“There is no substitute for reading,” a wise woman once wrote. “A book is a door and on the other side is somewhere else.” (111) I stepped through several literary doors to somewhere else in 2019 and these were my favorite destinations. There are 36 selections and I thoroughly enjoyed every last one of them.
My Top 12:
1. Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord? A Biblical Theology of Leviticus / L. Michael Morales
The best book I read in 2019 is this worshipful biblical-theological feast. Morales unpacks the glories of Leviticus and shows that the central hope of the Pentateuch is fixed upon the Last Adam who ushers His people into the holy presence of God through His perfect atoning sacrifice. Here’s a taste:
“The tabernacle was not merely the earthly house of God, but the way to God– the way of YHWH. Now, keeping in mind the parallels between the garden of Eden and the tabernacle, one may discern readily how the entrance into the holy of holies, ‘the archetypal priestly act,’ comprised a liturgical drama: the annual re-entry into the garden of Eden.
On the Day of Atonement Adam’s eastward expulsion from the garden of Eden was reversed as the high priest, a cultic Adam, ascended westward through the cherubim-woven veil and into the summit of the cultic mountain of God.
At the heart of the Pentateuch, we find an answer to the question Who shall ascend into the mountain of YHWH? The one able to ascend is the Adam-like high priest, with blood, on the Day of Atonement. This is the way YHWH has opened for humanity to dwell in His Presence.” (177)
I’m really looking forward to digging into his new book on the exodus in 2020.
2. Justification, Volumes 1-2 / Michael Horton
What is more precious or paramount than justification? Martin Luther wrote that “justification by itself creates true theologians and therefore it is indispensable in the church and so we must frequently work on it.” (Works, 34: 157) Michael Horton has worked hard to give students of Scripture a true gift in his two volumes on justification. He models how to carefully present and graciously interact with opposing viewpoints, and over the span of nearly 900 pages he positively articulates the glorious truth that sinners are declared right with God by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, all to the glory of God alone. Horton is also a swell writer:
“Justification is a particular gift that we have in Christ alone, received through faith alone. It is a legal decision but not a legal fiction. Unlike the arbitrary decree of the nominalist deity, this justification is the most real event imaginable. Its ground is the covenantal obedience, faithfulness, and merits of God incarnate. This righteousness—the Messiah’s faithfulness—is really imputed or credited to real sinners. We are no longer in the ambit of created substances but of an exchange between persons: rags for a robe, debts for an inheritance, curse for blessing, death for life, condemnation for justification. Everything that we had in Adam, which included our own debts, is transferred to Christ, and everything that He possesses is transferred to His people. Even the faith to embrace Christ comes with, and is strengthened by, the gift of Christ Himself as He is delivered through His word and sacraments.” (1: 268)
3. Wise Counsel: John Newton’s Letters to John Ryland Jr. / John Newton
Imagine being a young and relatively inexperienced Baptist pastor, only to become theological penpals with one of the wisest and godliest ministers in all of England. That’s precisely what happened to John Ryland Jr. when he began his decades-long correspondence with the great Anglican divine John Newton. These letters are brimming with heavenly wisdom and reading them made my heart sing.
“That monster Self has as many heads as Hydra, as many lives as a cat. It’s more than 25 years since I hoped it was fast nailed to the cross, but alas it’s alive still mixing with and spoiling everything I do.” (70)
“I advise you to take a lodging as near as you can to Gethsemane, and to walk daily to Mount Golgotha.” (100)
“We may be very orthodox, skilled in defense of the five points, satisfied that our constitution of church order is the very best in the world, and yet be lamentably cold and formal in the feelings of our hearts towards Him.” (128)
“I am admitted to a throne of grace. I have an Advocate with the Father. And such is the power, care, and compassion of my great Shepherd that, prone as I am to wander, He keeps me from wandering quite away.” (170)
“Accept this hasty line as a token my sympathy. May the Lord bless you both. And may we all so weep as becomes those who expect, ere long, to have all our tears wiped away.” (187)
“The older I grow, the more I am drawn to preach much concerning the person of the Saviour, the atonement of the Saviour, the glory of the Saviour, and the influences of the Holy Spirit.” (232)
“I am a striking proof that the atoning blood of Jesus can cleanse from the most enormous sins, that His grace can soften the hardest heart, subdue the most obstinate habits of evil, and that He is able to save to the uttermost.” (396)
“My memory is nearly gone; but I remember two things: that I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Saviour.” (401)
4. The Preacher’s Catechism / Lewis Allen
I don’t read to “have read.” I read to survive. This book helped me to survive as a preacher.
“God loves a cheerful preacher. Our ever-blessed, ever-joyful God wants to be proclaimed by those who are brimful of the joy of His grace in Christ brings. He calls us to delight in Him and, out of that joy, to call others to the feast. Preacher and sermon must be filled with gospel joy. ‘With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation’ (Isaiah 12:3). Preachers who taste, teach, and share the joy of the gospel are truly fulfilling their calling as they serve those who listen.” (31)
“Worship the Lord when no one notices you and when the work is unexciting. Remember in those times that God loves you. He sees you and honors all your labors. Remember that in due season you will receive your reward if you don’t give up (Galatians 6:9). Self-pity is as much out of place in Christian ministry as self-promotion is. Worship Him because of who He is, the Lord of heaven and earth. You’re preaching for God. You’re preaching because He has been pleased to call and equip you to preach, and He is pleased as you preach.” (49)
“The Ten Commandments as we’ve been discussing them round our dinner table read like this:
1. Put nothing in the place of Jesus.
2. Make nothing which gets in the way of your love for Jesus.
3. Honour Jesus’ Name in all you do.
4. Seek your soul’s rest in Jesus.
5. Honour your parents, as a love-expression for Jesus.
6. Do not murder, as Jesus brings life, never death.
7. Keep sexually pure, because Jesus has won your body, as well as your heart.
8. Do not steal, because Jesus is enough.
9. Do not lie, because Jesus is the truth, and loves the truth.
10. Don’t set your heart on anything, because Jesus really is enough.” (116)
5. None Greater / Matthew Barrett
The Puritan pastor-theologian Stephen Charnock issued a timely warning in 1681: “Though we cannot comprehend God as He is, we must be careful not to fancy Him to be what He is not.” (Works, 1: 276) Matthew Barrett helps believers to heed this counsel, alerting us to be on guard against vainly imagining God as a being who is just like us, only bigger and better: “There is none greater than God, not because He is merely a greater version of ourselves but because He is nothing like ourselves.” (xvi) This book is a stupendous introduction to the classical understanding of the doctrine of God and it’s chock full of quotes about the divine attributes from the theological “A-Team” (Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas). Barrett is a sure-footed guide to helping you grasp God’s ungraspable greatness. (Psalm 145:3)
6. God Without Passions, A Reader / Ed. Samuel Renihan
Why would you want to read a collection of excerpts written hundreds of years ago by theologians with names like “Wolfgang Musculus,” all of which advocate for the doctrine of divine impassibility? Here’s an insightful answer from Carl Trueman:
“It is arguably the doctrine of God, rather than that of Scripture, which has historically been the place where assaults on orthodoxy have typically started within the church, at least prior to the rise of Higher Criticism. When someone starts to tinker with the doctrine of Scripture, many Christians instinctively feel that something nefarious is being done. But when someone starts to tinker with the doctrine of God, many simply assume that very clever people are engaged in improving the tradition.” (15-16)
Let the reader understand.
