Monday, December 31, 2018

Books I Read in 2018

Recently I've been posting my end-of-the-year book lists: my top Christian nonfiction books of 2018, other highly recommended books I read, a special focus on race, racism, and racial reconciliation, and my favorite novels read in 2018.

Today, I'm posting the full list of books I completed* this year:

1. As You Wish by Cary Elwes
2. Repentance and the 21st Century Man by C. John Miller
3. A Theology of Matthew by Charles Quarles [my review, a top book of 2018]
4. The Problem of God by Mark Clark [my review]
6. Big Money by P.G. Wodehouse
6. Under Our Skin by Benjamin Watson [my review, a top book of 2018]
7. Deep Work by Cal Newport [my review]
8. Why We Can’t Wait by Martin Luther King, Jr. [my review]
9. The Clicking of Cuthbert by P.G. Wodehouse
10. Do We Not Bleed? by Daniel Taylor [my review, favorite fiction of 2018]
11. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline [my review]
12. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Samantha Clarke
13. He Who Gives Life by Graham Cole [my review, a top book of 2018]
14. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass [my review]
15. Forged by Liam Hoffman [my review]
16. Reset by David Murray [my reviewa top book of 2018]
17. The Imperfect Disciple by Jared C. Wilson [my review]
18. A Well-Regulated Militia by Saul Cornell [my review]
19. Destination Unknown by Agatha Christie [my review]
20. A Sacred Sorrow by Michael Card [my review]
21. Camino Island by John Grisham
22. Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II by Douglas A. Blackmon [my review]
23. Those Who Hope by Tim Stafford [my reviewfavorite fiction of 2018]
24. Bill the Conqueror by P.G. Wodehouse
25. The Kingdom of God and the Glory of the Cross by Patrick Schreiner [my review]
26. Rejoicing in Lament by J. Todd Billings [my reviewa top book of 2018]
27. iGen by Jean Twenge [my review]
28. Fallen Into A Pit by Ellis Peters
29. Not Yet Married by Marshall Segal [my review]
30. Death and the Joyful Woman by Ellis Peters
31. The Gospel Comes With a House Key by Rosaria Butterfield [my reviewa top book of 2018]
32. The Lions of Lucerne by Brad Thor
33. Trust and Obey by Michael Youssef
34. Once a Spy by Keith Thomson
35. Money for Nothing by P.G. Wodehouse
36. Same-Sex Attraction and the Church by Ed Shaw [my review]
37. A Higher Loyalty by James Comey
38. A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles [my reviewfavorite fiction of 2018]
39. Flight of a Witch by Ellis Peters
40. All the World’s a Stage by Boris Akunin
41. How to Stop Time by Matt Haig
42. The Sermon on the Mount by D.A. Carson
43. The Sermon on the Mount by Charles Quarles
44. The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing by Jonathan Pennington [a top book of 2018]
45. Podkayne of Mars by Robert A. Heinlein
46. Rules of Civility by Amor Towles
47. The Humans by Matt Haig
48. Spiritual Gifts by Thomas Schreiner
49. The Small Bachelor by P.G. Wodehouse
50. Transgender by Vaughan Roberts
51. Clinch by Zachary Bartels
52. All Saints Day by Zachary Bartels
53. Born Standing Up by Steve Martin
54. Justice: What Is the Right Thing to Do? by Michael Sandel
55. All That Is in God by James Dolezal
56. The Piper on the Mountain by Ellis Peters
57. Grief: Walking with Jesus by Bob Kelleman [my review]
58. Superheroes Can’t Save You by Todd Miles [my review, a top book of 2018]
59. The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara
60. Sam the Sudden by P.G. Wodehouse
61. Virgil Wander by Leif Enger [my reviewfavorite fiction of 2018]
62. On Reading Well by Karen Swallow Prior
63. The Irregular by H.B. Lyle
64. None Like Him by Jen Wilkin [my review]
65. Black Is the Colour of My True Love’s Heart by Ellis Peters
66. Wings of Fire by Charles Todd
67. Sleep No More by P.D. James
68. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
69. Busman’s Honeymoon by Dorothy L. Sayers
70. Understanding Baptism by Bobby Jamieson
71. After an Affair: Pursuing Restoration by Michael Gembola
72. Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe


* As in previous years, these are books I finished reading in 2018, not the ones I started or the ones I didn't get done. That list would be a LOT longer! I read a bunch of them for escapist fun, a few for/with my family, and a lot of them just to learn and grow. They aren't listed (perfectly) in the order I read them. Some of them I am reading for a second or third time (or more!).

As I say each and every year--I'm not endorsing these books just because they are listed here. Some of them are really good and some are really bad. Most are somewhere in between. Read with discernment.

Here's the article where I explain why I post these.

Lists from previous years:

2008 (first half, second half)
2007 (first half, second half)
2006 (first half, second half)
2005 (first half, second half)

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Favorite Fiction of 2018

The last few days, I've been sharing my favorite reads of 2018 [top 7, another great 8].

But I don't just read Christian nonfiction books. I also get to read novels, short stories, and other fiction. A lot of what I read is escapist fiction just for fun and relaxation. For that purpose, I especially enjoy murder mysteries and science fiction thrillers. But in the course of a year, I also get to read some really good novels that are good for more than just escaping into another world. For example, I just finished Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin which shouldn't have surprised me at being so good as it was the best-selling American book of the 19th century, but it was a real page turner (and I got to see what was so explosive about it in the lead-up to the Civil War). Speaking of the Civil War, I also read Michael Shaara's The Killer Angels which I couldn't put down. I read it in every free moment over about four days. Shaara tells the story of the battle of Gettsyburg from the perspective of the commanders, and the way he does it--you'd think he had been there inside of their heads. It won a Pulitzer prize for fiction in 1975.

