Top Reads of 2018 - Part 2
You came back. Thanks. Here’s the second instalment of the Top 10 Reads of 2018. The first 5 are here, just in case you missed it. These are books that I’ve read over the past year that have impacted me so much I feel the need to share them with you. So let’s jump right in.
I found The Restoration Project: A Benedictine Path to Wisdom, Strength, and Love, by Christopher H. Martin on the shelf at a Value Village, and I am so glad that I did. It was one of those $3.00 books that seemed like a small financial risk and since I think Benedict had some valuable things to say I made the investment. It’s a short book and a quick and easy read, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t important. The book is written as a foundational document for what is called, not surprisingly, the Restoration Project. It’s a loose structure developed by Christopher Martin centred around discipleship groups that seek to help people actually be transformed by Christ into His image, moving beyond just knowledge of Christianity and Theology to a practical outworking of what it means to live as a follower of Jesus. You can find out more about this project at http://www.therestorationproject.net.
The book gives the underlying philosophy of the project. It’s based around ideas taken from the Rule of St. Benedict, more specifically what Benedict called the “12 Steps of Humility”. But the heart of the book, and what was so helpful to me, was the way the author introduced the concepts in a way that called me to a deeper surrender to Jesus while giving me some practical steps to walk that out. He also gives a visual metaphor from the book (hint - check out the cover) that I have found very helpful in understanding the process whereby the Holy Spirit restores us into the image of Christ. I could tell you more, but then you might miss out on reading it for yourself.
Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World - Cal Newport. My good friend Erv Klassen pointed me in the direction of this book. It was early January last year and as I was reflecting on what I wanted to change as I entered 2018, it was perfect timing. In a nutshell, Cal Newport is addressing the need to live productively. He says the best way to be more efficient and productive is to make sure that you are allowing yourself time for “deep work”. This is in contrast to what he calls (not surprisingly) “shallow work”. He defines them for us.
Newport offers so much in this book you really have to read it. He covers fascinating ideas such as “attention residue” (how your brain struggles to constantly shift from one focus to another), the fact that deep work is a skill that needs to be developed (it doesn’t just happen), the danger and ubiquitous nature of distraction in our world today (email, cell phones, social media, “notifications”), and the need to find the “wildly important” priority for your life and commit yourself to doing it. I loved this book, and it’s implications are still working their way through my thinking and actions. It has reshaped my calendar, and was the impetus that gave birth to this website. So if you feel your life is floating around with no clear direction, check out this book.
Intimacy with God: An Introduction to Centering Prayer - Thomas Keating. I share this book with a little fear and trepidation because if you google Thomas Keating you will find a huge diversity of opinion on the web. If you’d like to spend some time doing that, feel free to go right ahead, but let me tell you that means you will be spending more time in shallow work than in deep work. There are things which Keating says and writes that I disagree with to be sure (there is a chapter on the rosary - not something I have bought into), but this book, and the practice of Centering Prayer which it teaches, have been an incredible help to me in seeking to live in a relationship with Jesus at a heart level on a daily basis instead of merely learning about Jesus and running a religious organization.
Let me tell you my own personal experience of praying in this way. The heart of this method of prayer is a quieting of myself and an intentional focus on being in the presence of God. Not thinking about God, but being with God. It’s not a blanking of the mind (like it Transcendental or Eastern meditation - that’s one thing Keating is wrongly accused of) but an intentional focusing of the mind on the reality of being in the presence of God. This is a theological fact and one that we clearly believe due to the presence of the Holy Spirit in all believers. As I have prayed this way over the past 3-4 years what I have grown to realize is that there is a “me” that is deeper than what I do for God or what I think about God. I have become more aware of His presence at that level. This has flowed over into my whole day as I can sense (sometimes) a growing awareness of God in all the events of my day. I spoke about it in a class I taught last Sunday, comparing it to people who watch basketball and “know all about the game and what the coaches and player should be doing” as opposed to the people actually playing the game. The players and coaches know the game in a different and deeper way because they are experiencing it. In the same way, this prayer practice (one of many ways I pray) has helped me to better engage Jesus relationally and not just as a spectator in regards to what He is doing. So, criticize Keating if you must, but I would encourage you to take a look at what He is saying. In the words of an old high school friend, Richard Isaacs, “When you read a book have the sense of a jackass. Eat the hay and leave the sticks.”
You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit - James. K. A. Smith. James Smith is the only writer who makes my top 10 twice. That either says something about him or about me. I’ll let you decide. This book is a challenging read, but one that is so important, especially the first several chapters. Smith’s basic point is that our knowledge doesn’t drive the choices that we make. We all know this, because we all have known something that was the right thing to do, and not been able to do it. His premise is that what we love is what drives our choices. That our hearts are the magnets that drive our actions. The issue then becomes answering the question, “What is it that I actually love?” Smith says that the challenge is that you might not love what you think.
He then very skillfully writes about how the culture around us shapes our “loves” which in turn will shape our actions. He describes and critiques several of what he calls “cultural liturgies” - heart shaping practices - that we go through over and over in our daily lives without even giving them a second thought. The challenge then becomes realizing their impact and instead adopting “liturgies” that shape our loves in ways that are healthy and God centred instead of ways that are destructive and self-centred. The most obvious is the practice of Christian Worship, not just what we often call worship, but the intentional training of our hearts toward God in ways that surrender our desires to His. Smith also goes on to describe what this might look like in the home and at work. I have picked up this book over and over throughout the year and am amazed by how he peels back the layers of my own experience and helps me to see what is going on beneath the surface. There is a good chance that this book will make the top 10 of 2019 as well.
PS - I have 2 copies of You Are What You Love to give away. If you comment on this post (the first 2 commenters) and let me know that you want one I will figure out a way to get it to you.
On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity, and Getting Old - Parker Palmer. I left this book for the end of my list because it is an eloquent gift about endings. Parker Palmer is a Quaker who is known for his contribution to the field of education. His book The Courage To Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher's Life, has been a favourite that I return to over and over. He is now in his eighties and has written a lovely book of reflections on what it means to come to the end of your life on earth. In his own words…
The thing I loved about this book (minus the last chapter, which disappointed me a bit) was that Palmer gives us an example about how to age in a way that receives each day as a gift instead of constantly focusing on the things that we lose as we get older. He blends stories and poems that tug at the hidden layers of our hearts to remind us that life is deeper and more profound that our energy level or ability to produce. Our culture values youth, vitality, and action, all things that dissipate as we grow older. If we aren’t careful we allow our culture to dictate our value and end up feeling like there is nothing left for us in our later years. Through his words, Palmer takes his place as a signpost to help us be thankful for each breath, to realize that our culture is far from wise in its definitions of value, and that the deepening ability to live in relationship with God, with each other, and with creation, is a gift that takes many years to fully open and enjoy. It’s a good read, and one that will make you smile at your own inadequacies. It will help you take yourself and the weight of self-expectation a little less seriously. At the risk of being cliche, he reminds us to stop and smell the roses all along the way. That’s a gift we all need from time to time.