7. Theoretical-Practical Theology, Volumes 1-2 / Petrus Van Mastricht
“A man is not so inclined to give up when he sees in panoramas,” writes Robert Kurson. (9) No book in 2019 outside of Scripture did more to give me a panoramic vision of God than these beautiful volumes published by Reformation Heritage Books. Van Mastricht begins every chapter with exegesis and ends every chapter in application. It’s all theological gold.
“The infinite greatness of God supplies an argument for us to make Him great with infinite praises (Luke 1:46). For He is (1) great, and therefore, greatly to be praised. Indeed, He is (2) most great, infinitely great: ‘and His greatness is unsearchable.’ (Ps. 145:3) And also (3) He is the only One who is such (Isa. 40:12; 15, 17). Indeed, (4) great in so many ways; great, in fact, in all ways: in His essence, His presence, His duration, His wisdom, His strength and power, His grace and mercy (Ps. 147:5). And in this greatness He is (5) above the gods, whether earthly, such as kings and magistrates, or heavenly (at lease in the opinion of the pagans), the false gods; and above all gods (2 Chron. 2:5; Ps. 135:5).
For if, then we celebrate the sun for its great greatness, and the heavens for their greater greatness, why would we not celebrate God for His greatest greatness, for His infinite greatness?
Let us therefore make Him great (1) in our heart (Ps. 103:1; Luke 1:46), by always thinking of Him great things, indeed the greatest of things, for He is the One who is infinitely greater than all our thoughts (Eph. 3:20); by esteeming as great, indeed, as most great, both Him and all that is His– His presence, favor, promises, worship– in such a way that we approach Him and all things of His with an infinite (that is, an insatiable) appetite and desire (Ps. 84:1-2).
(2) In our mouth, that with a great voice, in the presence of others, we celebrate Him who is infinitely great (Ps. 103:8), indeed that we call others to celebrate Him with us (Ps. 103:20-22).
Finally, (3) in our work, that we do it (a) with profound reverence for the infinite deity, and with fear of offending Him, even in the least things, because He is the most great King (Mal. 1:14; Deut. 10:17; Neh. 1:5; Dan. 9:4). (b) By a careful zeal for obeying and pleasing Him (2 Cor. 5:9). (c) By an infinite desire or concern for possessing and enjoying Him (Ps. 73:25).” (2: 190)
8. The Son Who Learned Obedience / D. Glenn Butner
In the summer of 2016, an evangelical donnybrook erupted online over the doctrine of the Trinity, particularly relating to what is called “eternal functional subordination” (EFS) or “eternal relational authority-submission” (ERAS) or “eternal subordination of the Son” (ESS). In this wise book, Butner calmly clarifies the arguments on both sides, analyzes key texts like 1 Corinthians 15:28, demonstrates the doctrinal implications of EFS/ERAS/ESS, and nimbly expounds pro-Nicene teaching, inseparable operations, and dyothelite Christology. He concludes:
“The claim that the Son eternally submits to the Father is not explicitly taught in the Bible, and its acceptance offers an inferior second-order explanation of scriptural patterns, undermines rational explanations of Christology, Soteriology, and the doctrine of God, deviates from tradition, and provides little conceptual clarity. Simply put, theologians ought to stop claiming that the Son eternally submits to the Father.” (196)
9. Enjoying God / Tim Chester
Man does not live on polemics alone. And so I’m thankful that Chester penned this richly devotional meditation on the Triune God. He shows how to enjoy God in the messiness of life in a fallen world. It’s like John Owen’s Communion with God, but for dummies. It’s tremendous.
“Each day reflect on how God is being kind to you. And think of Jesus as the Father’s kindness in person. ‘But when the kindness and love of God our Saviour appeared,’ says Paul in Titus 3:4-5, ‘He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of His mercy.’ The Father’s kindness ‘appeared’ and it looks like Jesus. If you want to see the kindness of God, then look at the life and death of Jesus. This is the measure of God’s kindness. This is divine kindness clothed in human flesh. This is His kindness to you.” (64)
10. The Sacrifice of Praise / Herman Bavinck
2019 was a spectacular year for Bavinck devotees. This, and this, and this (!!!!) all came hot off the press. But after reading a ton of Herman this year, I loved this one most of all. The book takes its title from Hebrews 13:15 and focuses on the Christian’s delightful and daunting duty of confessing Jesus Christ as Lord before God and the world. For me, Chapter 9 on the “Opposition to Confession” was worth the price of the book:
“Christ was not ashamed of us at His incarnation. To be sure, He had many reasons to be. He Himself was the firstborn of the Father, the radiance of the Father’s glory and the exact image of His being– who thought it not robbery to be equal with God (John 3:16; 10:30; 17:5; Heb. 1:3; Col. 1:15; Phil. 2:6).
We were laden with guilt, unclean from head to toe, and subject to decay (Ps. 38:4; Rom. 8:20-21), yet He was not ashamed to call us His brothers (Heb. 2:11). He was not ashamed of us before God or before the holy angels (Mark 8:38).
He took on our flesh and blood, assumed our nature, and became like us in everything apart from sin. In Christ, even God was not ashamed to be called our God (Heb. 11:16).
Therefore, He will likewise not be ashamed of us in the day of His future. To be sure, at that time He will come again not as a servant but as Lord, not to suffer but to be glorified, not to a cross but with a crown (Rev. 6:2; 19:16).
Nevertheless, He will not be ashamed of us, for the One who ascended far above the heavens is the same One who descended to the lowest parts of the earth. The One who judges is the Son of Man who once came to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:10).
