My Favorite Books of 2022

This is, perhaps, the deepest and most satisfying book I read all year. Wiman, an award-winning poet, weaves reflections on life, suffering, meaning, and faith through his own brush with death, suffering through bone cancer. As an adult convert, he grapples with skepticism in a profoundly authentic way, delivering insights like:

“To admit that there may be some psychological need informing your return to faith does not preclude or diminish the spiritual im-perative, any more than acknowledging the chemical aspects of sexual attraction lessens the mystery of enduring human love.”

His poetic prose and deep insight drew me back to previously read pages, just to soak in their insights. My church heard quite a few quotes from Wiman this year!

This novel was a slog in McCarthy’s diatribes on mathematical and scientific theories. Apparently, he’s been living with a community of mathematicians in recent years. But everything else is golden. He’s at his best describing nature, reaching down into the soul to awaken wonder over Texas oil fields and rural dwellings.

But the storyline is intriguing. A salvage diver is implicated in the mystery of a missing passenger from submerged wreckage of a plane crash. But Bobby has even deeper internal problems. He’s plagued with guilt over his genius sister’s suicide, which surfaces over and over again as a prism through which to peer into the meaninglessness or meaning of life.

The title sounds pretentious, I know, but it’s really about engaging in a spiritually rich, personally virtuous, intellectually vibrant vocation. I’ve read the preface two times, which is worth the price of the book. It’s packed with aphoristic insight like, “At the bottom of the fear of God is the fear of self.” And, “Great men aren’t more ambitious; they are more obedient, and listen to the Sovereign voice.”

This Catholic intellectual writes as a priest and moral philosopher, but with a practical orientation. He wants to help his readers take practical steps in living a full, meaningful, reasonable, and vocationally rich life.

I’ve read four or five of Crouch’s books. I loved Black Matter, Recursion not so much, but Upgrade is great. It’s about a gene cop who investigates illegal gene editing and ends up getting delivered a gene package that enhances his intelligence, speed, strength (think Jason Bourne), which helps him solve the crime.

As an avid U2 fan, I was skeptical about this book. A cash grab? Hardly. I have the hard copy and the audiobook. The latter is truly unique, interspersed with new renditions of old songs, great sound effects, and Bono’s Irish accent. I was struck by Bono’s self-awareness, whether it’s his ego or the way his family and sufferings have shaped his career. After learning about his father’s love for opera and the arts, as a blue collar Dub, I struck up a conversation with my own father, to thank him for spontaneously playing the piano in our home, and frequently blasting our adolescent years with classical music.

The subtitle is a stretch but its a great take on the dwelling place of God. Volf & McAnnally-Linz trace the biblical theme from Genesis to Revelation, while engaging with our broken and aspirational concepts of home as a society. The theological and sociological reflection is grounded in Scripture, and Volf offers some great turns of phrases like new creation being a “planetary enactment of the gospel.” It charged my imagination while preaching through Revelation.

I’m trying to read everything Kierkegaard has written. It’s a slow but rewarding process. This volume contains the famous, “The Purity of Heart to Will One Thing,” which inspires the reader shave down excess and focus your life on devotion to God. However, it’s his reflection s on prayer that have truly stirred me lately: “A man does not become wise by reading many books but through prayer.” Why is prayer instrumental in obtaining wisdom? Because it’s before the face of God that we uncover insights about ourselves and him, that we rarely uncover any place else. Prayer insight also sticks better.

Here are my remaining top books for the year:

 

 

Emotional Challenges in Closing a Church

Since announcing the close of City Life Church, emotions swirl through my heart daily. The regular customers are sadness, relief, celebration.

Sadness

I will no longer be church family with these precious people. What we have here is unique, without flash, but simple and biblical–brothers and sisters meaningfully and lovingly engaged in one another’s lives. A hunger for the word of God. Compassion for those around us. Grace flowing freely through the congregation. While this is a new beginning for all of us, it comes as the result of an ending. Endings call for grief over what’s lost.

The weeks following the announcement, elders met with people whose tears expressed their feelings about this ending. Others, understandably expressed frustration: “This is one of the healthiest churches I have ever been a part of. Why would God want it to close?”

City Groups created space for people to express how they were feeling. I told my City Group not to hold back, and they didn’t. One member shared that he had turned down a new job, in part, because they didnt want to leave the church. Another couple shared that, after a year they feel so closely knit to us they can’t imagine giving that up. Although it’s difficult to share and hear these things, it’s also honest. No pretending necessary. And in the honesty of grief, we have ministered to one another with truth and grace.