Here my top four newer novels which I had the pleasure of reading and reviewing in 2018:

4. Those Who Hope by Tim Stafford

I'm a big fan of Tim Stafford's writing, so I was interested to see what he would do with a book set in an urban gospel mission among the homeless, hurting, and addicted.

I think I can say that I enjoyed reading Those Who Hope, though I’m not sure that “enjoy” is the right word. Stafford has written a book that is good art–it makes you think and feel meaningful things about the world–but the things it makes you think and feel are uncomfortable, unpeaceful, not pleasurable. The characters in this book experience suffering and are often the cause of their own suffering, their own worst enemies. And Stafford shows how relentless that sin and suffering cycle can be. He captures the very real and very heartbreaking pattern of addiction. Even the most virtuous main character feels always ready to succumb once more.

There is hope in this book, and not just in the title. But the hope is not Pollyanna-ish. It’s a chastened hope. There is no over-realized eschatology where the characters stop being fallen and hurting people and everything is happy-ever-after. That day is still in the future in reality and in this work of art. The recovery (and redemption) is very realistic.

As I said in my fuller review of this self-published novel, Those Who Hope is "recommended for those who appreciate satisfying art about the unsatisfying parts of life."

3. Do We Not Bleed? by Daniel Taylor

I loved Daniel Taylor’s first Jon Mote mystery, especially getting inside the voice-filled head of the main character with all of his seemingly random yet deeply insightful (and completely hilarious!) thoughts vectoring off in all directions and leaving no allusion unturned. I also loved meeting Jon’s special and sweet sister, Judy, who, though limited and hurt in obvious ways, was also more able than most people to see things as they are really are and to trust Jesus no matter what. It wasn’t perfect (the murder mystery plot kind of fizzled), but it was deeply satisfying and thought provoking.

It seemed, however, unrepeatable. Boy, I’m glad I was wrong about that!

Jon Mote is back again. A little more “hinged” this time. A little more “together.” But not all the way there. You feel the whole time like he might be pulled under by the currents in his own mind. This time, there is a murder among the residents of the group home at which Judy lives and Jon works. The setting is perfect for sharp thinking about disability, personhood, dignity, and the image of God. It’s also good for guffaws and belly laughs. Taylor’s mind is very nimble! I disappeared into this book for several hours and came out with a big grin on my face.  [Read the rest of my review here including my disclaimers of who should or shouldn't read Do We Not Bleed?]

2. Virgil Wander by Leif Enger

Leif Enger is one of my top 5 fiction authors of all time. Heather and I come back to his first two novels again and again and love to read them out loud to each other on couch-dates. So I was incredibly excited to learn that he had come out with a new book.

I was not disappointed, though I'm not sure at all how to summarize it in a review. So far all I've been able to say is:

"Fulsome, toothsome, and gentle.

This is my first experience of Virgil Wander, and I hope he’d appreciate these adjectives."

As Peace Like a River and So Brave, Young, and Handsome, Enger's newest book also defies description and categorization. Read it for yourself.

[By the way, treat yourself by listening to this superb lecture by Leif Enger on why we need to read for pleasure.]

1. A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

The playful prose is what hooks you.

But the fascinating cast of characters intertwining their lives of both joy and sorrow in surprising ways is what keeps you reading.

And before you know it, you are carried away in a tide of beautiful storytelling to the gratifying conclusion.

A Gentleman in Moscow was my absolute favorite read of 2018. It was perfectly delightful. The author turns words into gold.

Read my full review which was also one of my favorites to write in 2018.

[Matt's Messages] "Baptizing the Disciples"

“Baptizing the Disciples”
Following Jesus - The Gospel of Matthew
December 30, 2018 :: Matthew 28:16-20 

Well, I know that we want to get to the testimonies and the dunkings, but first I want to say a few words drawn from Matthew chapter 28, verse 19 this morning before we do.

So, if you would, please turn with me in your Bibles to the end of the gospel of Matthew.

The very last chapter, the very last paragraph, where this whole book we’ve been studying is driving towards.

Matthew chapter 28, verses 16 through 20, especially verse 19.

Because I want to say a word about what is going on up here with all of this water and this dunking and these testimonies and this thing called “Christian baptism.”

What is that?

And what isn’t that?

Whenever I teach my baptism class (and these two have recently gone through it with me), we always start with a little thing where I say what baptism is NOT.

Baptism is NOT necessary for salvation nor saving in itself.

Can you think of anybody in the New Testament who was saved and became a follower of Christ and was NOT baptized?

I can. It’s hard to do, because the normal pattern in the New Testament is to trust in Jesus, become saved, and then get baptized. It happens over and over again in the Book of Acts.

But what about the thief on the Cross?

Did he believe? Yes, he did.

Did his life change? Yes, it did. He went from hurling insults at Jesus to asking Jesus to remember him when He came into his kingdom.

And what did Jesus say? “I’m sorry, buddy, but you never got baptized, so you can’t be saved.”

No, that’s not what He said. He said, “Today, you will be with me in Paradise.”

So baptism doesn’t save you. It’s not magic. It doesn’t transform you from unsaved to saved.

Jesus does that! The amazing grace of Jesus does that through faith in Jesus.

Baptism is not necessary for salvation nor saving in itself.

So why do we do it?

Why are Dottie and Keith doing this today?

Answer: Because Jesus says so.