Our Judge is our Savior; He never forgets nor forsakes His people (Deut. 31:6; Isa. 33:22). ‘So everyone who acknowledges Me before men, I also will acknowledge before My Father who is in heaven’ (Matt. 10:32).
In full view of the whole world so that all of creation may hear it, He will publicly stand up for His faithful confessors. However despised they may have been in this world, Christ will take their name upon His lips and proclaim it to every ear that they are His– the ones whom He has bought with His own blood and of whom no power in the world or in Hell will be able to rob Him (Rom. 8:38-39).
As Christ says, so it will be. His judgment will apply to the whole of creation. His confession will concern all creation. No one will be able to criticize it. No one will dare to oppose it. His judgment will be exalted above all criticism and will stand high above the judgment of all men and devils. The heavens and the earth and Hell and all creation will eternally submit to it.
Of greater importance than all of this is that the Father will rest in this work of His Son (Heb. 4:9-10). Just as after creation God saw all that He had made and, behold, it was very good, in that way at the end of days He will look down with divine pleasure upon the great work of redemption that Christ accomplished (Gen. 1:31).
When the church without spot or wrinkle is set before Him, and the perfected kingdom has been given to Him, then the Father will adopt all of the redeemed of the Son as His children, inviting them to participate in His communion and enjoy His presence (Eph. 5:25-27; Rev. 21:2, 7).
The public confession on behalf of believers by Christ before His Father, who is in heaven, will be the guarantee of their eternal salvation and glory (Matt. 10:32).” (80-81)
11. Matthew, Disciple and Scribe / Patrick Schreiner
The Gospel according to Matthew was the first book of the Bible I ever read as a non-Christian and then as a new Christian. So Matthew is and will always be the First Gospel for me. In his latest book, Dr. Schreiner helped me see more of the glory and grace of the Savior as He is revealed in the First Gospel. I am certain he will help you too.
“The magi have come to worship Jesus, but Jerusalem, the scribes, and Herod the king are troubled when they hear that a new king has appeared on the scene. As Matthew indicated in the genealogy, Jesus is not only the King of the Jews but now also the King of the whole world. Jesus both fulfills the old covenant and inaugurates the new. The star is in the east because the King has come to welcome those ‘east of Eden’ who were cast out so long ago (cf. Gen. 3:24; 4:16).” (80)
12. Seeing Green / Tilly Dillehay
Envy, that green-eyed monster, is the art of counting the other fellow’s blessings instead of your own. Tilly Dillehay has written an excellent book on what envy is, what envy has to do with glory, how envy robs your joy, and how to put envy to death by the Spirit.
“There’s nothing more natural than envy: it belongs to the debased mind of a natural man, not to a mind that has been transformed supernaturally by the Holy Spirit (Rom. 1:28-31; James 3:14-16).” (18)
“Envy is more interested in getting rid of the other person’s advantage than in acquiring it for itself. In a complete demonic reverse of logic, the envious person believes that it would be better for no one to have it than for another person to have it while he himself goes without.” (41)
“Compared to what’s coming, this present age is breathtakingly short. It’s an eye-blink’s worth of prosperity (cf. 1 Peter 1:4). Envying your neighbor’s lifestyle is an extreme form of tunnel vision.” (105)
Three Honorable Mentions:
Best Biblical Commentary: Philippians (Mentor) / Matthew S. Harmon
The best commentary I read this year was Harmon’s on Philippians. It has everything you’d want: Exegetical precision, doxological theology, pastoral application, and lucid brevity. And it’s also Christ-centered through and through: “God calls us in Christ, and to Christ. As our life begins in Him (1 Cor. 1:30), it continues in and because of Him (John 15:1) and will be consummated in Him (Col. 1:28). The Christian life is a Christ-centered, Christ-focused, Christ-enabled life.” (359)
Best Audiobook: Beloved / Toni Morrison
I first encountered Morrison’s searching novels in college. When she passed away in August, I decided it was time to reread Beloved. Hearing her read this haunting story in her own voice was an experience I’ll never forget.
Best New Edition of an Old Classic: The Book of Common Prayer (2019) / ARCNA
The Anglican Church in North America published a new edition of the BCP. You can read it all online here for free. I picked up the leather edition and it’s outstanding. If you’re unfamiliar with the BCP, Thomas Cranmer’s collects are the best place to start:
Blessed Lord, who caused all Holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and the comfort of your holy Word we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Almighty God, you alone can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners: Grant your people grace to love what you command and desire what you promise; that, among the swift and varied changes of this world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
O heavenly Father, you have filled the world with beauty: Open our eyes to behold your gracious hand in all your works; that, rejoicing in your whole creation, we may learn to serve you with gladness; for the sake of him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Eternal God, in whose perfect kingdom no sword is drawn but the sword of righteousness, no strength known but the strength of love: So mightily spread abroad your Spirit, that all peoples may be gathered under the banner of the Prince of Peace; to whom be dominion and glory, now and for ever. Amen.
Almighty God, you sit on your throne giving righteous judgment: We humbly ask you to bless all courts of justice and all magistrates in this land; give them a spirit of wisdom and understanding, that fearing no power but yours alone, they may discern the truth and impartially administer the law; through him who shall come to be our Judge, your Son our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
O God, almighty and merciful, you heal the broken-hearted, and turn the sadness of the sorrowful to joy, Let your fatherly goodness be upon all whom you have made. Remember in pity all those who are this day destitute, homeless, elderly, infirm, or forgotten. Bless the multitude of your poor. Lift up those who are cast down. Mightily befriend innocent sufferers, and sanctify to them the endurance of their wrongs. Cheer with hope all who are discouraged and downcast, and by your heavenly grace preserve from falling those whose poverty tempts them to sin. Though they be troubled on every side, suffer them not to be distressed; though they are perplexed, save them from despair. Grant this, O Lord, for the love of him who for our sakes became poor, your Son our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
O God, grant that we may desire you, and desiring you seek you, and seeking you find you, and finding you be satisfied in you for ever. Amen.
Best Wodehouse: The Inimitable Jeeves
No year is complete for me without spending time with Bertie and Jeeves. Wodehouse is a wordsmith and he never disappoints.
