic tradition is so drastically different from what I am used to that it challenged my presuppositions and introduced me to a different way of thinking. To this day, this book impacts how I view myself and my neighbors.
9. Ruthless Elimination of Hurry (2019) by John Mark Comer
John is an American pastor in Portland. This book is about what the title promises, eliminating hurry in our lives.
I have nothing against John Comer, but I really wish a non-denominational mega-church pastor's book did not make my list. But regardless, this book is (to use an evangelical term) 'anointed.' This book came at a critical time in my life when I was burnt out and at the tail end of a deconstruction. This book was the catalyst that convicted me to begin a daily practice (It was this book that led me to Richard Foster's Celebration of Discipline and the writings of Dallas Willard).
Making a list like this is difficult because there are books that were career and faith-defining for me, but I no longer subscribe to their fundamental teachings or beliefs. The final list, as it stands, describes the books that have shaped how I think now in the matters that I believe are the most important now.
As time goes on, this list may change, but for now, this list will suffice. In the next post, I will share the books that shaped the way I think about and read Scripture.