I love how authentic the Gospel of Matthew is.

If I were writing this, if it was the "Gospel of Matthew Mitchell," I would never have included verse 17. All that stuff about doubt.

“Then the eleven disciples [minus Judas now] went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go [just after he had been resurrected]. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.”

I love that!

Not because they doubted, but because it tells us the real history. Some of them did.

The way I picture it, they are approaching slowly, not quite believing what their eyes are telling them.

“Can Jesus really be alive?”

“I know that He was dead. Can this be true?”

And it is.

Because He speaks. V.18

“Then Jesus came to them [He walks right up them] and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” Stop right there.

Do you remember how Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapters 5, 6, 7)?

As One with authority.

Remember the authority we saw Jesus exercise in Matthew chapters 8, 9, 10, 11?

Well, on this side of the resurrection Jesus says that He has ALL of the authority that there is.

And what does King Jesus, with all of that authority command His followers to do?

Go and make disciples.

Go and make more followers of King Jesus.

What has been the title of our sermon series for this last year?

What has been the title of this series we’re doing on the Gospel of Matthew?

First slide every Sunday?

“Following Jesus”

That’s what we’re doing and what we’re helping others to do.

Our first Hide the Word verse for 2018?

Matthew 4:19, “‘Come, follow me,’ Jesus said, ‘and I will make you fishers of men.’"

That’s our mission.

That’s what we are here to do.

Make disciples of Jesus Christ under the complete authority of Jesus Christ.

Now, how do you do that?

Well, there’s a lot to it. The Gospel of Matthew has a lot so say here.

But it probably starts with what Jesus started with.

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.”

Turn from your sins and trust in the King.

And how do you mark that?

We come to verse 19.

“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations [all people groups around the world], baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit...”

There you go.

That’s what are doing this morning.

We are publicly marking out these 2 people as disciples of Jesus Christ.

And we’re doing it because Jesus said to.

Did you notice who is supposed to be baptized according to verse 19?

Is everyone supposed to be baptized?

No. It says to baptize the disciples. V.19 again.

"Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them [who’s the “them?” it’s the newly made disciples from the nations, baptizing the newly made disciples] in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit...”

Now, both of these people were raised in traditions that performed a rite of “baptism” on them when they were infants. Not just a baby dedication or a baby blessing like we did last week, but baptism that included water.

And Christians have been doing that in various traditions for over a thousand years.

Perhaps you experienced that yourself in a previous church tradition.

And perhaps you believe it to be a biblical practice.

Some of my best friends, including my pastor friends, believe the same way.

And by being baptized today, neither Dottie nor Keith intend any disrespect to their parents or to any of their brothers and sisters in Christ who disagree on this point of theology. They are thankful for those who loved them and took them faithfully to church way back then.

But both of them have come to be convinced of what is called “believer’s baptism” or “disciple’s baptism” which I, too, think is the more biblical practice.

The command given to the apostles and the church in the Great Commission is to make disciples and baptize the disciples.

Not people you want to become disciples.

But those who you believe have become disciples.

We don’t stand up at the Marketplace with Supersoakers and spray folks as they come out from buying their groceries and say, “Hey! You’re baptized!”

No, we tell people about Jesus. They repent of their sins and trust in Jesus and begin to follow Jesus and then we say, “Hooray! You’re a disciple! You need to be baptized as one!”

That’s what we are doing here today.

We believe that these two people are disciples, faith-followers of Jesus Christ.

And they have come to the church and said, “Please mark us out as disciples. We want to go public with our discipleship.

We want to follow Jesus in water baptism.”

Remember when Jesus was baptized in chapter 3?

He did it to identify with us.

We get baptized now to identify with Him! V.19 again.

“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them [the disciples] in the name [one name] of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit...”

Interesting isn’t it?

Three names but one name?

What does that remind you of?

Remember Who was there at Jesus’ baptism?

Jesus, the Son.
The Holy Spirit in the form of a dove.
And the Father with His booming voice, “This is My Son whom I love, with Him I am well pleased.”

Now, Jesus says, “Use this name when you baptize these disciples. The name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

Baptism is identifying with the Triune God.

When Dottie and Keith are laid back into the water, they are identify with the Triune God, especially with the Son of God in His death and resurrection.

Buried into His death.
Resurrected into His life.

This, of course, is not the END of their discipleship but a symbol of its beginning.

I’ll let them tell their own stories, but both of them have actually known the Lord for some time.

They just have never told the world in the way that Jesus here commands.

And they want to fix that.

So they are getting baptized.

But this is a symbol of their discipleship.

Because Jesus doesn’t stop with their baptism, and neither should the church.

Because verse 20 follows verse 19.

“...baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, AND teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you...”

That’s what a disciple does.

A disciple learns to obey everything Jesus says to do.

Not just the stuff that we want to do.


Even take up our own crosses.

That’s our current Hide the Word verse. Isn’t it? Matthew 16:24

“Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.’”

These two have counted the cost of discipleship and have said, “Count me in.”

It will not always be easy.

They will also not be alone.

Because Jesus ended verse 20 by saying, “And surely I am with you ALWAYS, to the very end of the age.”

Dottie and Keith, as you take this step of discipleship, and this church affirms your discipleship, you can know that you are never going to be alone.

We will walk with you in following Jesus.

And more importantly, Jesus will walk with you, ALWAYS to the very end of the age.

Let’s pray for these two as they come up here and then they can share their stories with us.

And then unbeknownst to them, I’ve also asked a couple of their friends and loved ones to share a little a testimony of what they have seen of God’s work in their lives.