“Right from the first day Jeeves came to me, I have looked on him as a sort of guide, philosopher, and friend.” (10)
“You were always a fat-headed worm without any soul, weren’t you?” (12)
“I’ve always said, and I always shall say, that for sheer brains, Jeeves, you stand alone. All the other great thinkers of the age are simply in the crowd, watching you go by.” (22)
“At that moment, the gong sounded, and the genial host came tumbling downstairs like the delivery of a ton of coals.” (25)
“I came upon on young Bingo dancing like an untamed gazelle.” (31)
“The manager was a whiskered cove who looked like a bandit.” (34)
“I don’t pretend to be Sherlock Holmes or anything of that order, but the moment I looked at her I said to myself, ‘The girl plays the organ in a village church!'” (36)
“I turned round and Jeeves shied like a startled mustang.” (36)
“Dash it, a fellow must call his soul his own. You can’t be a serf to your valet.” (37)
“Relief was surging over me in great chunks by now.” (47)
My Next 12:
13. Paris in the Present Tense / Mark Helprin
A few years ago, Andy Crouch wrote a short piece that I’ve returned to again and again because we both share a love for the writings of Mark Helprin: “I know no other writer who can craft such moving sentences in such simple words. Helprin’s language rarely calls attention to itself, but it never fails to make you pay deeper attention to the world and your own life.” I feel the same way about Helprin’s latest novel about an old man named Jules who hears music everywhere, whether he is walking down a busy Parisian street, or sitting aboard a commercial airliner awaiting liftoff.
“Music even of this kind was everywhere the bearer of messages from an unreachable but always beckoning place out of which perfection spilled easily and without limit. In his deepest despair — when his wife died, when his only grandchild was diagnosed with leukemia (the reason he had come to America) — Jules Lacour might still hear music arising from unexpected quarters: from the rhythms of steel wheels on train tracks, though this was now rare in France after the joints in the rails had been bridged by welds; from the clickings of elevators moving in their shafts; the unpredictable harmonies of traffic; wind in the trees; the workings of machines; and water flowing, falling, or surging in waves. Even in desperation, music would sound as if from nothing, and wake him to life. He was a cellist, and could never have been anything else. The world had courage, faith, beauty, and love, and it had music, which, although not merely an abstraction, was equal to the greatest abstractions and principles— its power to lift, clarify, and carry the soul forever unmatched.” (15-16)
“We’ve become addicted to praise. At an early age we look not to the music but to the teacher’s approval, and later to the applause of the audience, the reviewer’s sentence or two, or perhaps, eventually, to the world tour, posters in front of the concert hall, the wide-eyes of hotel clerks and managers as fame knocks them back like a wave. And as you seek approval, praise, position, wealth, and fame, the music becomes the means rather than the end… Grocery clerks, railroad workers, farmers, private soldiers, and street cleaners expect neither praise nor fame. Their reward comes quietly as they pass through life unrecognized. Learn to live like them. The music is all you need.” (348-349)
There are beauties here which pierce like swords and burn like cold iron; here is a book that will break your heart. Some readers will know that this is good news, good beyond hope.
14. Fahrenheit 451 / Ray Bradbury
I only vaguely recall some of those mandatory summer reading books I breezed through back in high school. So I reread this classic by Bradbury that was published in 1953. And guess what? It sounds just like 2019.
“Peace, Montag. Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs or the names of state capitals or how much corn Iowa grew last year. Cram them full of noncombustible data, chock them so damned full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely ‘brilliant’ with information. Then they’ll feel they’re thinking, they’ll get a sense of motion without moving. And they’ll be happy, because facts of that sort don’t change. Don’t give them any slippery stuff like philosophy or sociology to tie things up with. That way lies melancholy. Any man who can take a TV wall apart and put it back together again, and most men can nowadays, is happier than any man who tries to slide-rule, measure, and equate the universe, which just won’t be measured or equated without making man feel bestial and lonely. I know, I’ve tried it; to hell with it. So bring on your clubs and parties, your acrobats and magicians, your dare-devils, jet cars, motorcycle helicopters, your sex and heroin, more of everything to do with automatic reflex. If the drama is bad, if the film says nothing, if the play is hollow, sting me with the theremin, loudly. I’ll think I’m responding to the play, when it’s only a tactile reaction to vibration. But I don’t care. I just like solid entertainment. I must be going. Lecture’s over. I hope I’ve clarified things. The important thing for you to remember, Montag, is we’re the Happiness Boys, the Dixie Duo, you and I and the others. We stand against the small tide of those who want to make everyone unhappy with conflicting theory and thought. We have our fingers in the dyke. Hold steady. Don’t let the torrent of melancholy and drear philosophy drown our world. We depend on you.” (80-81)
15. The Spy and the Traitor / Ben Macintyre
This nerve-wracking read wins the coveted “most-likely-book-to-soon-be-made-into-a-movie-or-miniseries-on-Netflix Award.” If you like Cold War international intrigue and spy fiction, you will totally dig this true and nerve-wracking Cold War espionage story.
16. Underland: A Deep Time Journey / Robert Macfarlane
Special grace is encircled by common grace. There’s a ton we can learn from others who are made in God’s image but who don’t share a Christian view of reality. Few living writers help me to see more wonder in this God-spoke world than Robert Macfarlane. Even the way he describes a simple stroll through the woods can take your breath away. Imagine being able to write a paragraph like this:
“We almost pass it by. Late afternoon, late summer: harvest time in the mountains to the north of the Carso. Smell of woodsmoke, meadow. Wooden cabins with steep eaves speaking of heavy winter snowfall. An old man sitting in a chair drawn up to a western gable end, eyes closed, catching the last of the sun. Long-handled scythes leaning against walls, cut grass on the blades. Cyclamens in the shade, purple fungi poking through leaf litter under the beeches. Apple trees here and there, hit by small yellow fruit. The land’s surface dimpled with grassed-in sinkholes. It is one of the most peaceful landscapes through which I have ever walked. Then we follow, because we are curious as to where it leads, a side path that turns away from the open ground of meadows and cabins, curving gently through beech and oak, and then angling up, the trees thinning in number but growing in height, poplars now, their leaves hissing in the wind. We walk the path in innocence because we do not know what is at its end, and through the poplars we can see golden reefs of cloud massing out over the sea, black on their undersides. The sun is warm on our faces, the rich smell of the meadow grass is thickening to rank — and then there is the first of the marks, cut deeply into the pale bark, and there is the edge of the chasm.” (213)
Macfarlane beckons you to pause and pay attention to what you can see in all that surrounds you. And in the glorious second chapter of Underland, he summons you to stare in amazement at that which you cannot see (or hear!): dark matter, neutrinos, and WIMPS (weakly interacting massive particles).
