My Favorite 11 Books I Read in 2016

It was really fun to do this last year, so I thought I’d do it again–give a quick review of my top 11 books I read this year.

Why eleven?

Well, because it’s one better than ten.

Hopefully it may motivate you to pick one of these gems up and check it out. I know not everybody has the time to read that my (f)unemployed butt has available, so I like to pass on what has moved me most.

These are simply in chronological order of when I read them. It’s too difficult to arrange them in order of lovitude. Here we go.

  1. The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible (2015)-Michael Heiser

Oh my goodness. This is a mind-blower and paradigm-shifter! My soul brother Miguel sent this to me Christmas 2015, and God bless him for it! It says on the inside cover that “You may never read the Bible in the same way again.” And that has so been the case for me. It is an unfiltered look at what the Bible really says about the unseen world. It makes so much sense out of a lot that has been confusing for many Bible readers for a long time. It sheds an incredibly unique light upon the Old Testament in ways I never heard of. Here’s just a few of the difficult questions this masterpiece handles: Who is the assembly of divine beings (Psalm 82:1) God presides over? Why wasn’t Eve surprised when the serpent spoke to her? How did descendants of the Nephilim “giants” (Genesis 6:4) survive the flood? What are we to make of Peter and Jude’s belief in imprisoned spirits (2 Peter 2:4; Jude 6)? See how these oddities are actually crucial for understanding God’s redemptive plan for humanity. Oh get ready for the ride, baby!

unseen-realm

2. Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation (2006)-Martin Laird

I bought this strictly because of the title and the quite lovely cover. Thankfully I was rewarded with one of my favorite and formative reads of the year. It poignantly explores the depth and efficacy of intentional silence before our Lord–one of my favorite practices. This book is extremely practical for the renewing of your mind through the heightening of awareness, as well as a prayer word, to force out the replaying of toxic the “videos” that by default try to run constantly in our minds. Videos of our past hurts, current failings, etc. One of my favorite thoughts comes from page 106: Fear “is nothing more than a mass of thoughts and feelings and an unpleasant tension in the body.”

into-the-silent-land

3. Breath of Life: God As Spirit In Judaism (2011)-Rabbi Rachel Timoner

This I would have to say was the surprise hit of the year for me. Also gifted to me by my blood brother Miguel Angel Mesa, it is the first book I’ve read by a female rabbi. She explores the Holy Spirit in Judaism, and I can’t tell you how beautiful and moving it was for me! It is so very helpful to break out of your own tradition and small world to gain a wider perspective of truth. I am really thankful I read (and reread) this thoughtful and wonderful book.

breath-of-life

4. Creation Untamed: The Bible, God, and Natural Disasters (2010)-Terence E. Fretheim

This is easily the best treatment of natural disasters with relation to God I have ever read. Incredibly thoughtful, researched, respectful, and prayerful. It has helped my view of natural disasters immensely while retaining faith in God, and without the quick, heartless, and trite “Well they had that coming” explanation. This has given me a new paradigm for God in relation to suffering, and that makes for a great book!

creation-untamed

5. The Cloud of Unknowing (14th century)-Anonymous Monk

Finally, I read this classic. Finally. I wish it hadn’t taken me so long. Wow. 75 short chapters of wow. I’m not even sure what to say. It’s along the lines of Brother Lawrence’s classic The Practice of the Presence of God. I spent three glorious days with this text at a family member’s condo on the river in Wisconsin this past July, and I was indelibly deepened from the experience. “A little prayer of one syllable pierces heaven because we concentrate our entire spiritual energy into it.” And, “Spiritual virtues simply do not matter to contemplatives. All virtues discovered and experienced are in God. Contemplatives know that if they have God they will have everything that is good. Rather than focusing on anything in particular, they concentrate on God alone.”

cloud-of-unknowing

6. On the Incarnation (around AD 319)-Athanasius of Alexandria

Personally I believe every Christian should be required to read this ancient work. It is foundational, written during quite a turning point of history in the Christian faith. This is deeply helpful for understanding the significance of the incarnation of Christ as well as why it had to be so. “For the solidarity of mankind is such that, by virtue of the Word’s indwelling in a single human body, the corruption which goes with death has lost its power over all.” Bonus, the introduction by C.S. Lewis has become somewhat of a classic itself, explaining why we must read the ancients.