Previous Messages in This Series:

01. The Genealogy of Jesus
02. The Birth of Jesus Christ
03. The Search for Jesus Christ
04. The Baptism of Jesus
05. The Temptation of Jesus
06. Following Jesus
07. Jesus' Sermon on the Mount
08. The Good Life (Part One)
09. The Good Life (Part Two)
10. You Are The...
11. Jesus and the First 2/3 of the Bible
12. But I Tell You
13. But I Tell You (2)
14. But I Tell You (3)
15. In Secret
16. Choose Wisely
17. Seek First His Kingdom
18. Generous
19. These Words of Mine
20. When He Saw the Crowds
21. When He Came Down from the Mountainside
22. Follow Me
23. Our Greatest Problem
24. Who Does He Think He Is?
25. Special Agents
26. Sheep Among Wolves
27. What To Expect On Your Mission
28. Are You the One?
29. Come to Me
30. The King of Rest
31. So Thankful!
32. Overflow
33. This Wicked Generation
34. Get It?
35. What Is Really Going On Here?

Saturday, December 29, 2018

More Good Books from 2018

Yesterday, I named seven of my "top books of 2018." Today, I want to share several of the other good nonfiction books that I had the privilege of reading in the last twelve months.

These eight books may not have affected me as deeply or tripped as significant change as yesterday's list, but they are all books that I highly appreciated and highly recommend, filling an important hole in the literature and meeting specific needs of the church.

I haven't gotten to write a formal review of this one, but it is definitely one of the best books on this topic in print (and I've read a good number of them).

The subtitle says so much, "The Surprising Plausibility of the Celibate Life." 

Shaw speaks from personal experience and biblical conviction. He examines nine common missteps and myths with clarity, compassion, and persuasiveness and then also lays out a positive case for the biblical position.

Several times as I read I said out loud, "Aha." and "Right. That's the way to say that."

I will be giving it away to many others.

He Who Gives Life by Graham Cole

Last Spring, our Stay Sharp district theology conference was about the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. To prepare my mind, I read Graham Cole's book on the subject in the Foundations of Evangelical Theology series.

In my review, I emphasized how it is a model of theological methodology:
I learned not only from what he wrote but how he wrote it. It’s careful, learned, and cheerful. He does an excellent job of providing balancing perspectives on the many controversial questions about the Holy Spirit. At times, I wished he was more decisive and less tentative about his exegetical and theological decisions, but that just shows how difficult some of the judgment calls are to make in this arena. Wherever a strong conclusion was required by the either the importance of the question or the preponderance of the biblical evidence, Cole did not hesitate to reach it or state it. If I could write a book on this level, I would want to do it on this model.

Even though it was Jesus' favorite thing to teach on, there is surprisingly too little written by evangelicals about the kingdom of God. Schreiner not only does a fine job of doing biblical theology on the subject, showing how the kingdom doctrine develops throughout  unfolding redemptive history.

I especially appreciated how he connected the dots between parts of the Bible that often get overlooked when talking about the kingdom.

But the best part for me was how he tied the doctrine of the kingdom to the doctrine of the atonement. I said it this way in my review:
At first I thought that Schreiner had forgotten his subtitle. The cross is hardly mentioned in the introduction and isn’t mentioned by name in the first chapter. But it’s always there, just being progressively revealed. I think Schreiner was intentionally building towards the cross to mirror the way the Bible itself reveals it. So in the first chapter, he shows in the Law how “sacrifice is at the center of the kingdom plan,” in the second chapter in the Prophets he talks about the suffering servant, in the third chapter on the Writings, he talks about righteous suffering.
And then in the New Testament section, the cross comes more clearly into focus.
The book concludes with a reflective chapter bringing the twin foci of kingdom and cross together. “The kingdom is not a higher or more important theme than the cross. These two realities are forever joined; separating them is an act of violence. If the kingdom is the goal, then the cross is the means. But this does not mean that the cross simply falls between the ages. Rather, it is the wheel that shifts one age into another; it is the great transition place, the turn of the ages for the people of God seeking their place” (pg.136-137).

Not Yet Married by Marshall Segal

I have four teenagers, ages 14-18. I want to prepare them for being Christian adults and give them a biblical worldview out of which to operate in the whole sphere of singleness, dating, courtship, and preparing for marriage.

This is the book for that.

It's been a while since I read very much for young adults focused on relationships. What I really appreciated about Segal's book (which you can download for FREE at DesiringGod!) is that it isn't focused on dos-and-donts (even though they are in there) but more about walking with the Lord in that season of life (however long) in which you are single and walking with the Lord in that season of your life (if it comes) in which you are moving towards marriage with someone. 

This is a book about wisdom.

None Like Him by Jen Wilkin

Wilkin surprised me by writing a book about how I am not God.

(I'm afraid I definitely needed the reminder.)

I thought she was writing a book about the incommunicable attributes of God. And she was. She writes about how "God is self-existent, self-sufficient, eternal, immutable, omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent, sovereign, infinite, and incomprehensible."

But then I thought she would explain how those attributes affect us today. And she was. But they way she did it was to develop how much you and I are not self-existent, self-sufficient, eternal, immutable, omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent, sovereign, infinite, and incomprehensible and what a difference that makes for us.

That was a unique take on the application of this theology, and it was very challenging and encouraging to my faith.

Grief: Walking with Jesus by Bob Kelleman

I expected a book about comfort but found a book that was first and foremost about Jesus. (Which was comforting but also challenging!)