“Dark matter is fundamental to everything in the universe; it anchors all structures together. Without dark matter, super-clusters, galaxies, planets, humans, fleas and bacilli would not exist. Presently, the particle thought most likely to be the constituent of dark matter is known wryly as a WIMP —a weakly interacting massive particle. What we know of WIMPs suggests that they are heavy (up to more than a thousand times the weight of a proton), and that they were created in sufficiently vast quantities in the seconds after the birth of the universe to account for the missing mass. WIMPs — like neutrinos, nicknamed ‘ghost particles’ — have scant regard for the world of baryonic matter.
WIMPs traverse our livers, skulls and guts in their trillions each second. Neutrinos fly through the Earth’s crust, mantle and solid iron-nickel core without touching a single atom as they go. To these subatomic particles, we are the ghosts and ours the shadow-world, made at most of a diaphanous webwork. The great challenge faced by physicists has been how to compel such elusive particles to interact with experiments; how to weave a net that might catch these quick fish. One of the solutions has been to go underground.
Subterranean laboratories have been established around the world, dedicated to the detection of evidence that a WIMP or a neutrino has briefly interacted with baryonic matter. The experiments under way in these deep-sunk laboratories are all forms of ghost hunting, and they are located far underground because the surrounding rock shields the experiments from what physicists call ‘noise’.
Noise is the trundle of everyday particles through the air, the din of the ordinary atomic world going about its business. Radioactivity is deafening noise. Cosmic-ray muons are noise. If you wish to listen for sounds so faint they may not exist at all, you can’t have someone playing the drums in your ear. To hear the breath of the birth of the universe, you must come below ground to what are, experimentally speaking, among the quietest places in the universe.” (57, 58-59)
For by Him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things (including dark matter and WIMPS) were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things (including neutrinos) hold together. I’m glad I read this book. I’m thankful I didn’t pass it by.
17. The Body: A Guide For Occupants / Bill Bryson
“As we age, we lose our sense of the intimate otherness of things; we allow habit to displace awe, inevitability to banish delight; we grow into adulthood and put away childish things.”(88)
One book that helped reinvigorate my awe at the wonder of the human body is the latest book by Bill Bryson. Here are some of the mind-blowing factoids I discovered:
“That is unquestionably the most astounding thing about us– that we are just a collection of inert components, the same stuff you would find in a pile of dirt.” (4)
“You blink fourteen thousand times a day– so much that your eyes are shut for twenty-tree minutes of every waking day. Yet you never have to think about it, because every second of every day your body undertakes a literally unquantifiable number of tasks– a quadrillion, a nonillion, a quindecillion, a vigintillion (these are actual measures), at all events some number vastly beyond imagining– without requiring an instant of your attention.” (4-5)
“In the second of so since you started this sentence, your body has made a million red blood cells.” (5)
“Altogether it takes 7 billion billion billion (that’s 7,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000, or 7 octillion) atoms to make you.” (5)
“Unpacked, you are positively enormous. Your lungs, smoothed out, would cover a tennis court, and the airways within them would stretch nearly from coast to coast. The length of all your blood vessels would take you two and a half times around Earth.” (5)
“You have a meter of DNA packed into every cell, and so many cells that if you formed all the DNA in your body into a single strand, it would stretch ten billion miles, to beyond Pluto. Think of it: there is enough of you to leave the solar system.” (5)
“You would need twenty billion strands of DNA laid side by side to make the width of the finest human hair.”
“All humans share 99.9 percent of their DNA, and yet no two humans are alike. My DNA and your DNA will differ in three to four million places, which is a small proportion of the total but enough to make a lot of difference between us.” (7)
“The body is often likened to a machine, but it is so much more than that. It works twenty-four hears a day for decades without (for the most part) needing regular servicing or the installation of spare parts, runs on water and a few organic compounds, is soft and rather lovely, is accommodatingly mobile and pliant, reproduces itself with enthusiasm, makes jokes, feels affection, appreciates a red sunset and a cooling breeze. How many machines do you know that can do any of that? There is no question about it. You are truly a wonder. But then so, it must be said, is an earthworm.” (8)
“The skin consists of an inner layer called the dermis and an outer epidermis. The outermost surface of the epidermis, called the stratum corneum, is made up entirely of dead cells. It is an arresting thought that all that makes you lovely is deceased. Where body meets air, we are all cadavers. These outer skin cells are replaced every month. We shed skin copiously, almost carelessly: some twenty-five thousand flakes a minute, over a million pieces every hour. Run a finger along a dusty shelf, and you are in large part clearing a path through fragments of your former self. Silently and remorselessly we turn to dust.” (11-12)
I could keep going but, alas, my fingers are tired of typing. There are chapters on the brain, the heart and blood, the immune system, the lungs, the skeleton, skin and hair, nerves and pain, and conception and birth. I found it interesting that while the author writes from a secular evolutionary perspective, he repeatedly uses the same word over and over to describe human beings: “miracle.” (4, 9, 84, 113, 194, 206, 249, 293, 299)
18. Edison / Edmund Morris
Just when I was feeling pretty productive, I came across the following zinger in this wonderful new biography of the famous inventor Thomas Edison:
“Edison averaged one patent for every ten to twelve days of his adult life. This does not include inventions, such as the X-ray fluoroscope, that he chose to leave patent-free.” (5, #fn 1)
19. Eyes in the Sky: The Secret Rise of Gorgon Stare and How It Will Watch Us All / Arthur Holland Michel
Fallen man apes to be like God. We long for omniscience and omnipresence. We yearn to know all and see all. And technology is the means to this end. C.S. Lewis wisely replied in a letter to Arthur C. Clarke on Dec. 7, 1943: “A race devoted to the increase of its own power by technology with complete indifference to ethics does seem to me a cancer in the universe.” (Letters, 2: 594) Consider, for instance, both the security benefits and the ethical concerns involved in wide-area drone surveillance. “In one exercise off the Scottish coast in 2016, a solitary albatross-sized catapult-launched surveillance drone equipped with a wide-area camera was able to peruse every square inch of an area the size of Wales in just 55 hours.” (91) Before reading this bracing book, I tended to think of drone surveillance as something that happened “over there.”
But Holland Michel makes clear that it’s already happening “over here.” It’s not just some Will Smith conspiracy movie. WAMI (Wide Angle Motion Imagery) and Gorgon Stare allow for something like “closed-circuit television on steroids” across city-sized areas. Earlier versions of this technology had 1,854,296,064 pixels, enough imaging power to spot an object six inches wide from an altitude of 25,000 feet in a frame twice the width of Manhattan.
As astounding as this is, the surveillance capabilities have dramatically improved. But here is the most disturbing Orwellian factoid from this book: the airspace over the United States of America falls into the same legal category as other public spaces like sidewalks, roads, parks, and beaches. Therefore, just as it isn’t illegal to take photographs of private property, or private citizens, from public space, in the same way, we have no expectation of privacy from above.