on-the-incarnation

7. Word Into Silence: A Manual For Christian Meditation (1980)-John Main

John Main is very largely responsible for bringing Christian meditation significantly to the West. He became a Benedictine monk after diplomatic service to the Far East and teaching law at Trinity College, Dublin. He established a worldwide spiritual family linked through the practice of daily meditative prayer which today operates in over 100 countries. Check out the World Community for Christian Meditation sometime. This is one of those books with words so beautiful and so meaningful, that I quickly saw that I needed to just put the highlighter down because I would be highlighting the entire book. You can see from the title what it is about. “The all important aim in Christian Meditation is to allow God’s mysterious and silent presence within us to become more and more not only a reality, but the reality which gives meaning, shape and purpose to everything we do, to everything we are….”

word-into-silence

 

8. Jesus the Teacher Within (2000)-Laurence Freeman

Freeman carried on John Main’s work after his passing into Christ’s arms in 1982. He is the current director of the World Community for Christian Meditation. This work of pure awesomeness has as its theme Jesus’ all-important question “Who do you say that I am?” Tremendously insightful, it will inspire you to think and rethink who Jesus is at the deepest heart level. “The most complete and confident expression of  knowing who Jesus is derives from the personal relationship with Jesus–which is rooted in silence.”

jesus-the-teacher-within

9. Reading Scripture With the Church Fathers (1998)-Christopher A. Hall

This book greatly helped me navigate through the early Church Fathers and their contributions. I loved Hall’s explanations of why these early works and pillars of the faith are still relevant for us today. We always need to remember where we came from, and this is a very clear and helpful map for exploring our rich roots and how Scripture was interpreted by those living much closer to the time of Jesus, aka the first century, than us. Somehow, miraculously, Hall covered this great deal of historic landscape in just 200 pages!

reading-scripture-with-the-church-fathers

10. The New Testament and the People of God (1992)-N.T. Wright

This is the first volume of Wright’s monster Christian Origins and the Question of God series. This guy is so smart I can’t even stand it. And yet is somehow accessible. The sweep of this project is quite breathtaking. If you want history, context, psychology, background, culture, language–you got it! And more. I understand so much better now first century Judaism, Palestine, Pharisees, Christians, and Jesus! Make sure you’re ready to dig in, but you will NOT be disappointed! I’m starting on volume 2 next week!!

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11. The Way of a Pilgrim (1881)-Anonymous

This is an Eastern Orthodox classic. A very intriguing work of a man’s account of his own journey, both spiritual and physical, to learn how to pray without ceasing. He found “The Jesus Prayer” to be the key, being instructed from a wise spiritual guru to start by reciting it 3,000 times a day, then work up from there. This story is awesome and inspiring. I am deeply interested in the Eastern orthodox faith right now, and have been exploring it, loving it. Especially after reading this great work. It’s refreshing to encounter a tradition without all the hang-ups we have in the West. Much beautiful mysticism comes from this very old tradition. “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

way-of-a-pilgrim

 

There you have it! I hope you enjoyed this little journey. It’s been a wonderful year, and I’d like to wish you all a blessed New Year. I hope to meet in person those of you I have yet to encounter beyond these writings!

One More Word on Prayer

talk-god

How often do we hear Jesus saying to us (if we’re listening at all!), “Can we just talk?” “Can we hang out for a little while with nothing to do?” Or, “Can you put the book down, please?” Or maybe for a few of us, and I say this cautiously, “Would you put your Bible down and listen to me for a second?”

God would like to simply enjoy our company probably a lot more often than we make time for.

“I was ready to respond, but no one asked for help. I was ready to be found, but no one was looking for me.

I said, ‘Here I am! Here I am!’ to a nation that did not call on my name.”

~Isaiah 65:1 

Oh how God wants to hear from us. To respond to us.

If only we’d give Him something to respond to!

How deeply He desires our attentive company.

How often He wants to interact.

But it takes two.

He has made the first earth shattering moves~making us, and bringing us together through His Son.

Will you commune with God?

Will you talk with the Holy Spirit?

Will you simply hang out with Jesus?

Answers or Responses

Man pleading on the summit of a mountain at sun set with the moon in the sky.
Man pleading on the summit of a mountain at sun set with the moon in the sky.

In thinking about prayer, believers often focus on “answers” to prayer. Indeed, they usually look for specific answers–such as a cure from a disease.

As the Bible shows, it is definitely appropriate to pray specifically. But it’s often thought that if a specific result doesn’t occur, the decision (and often the blame) lies with God, or there is a problem with the one praying–insufficient faith or else words not spoken aright.