This was the first book I got to read in the new 31 Day Devotional for Life series from P&R. I'm slowly working through the rest of them (the one on pursuing restoration after an affair is particularly good, as well.) I was thankful that my friend Bob sent me an advanced copy of this one to read before they came out [read the first chapter on his website].

Because it was focused on Jesus's whole life story with a specific focus on the Man of Sorrow's experience of grief, Kelleman's book was full of surprises, especially how much it emphasized loving others while experiencing loss and also "holy disappointment"--an idea we don't normally think much about.

I will be giving this one away regularly because, sadly, until Jesus returns the experience of loss will be universal.

The Problem of God by Mark Clark

I thoroughly enjoyed this new apologetics book by Pastor Mark Clark. Clark tackles some of the toughest challenges thrown at Christianity with reasonable, thoughtful, and readable(!) answers. It's definitely written for skeptics, not for the already-convinced (though we can profit from reading it, too). And there is a good dose of self-deprecating humor.

The thing I liked the best about The Problem of God was how up-to-date and relevant it is. Some of the skeptical arguments were ones that I've never seen addressed in a book-length treatment before. (ex. theories about the "Christ myth"). But I hear young people asking these very questions. It doesn't feel like "your father's apologetics book." 

I also appreciated that Clark didn't just deal with evidential or philosophical objections--but also personal roadblocks to belief like hypocrisy among Christians. One of the longest and best chapters is the one on Christianity and sex.

The Imperfect Disciple by Jared C. Wilson

Wilson's book is a different angle on discipleship--the angle of grace. 

He says, “I want to, by God’s grace, give you the freedom to own up to your not having your act together. I wrote this book for all who are tired of being tired. I wrote this book for all who read the typical discipleship manuals and wonder who they could possibly be written for, the ones that make us feel overly burdened and overly tasked and, because of all that, overly shamed” (pg. 230)

As I said in my review, "It’s not that he doesn’t encourage people to do Bible study, prayer, fellowship, confession, etc. He does. But he also shows how we do those things by grace and to access grace and how we aren’t measured at all by our performance of them. It’s not a practical how-to book but instead a very mind-orienting one."

Our small group read and discussed this book together over a few months and came away encouraged.

Tolle lege!

Friday, December 28, 2018

My Top Books of 2018

I had a wonderful year of reading in 2018, full of strong books with great big ideas and sharp writing. I'm excited to share some of the best titles with you today.

I read just a few more books than last year (72), and at least for the first third of the year, I also found the time write more book reviews about them.

What I Mean By "Top Books"

As in past years [2013201420152016, 2017], my "Top Books" list is not necessarily the best books that were published that particular year or the most enjoyable either. I intend it to be a list of the fairly new Christian nonfiction books I read:

- that had the most personal impact on me, my thinking, my heart.

- that I was the most consistently enthusiastic about.

- that I kept coming back to again and again.

- that I couldn't help recommending to others (and recommend without reservations and significant caveats).

Like last year, I've narrowed it down to seven of those for 2018, and tomorrow I'll give you a list of others that were really really good for me, too.

My Top Books Read in 2018

1. The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing by Jonathan Pennington.

I never got to write a proper review of Pennington's theological commentary on the sermon on the mount, but it rocked my world, transforming my understanding of Jesus' most famous message and shaping every sermon on the Gospel of Matthew I delivered from February through July on 2018!

Pennington showed me how the logic of the SOTM works. Intellectually, I knew that there was an internal logical flow to Jesus' message, but I've never been able to unlock it until now. Jesus, presented by Matthew, is so unlike Paul in style, and I've tended to treat his kingdom manifesto like a string of pearls. But Pennington showed me (with careful, fresh, and well-chosen words) the grain that runs through the wood connecting the message together and providing the whole with its life-giving and life-changing sap.

If I could write a commentary, this is exactly how I would want it to be. Pennington (who I was at TEDS with back in the day and who has recently launched a YouTube channel of him talking with interesting guests about cars, coffee, and theology) taught me so much, I don't know how to summarize it. I highly recommend reading the book, listening to him teach on its themes, and most of all, reading Jesus' sermon over and over again, especially the beatitudes, with an ear cocked to what Pennington is teaching.

Studying the Sermon on the Mount was the most richly rewarding experience of 2018 for me. I'm so thankful I get to be a pastor. If I didn't have to preach Matthew, I would never have the opportunity to study it on this level! By the way, if you are preaching Matthew, I also recommend buying and carefully reading Charles Quarles' commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, as well. Quarles brought out many exegetical items that I needed to see and provided an almost exhaustive list of interpretive options for difficult sections. I found it invaluable.

2. Rejoicing in Lament by J. Todd Billings

Rejoicing in Lament is a profound theological reflection on biblical lament by a man who, sadly and gladly, has had to practice what he preaches.

Billings is top-shelf theologian who has had to go through deep suffering as a cancer patient, and he seamlessly weaves his personal experience and well-read theology together into a beautiful and helpful read. In my review, I resonate with both his experience and his insights:
Billings never pretends that there are any easy answers, but he also never gives in to despair or unbelief. In fact, pulsing through (not over or around) all of the lamentation in this book is a true joy. Billings doesn’t offer any syrupy or saccharine sweetness, but he does offer a trustworthy God who is redeeming sinners remaking the whole world new. He presents Jesus who went before us in suffering–a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. He reminds us that God is unchanging and perfect yet perfectly approachable with all of our fickleness, feebleness, and anguish. He holds out a God whose grace is sufficient even when we don’t have healing or answers. He prods us by both good theology and living example to say, “I am not my own, but belong–body and soul, in life and in death–to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.” What could be better than that?
I believe the American church, especially needs to rediscover what Michael Card calls "lost language of lament." Billings is a faithful guide. Card's book on this was, by the way, a rich read for me this year, as well, and I'm looking forward to reading and reviewing Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy by Mark Vroegop on this same topic when it comes out this Spring. We need all of the help on this that we can get.