Relief

Once I knew God was calling me away from the church, it became very difficult to keep that bottled up while counseling, preaching, and leading others. Now we all know what God is doing, and expectations can adjust. Of course, there are different ways to adjust. Some leave immediately. Others choose to lean in. Some say goodbye with encouraging words and prayers. Others say good luck. Many don’t know what to say, and on occasion that includes me. Who  should I set up meetings with? How do I pastor people well to the end? How should application change in my sermons?

Yet, transitional space is a discipleship place. It is formative, either toward Christ or away from Christ. With just six weeks left as a church, how should we respond? My wife shared her hope for the church was like a child eating Halloween candy. The trickotreater plows through the bag of candy until they get to the last few pieces. Then, they slow down to savor each bite. Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone savored our final weeks together? To reflect on God’s grace to us through the church, how we have changed, what we will miss.

Many are doing just that. But some will not. They are not inferior family members. Change is hard for all of us. Some cope with solutions, some with slow withdraw, and others with savoring. After Jesus’ crucifixion, many of his disciples hid in a room, afraid of Roman and Jewish backlash. Others prayed. Some ran to the empty tomb. We all deal with loss in different ways. But Jesus appeared to all of them. He will continue to appear to each one of us.

Celebration

Endings are a time for reflection: the loss of a loved one, a big move, kids going off to college, and the end of a church. To help us reflect well and cherish what God has given us, my wife came up with a weekly question for our City Groups. They have stirred up good memories, gratitude, and even praise. A few examples:

  • Tell us how you found City LIfe church?
  • What have you learned about the gospel here?
  • What do you love about your City Group?

We will reflect and celebrate much more in the weeks to come. We are throwing a party, and many former members are coming back to celebrate with us. While every church has a sunset, there is no dusk for the glory of Christ. May we go out pointing to the Light.

How I Discerned a New Calling

The decision to retire as lead pastor of City Life Church wasn’t my decision; it included numerous voices. Because the decision would impact people beyond me, I took deliberate steps to evaluate my motives and sense of call.

Clarity from God

Many things influence a pastors’s doubt of calling. A bad Sunday can send a pastor reeling: a scathing critique of his sermon, conflict with staff members, a persistent void of encouragement, low church attendance, menacing self-doubt, and Satanic accusation. While these are not adequate reasons to abandon a call, they can pile up over a time and break a pastor’s spirit. Forty-three percent church leaders certainly thought so in 2021.

I hit an emotional breaking point at the end of 2021 and had to take a couple months off to process the pain and difficulty of the prior two to three years. However, because I knew I’d be tempted to return and announce my resignation, I removed that option from my mind. Instead, I focused on seeking God through lament, restoration, and renewal. It was a tear-filled yet transformative time. In fact, it put me in a great place to return rested and lead my church in lamenting their own sorrows and sufferings. Clarity from God clarified the needs of others.

After leading the church through that season, I noticed an increased interest in helping pastors and a diminished vision for my own church. I asked the Lord to provide vision for our church. We had been kicked out of our downtown building, where we gathered for a decade. We were a gospel-centered, city-renewing church, but we found ourselves north of downtown, in a neighborhood, meeting at 4pm in the afternoons. While it was a soft place to land, it didn’t fit our vision to renew cities socially, spiritually, and culturally with the gospel of Jesus.

That vision never returned. While I still believe in it, I feel led to champion it in others. I found myself disinterested in urban apologetics, and drawn to counseling pastors through their own challenges. I was reluctant to return to the city centre, and yet city-renewing vision had fueled me for sixteen years! I met a mentor at Walton’s, a deli/flowershop owned by Sandra Bullock. When David plopped down in his seat, he asked me: “Where are you going to be in ten years?” Shocked by his opener, I paused for a minute then, without hesitation said, “Writing, teaching, and mentoring pastors somewhere.” It became clear God was moving me in a new direction.

Confirmation from Mentors

As I pressed into this sense of call, I asked my mentors for feedback. I wanted to know if they thought my sense of call was misguided, or if I had unhealthy motivations. They were able to look at my history of ministry, personal gifting, and spiritual health to evaluate if I am suited for this new call. Here are some of the questions they asked me.