The connotations of the word “answer” carry such a meaning of specificity, that the pray-er’s horizons are sharply limited, and cause them to look for efficacy in the wrong places. We limit God’s response to a “yes” or “no.” My wife calls this “toddler prayer,” in which we cannot conceive of anything beyond the black and white, specific, and immediate, “yes” or “no.”

In a study devoted to lament prayers in the Bible, Patrick Miller shows that the prayers do not simply assume that everything is cut and dried, that God either answers prayer or does not. They seek, rather, to evoke a response. Here, the prayer is not just saying, “Thy will be done,” and walking away. That is a far cry from the rich dynamic of relationship. That’s more like playing with a Magic 8 Ball.

Again and again in these lament prayers, the psalmist urges his or her will upon God, articulating what God should do. The potential effect this urging might have upon God introduces an open-endedness into the situation. God will take the human concern into consideration with the utmost seriousness not least of which because He values and honors the relationship so highly. In view of such understanding, it might be helpful to speak of God’s “responses” to prayers rather than “answers.” When this language is used, it may occasion a greater openness into ways in which God is responding to prayers that do not look like specific answers.

We could say that God encourages prayer, evaluates prayer, transforms prayer, and responds to prayer. God uses what God “can” use. God uses what God wills.

Pray-ers are called to release their prayers to God, not to hang on to them, and let God work with them. Thus they may be better prepared for responses that may not look like answers!

The Efficacy of Prayer

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The Bible seems to speak of four levels of the efficacy of prayer.   Usually, only the first one is given serious consideration.

  1. Prayer has an effect on the one who prays. Prayer enables fresh initiative, motivating the pray-er to redirect thought and life toward those persons or things for which we pray. Our sights are sharpened, our wills empowered, or healing takes place at some level within us. If nothing else, it directs our thoughts toward someone in healthy ways. As is said, “energy flows where direction goes.”
  2. Prayer has an effect on the relationship between the one who prays and God. In and through prayer the relationship is enhanced and made more mature. Yet all too often change is thought to occur only on the human side of the relationship. People think God in relationship never changes in any respect. But the Bible claims that God is also affected by prayers offered.
  3. Prayer has an effect on God. Much here depends on the image of God. It is often thought that God cannot be moved at all by any human words or deeds, and that God certainly cannot be persuaded by anything humans have to say. Yet many biblical texts claim that prayers have an effect on God and contribute something to the way in which God relates to the world and to the shape of the future. Prayers of repentance make for rejoicing in heaven (Luke 15:7). Or, consider Psalm 22:3: God is “enthroned upon the praises of Israel.” God’s rule is furthered or God’s reputation is enhanced by our praising prayers. Even more, God is genuinely moved by our prayers, perhaps even persuaded by our prayers (see Luke 11 and 18). The Bible claims that prayer makes a difference to God and has an effect on what God accomplishes in the world.
  4. Prayer has an effect upon persons or situations for which one is praying. Somehow the power of God is made more available for a third-party situation because we have prayed (intercession). This is true whether or not that third party is aware of being prayed for. In this sense, prayer is a form of mission in and through which God accomplishes things in the world beyond the hearing range of our words and the doing range of our actions.

Relationality, God, Prayer

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The root image for thinking about God in the Bible is relatedness.

Relationality is fundamental to thinking about the God of the Bible and the association of God and the world.

  1. It is basic to the very nature of God (Genesis 1:26-30). God is not in heaven alone, but belongs to a divine community which is rich and complex.
  2. God has established a genuine relationship with creation, and more specifically, the people of Israel. We see the common use of relational metaphors in the Bible–> husband-wife; parent-child for example.
  3. This God created a world in which all creatures in all of their diversity are related. The ripple effect–> everything we do matters.

“The world is such that the words/actions of every creature reverberate out and affect the whole, shaking this spiderweb of a world in varying degrees of intensity, and in positive and negative ways.” (Hosea 4:1-3)

“The God of the Bible, by entering deeply into the life of such a world, commits the divine self to be involved in such interrelatedness in all of its complexities and open-endedness. God so relates to this world that every moment in the web affects God as well; God will become caught up in these interconnections and work within them and with them for the sake of all creatures. Hence, we need to place prayer within this kind of relational understanding of God and of the world. And issues of the efficacy of prayer are closely bound up with the complex character of this interrelatedness.”

How you think about your relationship with God is quite important. “Among the important characteristics of a genuine God-human relationship is this: God so enters into relationship that God is not the only one who has something important to say. God knows that communication is a key to a healthy relationship. And so prayer is God’s gift for the sake of meaningful interaction with human beings in relationship.” God is delighted when people pray, most basically because prayer is a sign of health in a relationship (Proverbs 15:8).