3. A Theology of Matthew by Charles Quarles

Another book on Matthew! And the second mention of Charles Quarles in this list!

Quarles' book is a carefully compiled biblical theology of the Gospel of Matthew looking at particular ways that Matthew brings out particular themes, especially about the identity of Jesus as deliverer (new Moses), king (new David), founder (new Abraham), and creator (God incarnate).

In my review earlier this year, I said, "Quarles has a knack for bringing out the subtleties that lie on top of the text--things that are demonstrable (not made up or merely speculative) yet not obvious to the casual reader. He turns Matthew from SD to HD for a careful reader."

Here's how helpful this book is: I've looked at it every single week this year as I preach through the Gospel of Matthew. I open the Scripture index in the back and turn to every reference he makes to the passage I am preaching this week so I don't miss any of his insights!

4. The Gospel Comes with a House Key by Rosaria Butterfield

In The Gospel Comes With a House Key, Rosaria Butterfield beckons the Church to practice what she calls, “radically ordinary hospitality,” and she and her husband Kent lead the way.

In my review I said, "The potency of Butterfield’s book comes from her storytelling. She obviously subscribes to the maxim, “Show, don’t tell,” and does a masterful job at it. Her true life stories of biblical hospitality brim with the raw grace and beautiful mess that is the gospel at work in up-close-and-personal ministry. This is hospitality as generosity, not entertainment. Giving yourself, your resources, your time, your home. "

Heather and I both read this one and were both encouraged and challenged at the same time. We were encouraged in the hospitality we already practice and challenged to do more.

This book is salty in more ways than one. Don't read it if you don't want to change.

5. Reset by David Murray

I didn't want to read this book, because I had a sneaking suspicion David Murray was talking about me. In describing an over-extended person who was resistant to changing personal habits to learn the art of rest, I felt like he was reading my mail (and maybe my mind!).

But I needed to read Reset, and I'm glad I did. I've changed a number of my habits, and feel like I'm a better path to a balanced life. I still have a good ways to go (change is hard!), but think I'm making progress.

The greatest evidence? In 2018, I took a nap nearly every single Sunday afternoon! (That may not seem like much of an accomplishment to some, but it was a breakthrough for me in terms of receiving the Lord's gift of rest.)

By the way, I was also influenced in this vein by a secular book, Deep Work by Cal Newport. While he wasn't advising more naps, Newport was advising a re-set of my time and attention to develop and deepen my concentration. Whenever I put these two guys' principles at work, it moves the needle on both my happiness and productivity.

6. Under Our Skin by Benjamin Watson

Watson's gracious yet pointed approach to race relations was just what I needed to read at the beginning of 2018. He gets right to the heart of the problem which is the problem of the human heart. But in tackling the underlying spiritual problems, he doesn't get simplistic or let anyone off of the hook of working toward practical solutions.

In my review I said, "Watson also has a knack for seeing solutions that are “both/and.” He knows that the answers to our ongoing racial strife will not be singletary or simplistic. He is not only able to see how the problems come from multiple competing directions but also to envision how the solutions might require holding two or more seemingly exclusive things in faithful tension. For me, this was a perfect read for this 2018 Martin Luther King Day because in many ways Benjamin Watson is articulating “the dream” for a new generation. May we be both convicted by our failures and encouraged and empowered to press on to see the dream come fully true."

For me, reading Under Our Skin kicked off a year-long study of race, racism, and racial reconciliation which was very profitable.

7. Superheroes Can’t Save You by Todd Miles

This is the book I've been raving about the most in the last few months of 2018.

Todd Miles has taken our current cultural obsession with superheroes and channeled it into a fruitful multi-pronged illustration of historical heresies about the person of Christ.

You read that right. Even though it's chock-full of superhero lore, it's really about and magnifies Jesus, but not in a "Jesus-juke" kind of way. In fact, Miles is a super-fan of super-heroes, which as a sometime comic-book fan myself (Make Mine Marvel!), I really appreciated. Yet at the same time he puts them in their place and cleverly appropriates features of the characters to illustrate bad ideas about who Jesus is that have popped up throughout church history. For example, Superman can illustrate docetism (the heresy that Jesus only seemed to be human) or Ant-Man can illustrate modalism (the heresy Jesus is just one"costume" of God that the one person of God puts on when He isn't being the Father or the Spirit).

If you don't like superheroes, this book probably isn't for you, though you still could learn a lot. Miles knows his stuff (and even adroitly navigates some current theological controversies with panache). I've been using it weekly with our youth boys' class on Wednesday nights. Miles holds your attention. He's really fun and funny and concise, and yet is teaching you deep theology and church history and making application to your spiritual life all at the same time. I'm really glad this book exists. Excelsior!

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Merry Christmas 2018 from the Mitchells!

My Father's Day gift this year was a family photo shoot with the talented Ben Schiefer.

I'm a blessed man!

"But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD" (Joshua 24:15).

"Act normal."

"The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; surely I have a delightful inheritance" (Psalm 16:6).
"Blessed are all who fear the LORD, who walk in his ways. You will eat the fruit of your labor; blessings and prosperity will be yours. Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house; your sons will be like olive shoots around your table. Thus is the man blessed who fears the LORD" (Psalm 128:1-4).