20. Butcher’s Crossing / John Williams
This may be the best novel I’ve ever read about the American West. Spectacularly written by an author who died as a literary nobody but who is now considered by many to be one of the greatest writers of the last 100 years.
21. Over Sea, Under Stone / Susan Cooper
I’m a latecomer to the “Dark is Rising” series. Apparently they’ve been hugely popular for decades. I’d never even heard of these stories prior to their re-release earlier this year. The opening tale is wonderful. English children, on holiday in Cornwall, discover an ancient treasure map in a secret room hidden behind a wardrobe. Mysterious enemies lurk about, waiting to steal what the three Drew children are seeking: clues from the map that could lead them to King Arthur’s grail.
This story has it all: a glorious setting, a frightening villain, a strong emphasis on the good triumphing over the evil through sacrifice, prophecy and mystery, pain and loss, boys acting bravely, girls acting brilliantly, adventure galore, and old manuscripts written in Latin translated below by an Indiana Jones-like Uncle:
“The darkness draws toward Cornwall, and the long ships creep to our shore, and the battle is near which must lead to final defeat and the end of all that we have known. No guardian for the grail is left. And to save my life, and the secret of the grail that only its guardian knows, I must flee even as Bedwin the strange knight fled. But in all the land of Logres no haven remains, so that I must cross the sea to the land where, they say, Cornishmen have fled whenever terror comes. But the grail may not leave this land, but must wait the Pendragon, till the day comes. So therefore, I trust it to this land, over sea and under stone, and I mark here the signs by which the proper man in the proper place, may know where it lies: the signs that wax and wane but do not die. The secret of its charge I may not write, but carry unspoken to my grave. Yet the man who finds the grail and has other words from me will know, by both, the secret for himself. And for him is the charge, the promise and the proof, and in his day the Pendragon shall come again. And that day shall see a new Logres, with evil cast out; when the old world shall appear no more than a dream.” (63)
I’m planning on reading the entire series aloud to the Roark kiddos in 2020.
22. Norco ’80 / Peter Houlahan
This book is intense. It’s got guns, and bullets, and Dispensational eschatology, and more guns, and the most spectacular bank robbery in American history. If that sounds like your bag, then have at it.
23. Working / Robert Caro
Last year I devoured Caro’s massive biography of Robert Moses. This year I read this collection of shorter pieces covering his approach to research, his writing process, and his interview tricks of the trade. Caro is a real gem. He’s 84 years old and he’s spent his entire adult life producing incredibly well-written biographies of two powerful, larger-than-life men: Robert Moses and Lyndon B. Johnson. He’s won a Pulitzer Prize and he’s published millions of words. How does he do it?
“When I decided to write a book, I determined to do something to slow myself down, to not write until I had thought things through. That was why I resolved to write my first drafts in longhand, slowest of the various means of committing thoughts to paper, before I started doing later drafts on the typewriter; that is why I still do my first few drafts in longhand today; that is why, even now that typewriters have been replaced by computers, I still stick to my Smith-Corona Electra 210. And yet, even thus slowed down, I still, when I’m writing, set myself the goal of a minimum of a thousand words a day, and, as a chart I keep on my closet door attests, most days meet it.” (xii)
I love his advice about interviewing others:
“Silence is the weapon, silence and people’s need to fill it– as long as the person isn’t you, the interviewer. Two of fiction’s greatest interviewers– Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret and John le Carre’s George Smiley– have little devices they use to keep themselves from talking, and let silence do its work. Maigret cleans his ever-present pipe, tapping it gently on his desk and then scraping it out until the witness breaks down and talks. Smiley takes off his eyeglsses and polishes them with the thick end of his necktie. As for myself, I have less class. When I’m waiting for the person I’m interviewing to break a silence by giving me a piece of information I want, I write ‘SU’ (for Shut Up!) in my notebook. If anyone were ever to look through my notebooks, he would find a lot of ‘SUs’ there.” (137)
24. Digital Minimalism / Cal Newport
I was helped a bunch by Newport’s previous book Deep Work. It caused me to reevaluate how I structure my work week. As the title indicates, the main thrust of Newport’s newest book is this: the key to thriving in our high-tech world is to spend much less time using technology. “Less can be more in our relationship with digital tools.” (xv) Newport helped me reconsider how I use my iPhone. As a result my smartphone has been kind of a dumbphone for quite a while. No Internet, no social media. I use my phone the following activities: calls, texts, maps, and audio (music/podcasts/books). “Declaring freedom from your smartphone is probably the most serious step you can take toward embracing the attention resistance. This follows because smartphones are the preferred Trojan horse of the digital attention economy.” (246) This would be a fantastic book to pick up and read in January and prayerfully consider how 2020 might be a different kind of year, with more time spent with people and enjoying God’s creation, and less time staring at screens.
My Final 12:
25. The Ten Commandments / Thomas Watson
I preached through Exodus this year and we spent several weeks working through the Ten Commandments as a church. Thomas Watson was at my side all the way. I’ve said before that Watson is by far the most Tweetable of all the Puritans. His comments on the Ten Words didn’t disappoint. Here’s a snippet of his thoughts on the prologue to the Decalogue (Ex. 20:1-2):
“Great was the work of creation, but greater was the work of redemption. Great wisdom was seen in making us,—but more miraculous wisdom in saving us. Great power was seen in bringing us out of nothing,—but greater power in helping us when we were worse than nothing. It cost more to redeem us than to create us. In the creation there was but ‘speaking a word,’ (Ps. 148:5). In the redeeming us, there was shedding of blood (1 Pet. 1:19). The creation was the work of God’s fingers (Ps. 8:3); redemption was the work of His arm (Luke 1:5). In the creation, God gave us ourselves; in the redemption, He gave us Himself. By creation, we have a life in Adam; by redemption, we have a life in Christ (Col. 3:3). By creation, we had a right to an earthly paradise; by redemption, we have a title to an heavenly kingdom.” (96)
26. Atomic Habits / James Clear
I’ll revisit this book again and again. Clear explains how habits form, how to kill bad habits, and how to cultivate good ones.
“All big things come from small beginnings. The seed of every habit is a single, tiny decision. But as that decision is repeated, a habit sprouts and grows stronger. Roots entrench themselves and branches grow. The task of breaking a bad habit is like uprooting a powerful oak within us. And the task of building a good habit is like cultivating a delicate flower one day at a time.” (22)
27. Before You Open Your Bible / Matt Smethurst
Reading this book will help you read the Book. I’ve recently given away dozens of copies of this jewel to members of our church as a way of encouraging prayerful, faithful, careful, and joyful Bible reading in 2020.