  • Are you running from something or called to something else? If you’re running from pain, unresolved grief and bitterness will follow you into your next job.
  • Will the church be better or worse when you leave? Did you give it your best? Strive to leave your church with godly leadership, healthy, gospel culture, reconciled relationships, and a decent budget.
  • What is the Spirit (not the flesh) saying? Do you need some counseling before making such a big decision? Heed the adage, “Never quit on a bad day.”

Pastor, you can finish but don’t quit. A quitter leaves things undone and unresolved, but a finisher sees things through to the end. A finisher wrestles these questions, seeks the input of others, and puts the welfare of the church above his own interest. A finisher listens to the Holy Spirit, and is willing to wait until he or she has clarity from God. A finisher seeks confirmation of the call from trusted mentors and spiritual guides. A quitter throws caution to the wind and follows feeling. A finisher leads by faith and with character.

Affirmation of Elders

This final step was the most important. I wanted our elders input. Although it would be difficult for them to hear, and hard to share, I knew I had to tell them what I sensed God doing. I needed to explain it throughly and wait for a response. This is difficult when if you have clarity. When your heart starts migrating to a new place, it can be difficult to slow it down. But it’s important to remember they haven’t been processing this for months like you have. They haven’t exhausted the options, weighed the pros and cons, or considered the implications of your new call.

Perhaps the best thing I did was to process most the above with them in real time. I did not seal myself off from their counsel, questions, or support. They were instrumental in my healing, renewal, and discernment. They too sensed an increased focus on ministry to pastors, so the new calling wasn’t a shock. But it was still difficult.

My certainty was hard to hear, yet they celebrated the call and saw the fruit in my ministry. The following week, I felt like I’d been run over by an eighteen-wheeler. I had opened a door that had been closed for sixteen years. I lacked motivation to minister, write a sermon, and do even light work. Questions came flooding in: What will the church do? When should this happen? What will it look like? Will I have income for the family next year? How will this marriage do, and that single persevere, and that community group take it?

Then God spoke: “The Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd. He will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe every tear from their eyes” (Revelation 7:17). I could trust the Lamb, their true shepherd, to guide them into flourishing and comfort them in sorrow.

 

*I address the difference between finishing and quitting in The Unwavering Pastor.

 

Ending Our Church, Beginning a New Call

I didn’t start a church to end a church, but yesterday the elders of City Life Church announced the end of our chapter in the grand, Gospel story. On December 18, 2022 we will gather for the final time as City Life Church. It’s strange to type those words, like downing a discomforting elixir that brings relief.

Several months ago it became clear that God was calling me into a different season of ministry—one dedicated to writing, teaching, and mentoring pastors. I’m truly excited about it. However, living in the tension between the joy of the call and its secrecy has been difficult. It’s hard to shepherd people you love, knowing you won’t be their pastor in a matter of months.

I kept thinking, “I won’t be here for their marriage, their next step, their spiritual needs.” But Jesus will. Always. It was never about me meeting their needs, but pointing them to him. Wanting to love the flock well—to finish not quit—I doubled down on my pastoral responsibilities.

I currently don’t know how this calling will crystalize. It is a step of faith and obedience for our family. However, I’ve been comforted by the frequent affirmation of this call from friends, mentors, and even church members.

Our elders responded to the call by saying: “Yes, we see this ministry already present in you, and the joy you receive from it, but we will miss you.” Yesterday a church member said, “We sensed the Holy Spirit telling us you were released from this role, even before you shared it.” “You’re going to be a teacher of teachers?—mind-blow emoji—I’ve learned so much from you.” I cherish these affirmations, especially from my church family.

And yet, there are tears. When I planted City Life with a group of nine people, I fell in love with the church all over again. I have experienced church as a family, something I hadn’t known deeply despite the many good churches I’ve been a part of. As with any family, we’ve gone through all kinds of seasons: the joy of new births, grief in deaths; praying for the kids and learning from the kids; staggering maturity, growing pains; the thrill of mission and perseverance in the plateaus; deep personal pain and ecstatic corporate joy.

And it was all worth it, every single bit, because the Lord of the family is worth it. He has pastored us so faithfully and delicately, through the desert and up the mountain. I love you, City Life. It has been an immense privilege to be your pastor. It’s hard to conceive of a life without you; it’s been almost two decades of our lives. But the great Shepherd has you, as he always has. There’s much more to share, and I hope to post more frequently as I continue to reflect on what God has done, is doing, and will do.