Prayer is a form of power given to us by God. He actually shares it! Prayer is one way that the power at our disposal can be more in tune with the will of God. Then God and humans can work in concert rather than competition.


Quotes are all taken from Creation Untamed by Terence Fretheim.

Image of God and Prayer

weaver

If we’re not praying, maybe it’s time to ask ourselves what we really believe about prayer. About God. It’s been said that if we truly valued prayer highly, we would set aside time everyday for it. A fundamental issue relating to the practice and understanding of prayer is our prevailing images of God.

“The issue of prayer is not prayer; the issue of prayer is God.” -Abraham Heschel

How one thinks about prayer and practices prayer depends a great deal on one’s view of the God to whom one prays. And even more, it is not enough to say you believe in God. What really matters is the kind of God you believe in. A.W. Tozer said that the most important thing about a person is what enters their mind when they think of God. Here are some common views of God, especially in relation to prayer:

  1. “Uninvolved Overseer”–God is sitting on the front porch of heaven watching the world go by. In the words of one believer, “God is an absentee landlord. Calls are seldom returned, and nothing much gets done.”
  2. “Absolute Monarch”–God is totally controlling all things, micromanaging the world. You quickly see the problem here. If God is controlling every single thing, wouldn’t we be forced to say they He is doing a very poor job? Not everything that happens, such as murder and rape, is God’s will.
  3. “Weaver” or “Seamstress”–This is a healthier view of God, steering between the two extremes just mentioned. Here, God is weaving our prayers into His quilting work in the world (Psalm 139:13, Daniel 10:13).
  4. “Radically Transcendent”–So above and beyond the world that every prayer is a roaming cell phone call that cuts in and out. God is “out there” somewhere far away.
  5. “Buddy-Buddy”–Takes no critical stance, speaks no prophetic word, and is never “in your face.” There’s never any challenge about your behavior.
  6. “Superman”–Hears the prayers of those in trouble and, like a speeding bullet, is able to accomplish anything and everything, coming to immediate rescue. This view takes in no constraints or restraints of any kind, so the only issue falls back on the sincerity or faithfulness of those who pray. The attention is back to you and away from God. You. See how damaging? Turns into that “Genie-in-a-bottle” prayer. Also, if this were true of God, we’d have no martyrs.
  7. “King or Queen of England”–Not much power, but shows a sympathetic presence, and once in a while sponsors some elegant liturgical occasions.

What is your view of God? Do you think God cares about your day-to-day? Or is He too busy? Does He involve Himself in your real life now?

We do what we value most. Examine your values. Examine your view of God. It will shed much light on your prayer life.

Prayer Foundational Truth

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What is prayer?

We can say, in light of our discussion the last couple days, that prayer is simply communication between believers and God within a relationship of consequence.

Now for the phrase that pays:

The strength of a relationship is determined by the frequency and quality of our interactions.

With people. With God.

We will come back to this often. For it is such a foundational truth of life. I like that word “interactions” indicating give and take, back and forth, two-way communication. Not only can you not have a strong relationship with someone you never talk to, you can’t have a strong relationship with someone in which one person is doing all the talking. I’ve known people with whom I’ve had fairly frequent interactions, but they’ve almost always been one-sided. One person doing most of the talking and little to no listening does not make for a strong relationship. That’s more like a speaker-spectator agreement. This “agreement” quite sucks after a while. And by “a while” I mean like twenty minutes. A strong relationship requires sharing of soul from both parties.

Frequent interactions can be good, but if all we’re talking about is surface stuff, the relationship remains weak.

But if our interactions go deep, even if they’re infrequent, we can have a fairly strong relationship. I think of close friends I have who live in another state or country whom I consider to have a very tight bond with. We don’t get to interact all the time, but when we do, it’s well below the surface.

So it is with God, since God is a person. A person with whom we can interact. Praying often, and also with depth–pouring ourselves out to Him–and taking time to be quiet so as to hear Him speak to us, this makes for a strong relationship with the Almighty.

This is all made possible, mysteriously, by that event we celebrate today, the incarnation.

Our loving Creator made the first and unthinkable move, uniting Himself with His creation. It’s incomprehensible, unsurpassed in beauty, and once accepted, once experienced, it is transforming, healing, and saving on a level unknown to anything devised or imagined by human beings.

The Almighty Trinity, Yahweh-Yeshua-Ruach, who is ever in a relationship of harmonious interaction, is saying to you today, simply,

“Be with us.”

