I am a great lover of books. I am also a believer that reading broadly and deeply is foundational if we are to offer good leadership in a rapidly changing and global context. Reading offers unique opportunities for us to grow, expand into worlds beyond our own, and to be mentored by people we will never meet.
Here are my top 10 books from the last six months that you may want to consider adding to your list:
1. Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis – Robert D. Putnam
Putnam, a Harvard social scientist, has written a classic that I believe is a “must read” for church leadership teams. He explores in penetrating detail how rich and poor Americans are now living, learning, and raising children in increasingly separate and unequal worlds. Moreover, he shows convincingly that we are facing a crisis in that kids from privileged backgrounds are starting and finishing further and further ahead than their less privileged peers. He notes, for example, how because of growing class segregation in America, fewer and fewer successful people (or their kids) have much idea of how the other half lives. We now have churches segregated not only by race, but by class.
Putnam’s stories caused me to stop and pray multiple times while reading. The questions I am asking include: “What is the role of the church amidst this?” “Why isn’t the church stepping into poor communities more aggressively to rebuild marriages, families, and support networks?” “Why do we have so few churches that bridge class boundaries?” Even Putnam, a social scientist, notes that we have a moral obligation to do so!
The implications of this in our country are vast. This book is a painful read. It will cost you time, energy, and thought. But as Jeremiah said” “He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?” declares the Lord (Jer. 22:16).
Maggie Ross is an Anglican solitary (or anchorite) under vows to Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury. She is also a Standford-Educated Professor of Theology. This is not a book to read quickly as it is filled with devotional nuggets. Ross also assumes a certain level of working knowledge of church history, silence, and theology. Her explanation of how and why silence was suppressed by the institutional church in the Middle Ages, for example, is fascinating. While I may not agree with all Ross’ conclusions, I found her insights edifying, challenging and important for our work as leaders today.
While Therese died at the young age of 24, theologians have spent a century commenting on the depth and originality of her spiritual insights. Her focus on loving and serving God in the ordinary circumstances of life has become known as the “little way.” It grew out of Jesus’ command: “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Matthew 19:14).
Passages such as these convinced Therese that Jesus wanted great love out of an interior attitude of childlike trust in God. She did this by offering him small, everyday acts of love: going out of her way to befriend the crankiest nun in the convent, refusing to complain when accused of a wrong she didn’t commit, choosing to cheerfully and silently endure a cold bedroom. I continue to find this insight/revelation easy to understand, but difficult to practice in everyday life.
4. Aging Matters: Finding Your Calling for the Rest of Your Life – R. Paul Stevens
Since turning 60 this year, one of my goals has been to get mentored in a “spirituality of aging.” Stephens, professor emeritus at Regent College is a favorite author of mine. I appreciate his theology of work (“We should work until we die.”), his exegesis of God often surprising people later in life (e.g. Abraham, Sarah and Moses), and his view of aging as a spiritual discipline. His look at the particular temptations we confront as we grow older, especially that of pride (a lack of willingness to learn) and sloth (life without passion or initiative), is particularly helpful. I will highly recommend this to my friends over fifty, as well as to every young pastor I know so they can better pastor and lead us Boomers.
5. Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition – Christine D. Pohl
This is the most comprehensive theology and the best historical treatment of Christian hospitality I have read to date. Her final chapters on how we can recover this central spiritual practice in the church are excellent–especially as she offers practical help around the particular limits, boundaries, and temptations that surround hospitality. There is a prophetic invitation on these pages to return to a hospitality that counteracts the social stratification of the larger society by providing a Christ-like welcome to all. Read it and pray through what the implications might be for you personally and your church today.
This slim volume contains a lifetime of wisdom that Vanier has accumulated living with physically and intellectually disabled men over a fifty-year period. His insights about what it means to love well in Jesus’ name are priceless. They also have the capacity to keep us grounded as pastors and leaders around a core task God has given us – to build healthy, loving communities.
“Living with men and women with mental disabilities has helped me to discover what it means to live in communion with someone. Communion means accepting people just as they are…to see the beauty inside of all the pain. To love someone is not first of all to do things for them, but to reveal to them their beauty and value, to say to them through our attitude: ‘You are beautiful. You are important. I trust you. You can trust yourself.’ ”
Consider adding this to your devotional time with Jesus.
I love the work of Martin Buber, the great German Jewish philosopher, in relating to an individual as “I-Thou”, not “I-It.” The challenge, however, is the difficulty in reading through his original work – I and Thou. During the writing of a forty-day devotional on Emotionally Healthy Relationships due out this fall, I committed myself to dive more deeply into Buber’s seminal insights on how we encounter God mysteriously when we incarnate with others as “Thou’s.” This book served me well in that process and is the best I have found to date.
8. The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson Vol. IV – Robert A. Caro
Lyndon Johnson was a clever, able, often brilliant, politician in the Senate. His gifts and temperament, however, were not well suited to the complexities of the Presidency in the 1960’s. This book is an easy read with fascinating leadership insights throughout the chapters. The one I appreciated the most was this:
“But although the cliché says that power always corrupts, what is seldom said, but what is equally true, is that power always reveals. When a man is climbing, trying to persuade others to give him power, concealments is necessary; to hide traits that might make others reluctant to give him power. But as a man obtains more power, camouflage is less necessary. The revealing begins. Now, suddenly, he had a lot more power, and it didn’t take him long to reveal at least part of what he wanted to do with it.”
9. Ghengis Khan and the Making of the Modern World– Jack Weatherford
I try to read a few history books each year for perspective and insight. I found this easy-to-read history by Weatherford, an anthropology professor, very helpful. Weatherford recounts how Mongol leader Genghis Khan (1162-1227) established the largest empire in world history and how, at their peak, the Mongols controlled between 11 and 12 million square miles–an area about the size of Africa. I appreciated reading detailed accounts about how Khan’s Empire impacted not only Central Asia, but also Europe. I also found his account of the destructive impact of the Black Plague in Europe, Africa and Asia profound and sobering.
10. A Man Called Ove: A Novel – Fredrik Backman
I never really understood the word curmudgeon until I read this book. I loved this enjoyable novel from this obscure Swedish author (At least, obscure when I read this book. It is now a best-seller). Ove is cranky, the kind of person you just don’t like. But as you get to know his story, you come to love him and it all begins to make sense. This is a great, fun read that will slow you down from forming a superficial, negative opinion about someone without knowing their story.
What books might you add to this list? Reach out to me on Twitter and let me know your top picks.
P.S.– If you’re interested, the following links will take you to previous “Top Ten” Book Lists I have compiled.