“Until Jesus splits the skies in blazing glory and our faith becomes sight, we must live in the age of the ear as we await the age of the eye. So ‘for now,’ Augustine said sixteen centuries ago, ‘treat the Scripture of God as the face of God. Melt in its presence.’ And as Spurgeon put it, ‘To me the Bible is not God, but it is God’s voice, and I do not hear it without awe.’ Your Bible is a bottomless treasure chest of beauty and wonder, strength and joy. May you approach it for the rest of your days as if that’s true, because it is.” (79)
28. Piercing Heaven: Prayers of the Puritans / Robert Elmer
I received my first copy of The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers and Devotions nearly twenty years ago. It has been a constant companion ever since. I’ve wondered if anyone was going to get around to publishing some more Puritan. This new volume of prayers is a feast. Warm-hearted, Scriptural, and ardent.
29. Dark Clouds Deep Mercy / Mark Vroegop
I was taught the ACTS model of prayer as a new believer: adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication. It wasn’t until years later that I discovered how much of the Bible, especially the Psalms, speaks in the language of lament. One-third of the prayers in the Psalms are prayers of lament. After the loss of a stillborn daughter, Mark Vroegop and his wife found solace in these Scriptures. “The Bible gave voice to my pain and I discovered a minor-key language for my suffering: lament.” (17) Vroegop walks through several Psalms of lament (77, 10, 22, and 13) and provides examples of pastoral prayers of lament that serve as models for corporate prayer.
“Lament stands in the gap between pain and promise.” (26)
“Lament is a prayer in pain that leads to trust.” (28)“Pain has a way of awakening us to our need for God’s help.” (60)
“Hope springs from truth rehearsed.” (119)
“Lament helps us interpret pain through the lens of God’s character and his ultimate mercy. The power of lament is the opportunity to express our sorrow we feel while also anchoring our hearts in the truth we believe.” (119)
“Lament is the language of a people who know the whole story—the gospel story” (150).
This book is a helpful guide to voice our laments to the Lord until that glorious day comes when sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
30. The Creaking On The Stairs / Mez McConnell
One of the reasons to lament is because of the pervasiveness of child abuse in this fallen world. In The Creaking on the Stairs, Mez shares not only about the abuse he endured as a child at the hands of his own mother but he also powerfully shares the good news of Jesus Christ.
“I am conflicted even further when I think about my own family today, almost three decades after she beat me for the last time. My wife of 20 years lies next to me soundly sleeping. My teenage girls are in their rooms. Because of the scars of my childhood, they have never known violence in our home. Because of the horrors of my pain, they have never known cigarette burns on pale, skinny arms. Because of the nightmare of systematic abuse I faced, they have never spent endless lonely nights in locked cupboards without food and clothing. Because of my shame, they have never known the horrors of being stripped and mocked in front of drunken strangers. Because of my humiliations, they have never known hunger so deep they’ve been forced to eat their own faeces. Because of the extreme violence of my upbringing, they’ve never been beaten with poles and sticks. Because of the trauma of my childhood, they’ve never been knocked unconscious for failing to wash a dish properly. Ironically, because of ‘her’, my own children have never known the horrors of deeply psychological and traumatic abuse. Of course, there is another reason they have never known and experienced these things. They’ve never known these things because I know Jesus.”
Rosaria Butterfield puts it well: “This is the most disturbing book that I have ever read. And I cannot recommend it highly enough.”
31. Mystic River / Dennis Lehane
No novel troubled me more in 2019 than this one. It’s a tragic story that is beyond sad. Lehane writes in the minor key but he makes it all sound so beautiful.
“When Garret Anderson blooped a dying sigh of a single into shallow right and ended Pedro’s bid for a no-hitter, any excitement that had been left in the 8-0 game floated out past the bleachers, and Dave found himself paying more attention to the lights and the fans and Anaheim Stadium itself than to the actual game. He watched the faces in the bleachers most—the disgust and defeated fatigue, the fans looking like they were taking the loss more personally than the guys in the dugout. And maybe they were. For some of them, Dave figured, this was the only game they’d attend this year. They’d brought the kids, the wife, walked out of their homes into the early California evening with coolers for the tailgate party and five thirty-dollar tickets so they could sit in the cheap seats and put twenty-five-dollar caps on their kids’ heads, eat six-dollar rat burgers and $4.50 hot dogs, watered-down Pepsi and sticky ice cream bars that melted into the hairs of their wrists. They came to be elated and uplifted, Dave knew, raised up out of their lives by the rare spectacle of victory. That’s why arenas and ballparks felt like cathedrals—buzzing with light and murmured prayers and forty thousand hearts all beating the drum of the same collective hope. Win for me. Win for my kids. Win for my marriage so I can carry your winning back to the car with me and sit in the glow of it with my family as we drive back toward our otherwise winless lives. Win for me. Win. Win. Win. But when the team lost, that collective hope crumbled into shards and any illusion of unity you’d felt with your fellow parishioners went with it. Your team had failed you and served only to remind you that usually when you tried, you lost. When you hoped, hope died. And you sat there in the debris of cellophane wrappers and popcorn and soft, soggy drink cups, dumped back into the numb wreckage of your life, facing a long dark walk back through a long dark parking lot with hordes of drunk, angry strangers, a silent wife tallying up your latest failure, and three cranky kids. All so you could get in your car and drive back to your home, the very place from which this cathedral had promised to transport you.” (50-51)
This book isn’t for the faint of heart. But Lehane shows in vivid relief more than any novel I’ve ever read the haunting and lasting effects of the abuse of authority, especially the abuse of a child.
“I will come home to you, Celeste. We will make that good life. We will. And then, I promise, no more lies. No more secrets. But I think I need to tell this one last lie, the worst lie of my lying life, because I can’t tell the worst truth of my life.” (365)
32. The Moon Is Always Round / Jonathan Gibson
This was not only the best children’s book I read all year; it’s one of the best children’s books I’ve ever read. How do you teach your children about the goodness of God when you walk with them through the valley of the shadow of death? You show them that just as the moon is always round, our God is always good. What a truth to believe and to pass along to our children.
P.S.: Andrew Wilson’s Sophie and the Heidelberg Cat is also spectacular!