"Sons are a heritage from the LORD, children a reward from him. Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are sons born in one's youth. Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them. They will not be put to shame when they contend with their enemies in the gate" (Psalm 127:3-5).

Cover for an album you don't really want to listen to.

"Praise the LORD, all you nations; extol him, all you peoples. For great is his love toward us, and the faithfulness of the LORD endures forever. Praise the LORD" (Psalm 117:1-2).

"Say 'Cheesy!'"

"[Your beauty] should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God's sight" (1 Peter 3:4).

"...and the ransomed of the LORD will return. They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away" (Isaiah 3510).

Teens and Screens 2018.

I love these people with all of my heart.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Fourth Sunday of Advent 2018: What Child Is This?

LEFC Family Advent Readings: “What Child Is This?”
Matthew 4:13-17 :: December 23, 2018
Week #4: The Light of the World

“Advent” means “coming.” Christmas is coming. Jesus has come and is coming again.

During this year’s Advent season, we have been answering the title question from the beloved Christmas carol “What Child Is This?” from the first few chapters of the Gospel of Matthew.


Our first candle reminded us that this child who was laid to rest on Mary’s lap was “Immanuel.” The prophet Isaiah had foretold that the virgin would give birth to a child Who would be “God-with-us.”


Our second candle proclaimed that this child“whom angels greet with anthems sweet” is “The King of the Jews.” The Magi knew that the baby born in Bethlehem was worthy of their homage. They worshiped Him and brought Him incense, gold, and myrrh–gifts fit for the King of Kings.


Our third candle shines to say that this Babe was not just the son of Mary but the beloved Son of God. At His baptism, the Father’s voice from heaven said that with Jesus He was “well pleased.”


The Bible also tells us that this Child is the Light of the World. In the fourth chapter of his gospel, Matthew tells the story of the start of Jesus’ public ministry. After His baptism and His temptation in the wilderness, Jesus returned to Galilee and began His preaching ministry. Matthew tells us that this move was a fulfillment of another great prophecy from Isaiah.

[READ MATTHEW 4:15-17.]

The darkness will not win. Jesus is the Light of the World.

Haste, haste to bring Him loud praise!

[Matt's Messages] "Great Joy"

“Great Joy”
December 23, 2018
Luke 2:10

I have two favorite Christmas carols. Do you know what they are?

This is my 21st Christmas as your pastor, so by now you might be able to guess.

I have two favorites and they are both because of the rich theology embedded in them.

One of them is “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.”

“Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; Hail the incarnate Deity.
Pleased as man with men to dwell, Jesus our Emmanuel.”

That’s some good stuff there on the meaning of Christmas!

What do you think is the other one?

I’m sure you’ve looked at the end of the order of service and already figured it out.

“Joy to the World!”

And that’s what I want to talk about today.

Joy. Great joy.

The angel said to the shepherds (v.10), “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.”

Good news of great joy for all the people.

In other words, “Joy to the World!”

What is joy?

I mean, we all know what it is, but it’s kind of hard to define.

And the world has so many counterfeits.

What is joy?

At my house, I have Heather Joy, and I have Robin Joy.

They are two of my greatest joys.

But what is joy itself?

Joy is satisfaction.

Joy is a thirst quenched.

Joy is a delight in something that refreshes you.

True joy is delightful satisfaction in God and what He has done.

The theme of joy is all over the Bible.

From cover to cover, you could say that the Bible is a story of joy.

Joy in creation. Joy lost in the Fall. Joy regained piece by piece as the story of redemption unfolds.

Joy in the psalms, especially. Rejoice! My cup overflows!

And then joy restored as the Savior comes.

The angel said, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy.”

The Greek of verse 10 is literally, “mega chara.” Mega Joy!

Joy to the World. The Lord is come.

Because of Christmas, because of the Incarnation, because Jesus has come, Christians have every reason to rejoice.

That’s why Joe led us in “Good Christian Men, Rejoice!”

And Good Christian Women and Boys and Girls, too, rejoice!

With heart and soul and voice!

Jesus Christ is born today.


The Bible says that joy is part of the fruit of the Spirit.

It’s number 2 in the list.

“The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy...” and so forth.

Joy is part of the normal experience of every Christian.

The Apostle Peter says, “In this you greatly rejoice...[You believe in Jesus and you] are [currently] filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”

Joy has come with Jesus, and it’s better than regular old happiness.

Now, “happiness” is not bad. And it’s not a bad word.

But joy is a better thing and a better word.

It’s deeper and fuller and richer and more meaningful.

Joy! Joy! Joy!

Great Joy Right Now.

Because Jesus has been born, we have every reason to rejoice.

It was joy that led Jesus to the Cross.

Hebrews says, “For the joy set before Him, Jesus endured the Cross.”

Jesus’ joy in God, Jesus’ delightful satisfaction in His Father and what His Father would do for us in saving us eternally was enough to motivate Jesus to die on the Cross for our sins, taking our place.

Joy! We have every reason to rejoice right now.

I think that “joy” is my favorite word when it comes to Christmas.

The close runners up are Love, Hope, Gift, and Peace. I think some years they win over joy.

But joy is right there up at the top.

Joy because Jesus came.

Great joy right now.

That was what Bryanna’s prayer was for Anna Leigh, wasn’t it?

That she would abound in “joy” from Romans 15:13, right?

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” Amen.

Notice in our verse that the great joy comes from the good news.

“The angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.”

It’s that good news (the gospel) about Jesus that brings us true and lasting joy.

Even in the middle of great trials and suffering.

Especially in the middle of great trials and suffering!