“There is always room at our table for you. Come. Be with us. Interact with us. Forever.”

Prayer Basics part 2

praying_hands_-_albrecht_durer

Jeremiah 26:19

Then the LORD changed his mind about the terrible disaster he had pronounced against them.

Prayer does have an effect upon God and the future.

God is open to changing course in view of the interaction within the relationship, including prayers. The potential effect our urging has upon God introduces an open-endedness into the situation, because He so values relationship. Proverbs 15:8 says He delights in our prayers. He loves hearing from us! Prayers really do shape the future in ways different from what would have been the case if no prayers had been uttered.

We have the (God-given) power to give God less welcome and room to work. We can narrow God’s possibilities because of His commitments to self-limitation (Mark 6:5). We can do this through our silence. God is genuinely affected by the absence of prayer, by our giving Him the silent treatment  (Isaiah 65:1).

*Within all this, we must also remember that we can tend to think the only things at work in a given situation are our prayers and God. Let us not fall into the “Genie in a Bottle” view of God where we think He must answer all of our requests affirmatively in every detail. We have to keep in mind that there are billions of factors contributing to the present moment. We know very few of them. See Daniel 10:13. Wow.

But our prayer can be one of those billion factors contributing to the present moment for God’s sincere consideration. Or, we can choose not to pray, and our (nonexistent) prayer will not be available to God for consideration in shaping an outcome.

Prayer is a gift from God for us to deepen our relationship with Him, and to participate in His plan by using the means in and through which God can work on behalf of His divine purposes in the world.

We may be doing well, praying here and there, but is there more? Much more?

Please consider the following contrast:

A life of action, with a little prayer

vs.

A life of prayer, yielding effective, inspired action

Prayer Basics

moses-prays

Over the next few days I’d like to share what the Spirit taught me concerning prayer during my summer sabbatical, specifically over our family’s sixteen day road trip in July. Most of this is distilled from the fifth chapter of Terence Fretheim’s Creation Untamed: The Bible, God, and Natural Disasters.

One of the most basic teachings about prayer in the Bible is that it is a means through and which God gets things done in the world. God acts in the world in and through prayers (and other means). So put negatively, God accomplishes less if we don’t pray.

Prayer actually impacts God and the future due to the value He places on humans and relationship. In the golden calf story of Exodus 32:9-14, we see an exchange between Yahweh and Moses in which Moses pleads with God not to destroy the Israelites in His anger because of their idolatry. Remarkably, God relents. God so honors the relationship established with Moses, that the decision-making situation changes from what it was before the prayer. The human party enters into the decision-making process! Some translations read that God “changed His mind.” What was going to happen didn’t happen because of prayer. Because of God-human relationship.

God can use our prayers to expand upon the possibilities in a given situation. Prayer makes more room for God, giving God more space to do His work. We are, quite literally, co-operators with God! Our prayers actually provide God with additional factors to work with and consider that were not otherwise part of the “equation.”

Think about that.

Somehow, mysteriously, the power of God is made more available for a third party situation because we have prayed, even when they’re unaware. We could say that prayer is a form of mission in and through which God accomplishes things in the world beyond the hearing range of our words and the doing range of our actions.

Time for Prayer

jesus-prays-wilderness

Mark 1:35

Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up and went to a deserted place, and there He prayed.

We will close out the year in prayer.

My challenge to you today is to be a person of prayer. To set aside time everyday dedicated to nothing but prayer. Even seven minutes a day scheduled for bosom communing with our Father is powerful, renewing, and life-changing. Schedule it on your calendar just like you would an appointment with someone. For most of us, if it’s not scheduled, it does not happen. Not with any regularity at least.

Demons hate when we pray. They know its power which can drive them away. That’s why they work so hard to keep us from it. This is why distraction is so damaging; it keeps us from the mightiest force in the world. The enemy of our souls doesn’t seem to care about keeping us from anything like prayer. This is a quite common teaching of early Christianity.

If we’re praying, the devil and evil forces are screwed. If we’re not, chances are they’re having a heyday with us.

We all have time to pray. Remember, whenever we say we don’t have time for something, what we’re really saying is, “I value something else more.”

My wife shared this quote with me from Paul Miller in his book A Praying Life:

If you are not praying, then you are quietly confident that time, money, and talent are all you need in life. You’ll always be a little too tired, a little too busy. But if, like Jesus, you realize you can’t do life on your own, then no matter how busy, no matter how tired you are, you will find the time to pray.