33. Superheroes Can’t Save You / Todd Miles
I imagine most of the folks in our congregations, especially our young people, wouldn’t have a clue how to articulate the dangers of docetism, liberalism, modalism, Arianism, adoptionism, Apollinarianism, or Eutychianism. In fact, most pastors I know couldn’t explain all of these aberrant teachings and ancient Christological heresies. But I bet lots of us could say a thing or two about Superman, Batman, Ant-Man, Thor, Green Lantern, Hulk, and Spider-Man.
Enter Todd Miles. He used to be a nuclear scientist, but now he’s a theology professor at Western Seminary in Portland. He loves Jesus and His Word and he’s had a lifelong passion for comic books. In this book, he takes the superheroes that we know and uses them as a way of explaining false understandings of who Jesus is. It’s brilliant. It’s like Chalcedon meets Marvel.
“We all need and want a Savior– a hero who will deliver us. I believe this is why the superhero comics, movies, and television shows are so popular. There is something inside each one of us that years for a champion to rise up and deliver us.
Jesus is only able to do all the things that the Bible says He does because He is everything that the Bible says He is. The Bible testifies to the full humanity and full deity of Jesus. Jesus had to possess true and authentic human and divine natures in order to fulfill biblical prophecy, save a people for God, and then see that people through to the new heavens and new earth. No run-of-the-mill savior could do all that—not the greatest of real human heroes, not even the best creations of our most imaginative comic writers.
Unlike Superman, Jesus, the Son of God, did not just seem to be human. Jesus actually is human in every respect that it takes to be authentically human.
Unlike Batman, Jesus, the Son of Man, is more than a remarkable human. He is in fact fully God, sharing the divine essence equally and eternally with God the Father and the Holy Spirit.
Unlike Hank Pym, and his alter egos, Ant-Man, GiantMan, and Yellowjacket, God exists simultaneously as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the three coequal and coeternal members of the Trinity. Jesus could and did interact with both the Father and the Holy Spirit.
Unlike Thor, a god but inferior to his father, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is not just a god. He is fully equal to God the Father. All that it takes to be God is found in the person of Jesus Christ.
Unlike Green Lantern, a mere man empowered by a ring, Jesus Christ is not a mere man empowered by the Holy Spirit. Jesus depended on the Holy Spirit throughout His life and ministry, but it was not because of anything He lacked in and of Himself. The Son possesses all the attributes of deity, fully and completely; He always has and always will.
Unlike Bruce Banner, who is overwhelmed by the Hulk upon transformation, Jesus Christ at all times possesses all that it takes to make Him authentically human, and His divine nature does not overwhelm or trivialize any of those essential human attributes.
And unlike Spider-Man, who is a bizarre combination of human and spider, Jesus Christ has a divine nature and a human nature, not a weird hybrid of the two. His humanity is not mixed into His deity.
Because Jesus Christ is all these things, we have found that He is able to reign as: King of kings, save us from sin, pioneer our resurrection, serve as our example and help in temptation, be our great High Priest, establish us as his coheirs, and much, much more.” (176-178)
34. Recursion / Blake Crouch
Crouch seems unable to write a boring tale. His previous book was a mind-bender. His latest is a rip-roaring, sci-fi, time travel story. It’s a fun beach-read kind of a book and for me it was unputdownable.
35. Ordinary Grace / William Kent Krueger
The final novel I read in 2019 was one of the best. It reminded me of a short story by Stephen King entitled “The Body.” There are many unforgettable scenes, but my favorite took place at a funeral:
My father drove the Packard to the cemetery which was set on a hill on the east side of town. The hole was already dug and Gus was waiting and Sheriff Gregor was there though I didn’t know why and moments after we arrived Mr. van der Waal drove up in the hearse and my father and Gus and the sheriff and the mortician slid the coffin from the back. It was a simple box of pine planed and sanded smooth and it had no handles. The men lifted and carried it on their shoulders to the grave. They laid it on wooden two-by-fours that Gus had arranged across the opening along with canvas straps for the eventual lowering into the earth. Then the men stood back and I with them and my father opened his Bible.
It seemed to me a good day to be dead and by that I mean that if the dead cared no more about the worries they’d shouldered in life and could lie back and enjoy the best of what God had created it was a day for exactly such. The air was warm and still and the grass of the cemetery which Gus kept watered and clipped was soft green and the river that reflected the sky was a long ribbon of blue silk and I thought that when I died this was the place exactly I would want to lie and this was the scene that forever I would want to look upon. And I thought that it was strange that a resting place so kingly had been given to a man who had nothing and about whom we knew so little that even his name was a mystery. And though I didn’t know at all and still do not the truth of the arrangement, I suspected that it was somehow my father’s doing. My father and his great embracing heart.
He read the Twenty-Third Psalm and then he read from Romans ending with: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
He closed the book and said, “We believe too often that on the roads we walk we walk alone. Which is never true. Even this man who is unknown to us was known to God and God was his constant companion. God never promised us an easy life. He never promised that we wouldn’t suffer, that we wouldn’t feel despair and loneliness and confusion and desperation. What he did promise was that in our suffering we would never be alone. And though we may sometimes make ourselves blind and deaf to his presence he is beside us and around us and within us always. We are never separated from his love. And he promised us something else, the most important promise of all. That there would be surcease. That there would be an end to our pain and our suffering and our loneliness, that we would be with him and know him, and this would be heaven. This man, who in life may have felt utterly alone, feels alone no more. This man, whose life may have been days and nights of endless waiting, is waiting no more. He is where God always knew he would be, in a place prepared. And for this we rejoice.”
My father led us in the Lord’s Prayer and we stood in silence for a few moments staring down at the simple coffin which was pale yellow against the black of the hole beneath. And then my father said something that amazed me. He said, “It’s a good day to be dead.” Which were almost the exact words I’d been thinking. And he said, “Let this man in this place of beauty rest forever in peace.” Which was also very nearly what I’d been thinking. (70-71)
36. The Complete Poetical Works of James Thomson, Vol. 1 / James Thomson
James Thomson (1700–1748) has become one of my favorite poets but I’ve only read one of his poems. I spent the whole year, season by season, meandering slowly but surely through the 5,500 lines (!) of his epic poem about the seasons creatively entitled, “The Seasons.” It’s incredible. But you don’t have to take my word for it. Below you’ll find Thomson’s wonderful description of the One who is the Author of all seasons, the One who is the Lord of the summer, the One who is light Himself:
Now may the God of peace grant you perfect peace, and living hope, and glorious grace, and steadfast love with faith, through Jesus Christ our Lord, until the day breaks and the shadows flee away.
As always, happy reading and Happy New Year!