Earthly happiness comes and goes, it burns off under the sun of suffering.

But joy can exist in the hardest of times, warm in the heart of those who have Jesus.

In fact, the Bible says that we are to have joy at those times when are suffering.

James says in chapter 1 of his letter, “Consider it pure [....what?] joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds.”

Not that we love the trials!

But that we know that the trials will be used for God’s purposes in our lives, perfecting us. And James says that that’s worth rejoicing in.

Everything is worth rejoicing in because Jesus came that first Christmas.

Now, you might be hurting real bad right now.

A lot of people have great grief at Christmastime.

You’ve lost someone.

The Dobos lost Carolyn this month.

It’s been 8 years since we lost Heather’s mom Linda in December. Robin was just 10.

This can be a really hard time of the year.

And when the grief comes, it’s right to cry. It’s right to mourn.

But Christians mourn differently, too. We grieve in hope.

And a hope that doesn’t disappoint. We can both grieve and rejoice at the same time.

Because we know Jesus.

We miss Carolyn. But at the same time, we rejoice for her.

And we know that because Jesus came, we will see her again.

Because of Jesus, we have every reason to rejoice.

Good news of Great Joy Right Now.

But this is not all that there is. Remember what we learned last week?


This angel in verse 10 was talking about Jesus’ first coming. His first advent.

But Jesus didn’t bring all of the blessings of His kingdom right away.

The King came that first Christmas, but the Kingdom has not yet full arrived!

There is a second advent, a second coming of the King that we are still looking forward to, a second time for Jesus to bring GREAT JOY to the World in all of its fullness.

I don’t know about you, but the more Christmases I experience, the more I think, not about Jesus’ first coming, but about Jesus’ second coming.

You know, that’s what Isaac Watts was thinking about when he wrote the hymn, “Joy to the World?”

If you turn to it in your hymnal (#125), you’ll see what I mean.

We often sing it at Christmas. I remember singing it as a little boy in church. I loved the echo part of the chorus: “And heaven and nature sing...And heaven and nature sing.”

But even though we sing it at Christmastime, it’s not really about Luke 2.

It’s about the return of Jesus and the great joy that will come to the world when that great event happens.

Joy to the World! The Lord is come;
Let earth receive her King!
Let every heart prepare Him room,
And heaven and nature sing!

Can you imagine what that will be like?

Joy to the earth! The Savior reigns.

Yes, there is a sense in which He reigns now. All authority has been given to Jesus.

But His reign is contested now. Remember last week? The weeds are sown in the wheat. An enemy has done this.

But someday soon, Jesus’ reign will be universal and uncontested.

Joy to the earth! The Savior reigns.
Let Men Their Songs Employ!
While fields and floods, rock, hills, and plains repeat 
The sounding joy!
Repeat the sounding joy!

All of nature is going to be happy and delighted and full of joy.

Isaac Watts got this idea from Psalm 98.  He was making a hymn out of the thoughts of Psalm 98 transposed into a Christian key.

This is what Psalm 98 says:

“Sing to the LORD a new song, for he has done marvelous things;
his right hand and his holy arm have worked salvation for him.
The LORD has made his salvation known 
and revealed his righteousness to the nations.
He has remembered his love and his faithfulness to the house of Israel;
all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.

Shout for joy to the LORD, all the earth, burst into jubilant song with music;
make music to the LORD with the harp, with the harp and the sound of singing,
with trumpets and the blast of the ram's horn–shout for joy before the LORD, the King.

Let the sea resound, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.  
Let the rivers clap their hands, let the mountains sing together for joy;
let them sing before the LORD, for he comes to judge the earth. 
He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples with equity.”

The world is personified as feeling the pains of the curse.

Romans 8 says that the creation groans and waits in eager expectation for the return of Christ.

But when Jesus returns, the whole world (not just His people!) will have great joy!

No more let sins and sorrows grow
Nor thorns infest the ground (The curse from Genesis 3)
He comes to make His blessings flow 
Far as the curse is found, Far as the curse is found

That’s my favorite line in that song.

How far does the curse extend right now?

It gets down into our very DNA, doesn’t it?

There is nowhere that is untouched by the curse.

Life is not as it should be.

Cancer, for example, is not the way it should be.
War is not the way it should be.
Death is not the way it should be!

But Jesus is going to reverse the curse someday soon.

Reverse the curse!

He will make His blessings known as far as the curse is currently found.

He’s going to roll back the curse and make everything new.

Revelation 21

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea.  I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.

He will wipe every tear from their eyes. [Are you crying this Christmas?]

There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.’

He who was seated on the throne said, ‘I am making everything new!’

Then he said, ‘Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.’

He said to me: ‘It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To him who is thirsty I will give to drink without cost from the spring of the water of life.’”

That’s is great joy!

Joy to the World, to the whole entire world[!], someday soon.

Remember last week? The birds of the air will nest in the branches of the mustard tree. And “the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.”

He rules the world with truth and grace 
and makes the nations prove
the glories of his righteousness
and the wonders of His love.
The wonders of His love.

Brothers and sisters, we have every reason to rejoice.

And every reason to spread that joy.

Joy to the world in missions.

Let the nations be glad!

Let the nations rejoice!

Because there is good news of great joy that will be for all the people.

We need to live in expectation, in anticipation of that joy.

And to share it with others.

I don’t have more to say than this.

Let this Christmas be a Christmas of GREAT JOY for those of us who know Jesus.

Great Joy to the World, the Lord Has Come!


Astute readers will recognize a good bit of this from a previous sermon, Christmas 2010.

It's just as true today!