Six Books That Challenged & Inspired Me in 2019

Ever since being in Liberia, the amount of reading that I do each year has increased exponentially. There’s not a lot to do after it gets dark at 6:30 pm each day, but I’ve found so much joy in reading over the past few years that I figured I would share some of my top picks from 2019. Maybe you will see one that you want to check out or maybe it will make a good gift idea for someone on your list. Here they are:

The 3D Gosepl: Ministry in Guilt, Fear, and Shame Cultures. By Jason Georges.

This book was recommended to me by a friend here in Liberia. It is a short book and very easy to read. In this book, the author suggests that there are three main types of cultures in the world and that most societies (as well as individuals) tend to resonate closely with one of the three : 1) guilt-innocence, 2) shame-honor, and 3) fear-power. These categories were based on Christian missiologists identification of three common human responses to sin: guilt, shame, and fear. Coming from the US, I’ve always heard the goodness of gospel presented to me in terms of  “forgiveness of sins” and “being made innocent or washed clean again.” In coming to Liberia I’ve found that the culture here places much less emphasis on guilt/innocence, and a lot more on these ideas of fear and power instead (secret societies, politics, juju, etc). In reading this book, I came to see the gospel in a whole new light and it indeed began to take on more dimensions and depth than I had originally seen. There are so many verses about fear, power, shame, and honor that for the most part I have just been skimming over, but these might actually be the verses that my friends need to hear because they relate so much more deeply to their own cultural upbringing and identity. Not only has this book helped me in framing and explaining the gospel within a certain context, it has also helped me to better understand other aspects of God’s character, better rounding out my awareness and appreciation of who He is.  If you don’t have time to read the whole book, you can at least check out the video summary here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n2XNoAFtqOw.  I highly recommend this for anyone who is already involved in or who is interested in sharing the gospel cross-culturally, whether that be on a mission trip to a different country or with your neighbor in your community.

Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People. By Nadia Bolz-Weber 

I don’t know about you, but time and time again when I read the Bible I always unfortunately find myself in the stories about the pharisees. You know, the ones who think they can earn their way into Heaven and are better than everyone else? Yea, that’s me way more than I’d like to admit. I was skeptical when picking out this book because on the cover it said something about how the author was a pastor who cussed (and pharisees definitely don’t like cussing lol) but I also was looking for something new and different, something to challenge me and get me thinking out of the box and this this definitely did the trick. The author Nadia is a hilariously honest story teller who has encountered, befriended, and been transformed by her fair share of “accidental saints”…ie. the types of people the pharisees typically avoided: addicts, prostitutes, terminally/mentally ill, poor, minorities, refugees, etc. Through her stories and her deeply personal inner reflections that exposed her own sins, vulnerabilities, inconsistencies, and needs, I was reminded of just how flawed, desperate, and broken of a sinner I am too. I too am an “accidental saint,” someone whose “saintliness” depends wholly on the GRACE of God and His ability to work through flawed human beings and not at all on my own “goodness” or “power.” This book was full of uncomfortable truths and stories that hit super close to home. It definitely challenged me in ways that I was not expecting  and most of all it reminded me to look for the beauty that can always be found in even the unlikeliest of places and people. “Sometimes the fact that there is nothing about you that makes you the right person to do something is exactly what God is looking for.”

Chasing Francis: A Pilgrim’s Tale. By Ian Morgan Cron 

So apparently this book was completely fictional, and yet the entire time I was reading it I legit thought it was someone’s own account of their pilgrimage throughout Italy. That tells you either how good of a writer this guy is or how gullible I am, take your pick haha! But seriously though, this book is about a pastor of a mega church in the US who ends up getting completely burned out and disillusioned by the modern day church culture in the US. He embarks on a journey throughout Italy, following the life and ministry of the Catholic Saint Francis of Assisi. I never knew much about this saint (or any saints for that matter), but coincidentally I have a necklace with the St. Francis cross that someone gave me right before my move to Liberia. The necklace means so much more to me now that I know the story behind this incredibly fascinating, deeply compassionate, environmentally-minded friar from the 12th century who totally revolutionized the church by simply living his life a different way and inviting others to do the same. In retracing the footsteps of St. Francis, the main character looks back on the church of the Middle Ages and considers how culture has influenced the growth and direction of church over the past few centuries. “The deeper I plunged into the heart of Francis, the  more courage I found to dive into my own. The more I saw his love for the church and the world, the more I inspired I was to follow his lead.” As someone who has often found themselves disillusioned and discouraged by the institution of “the church,” this book breathed new life into me as it made me consider my own flaws, baggage, hurts, and skewed thoughts and how they’ve often gotten in the way of me appreciating and claiming this broken and yet wonderfully beautiful body of people doing their best to share Christ’s love in a complex and hurting world.

Glorious Weakness: Discovering God in All We Lack. By Alia Joy. 

Man, this book. I think I pretty much highlighted every other sentence? I was definitely not expecting to relate to this book in the way I did. When I read books about faith, I’ve in the past tended to learn toward apologetics, logical arguments, and books that help to categorically organize and definitively interpret scripture and God Himself….as you know from my previous blog, I’ve tended to generally want to shy away from the “gray” and emotions and messy things like that. This book was anything but, and yet I found that each time the author dove into another one of her own personal stories of struggle, hurt, and pain, my heart was melting and becoming a whole lot more like flesh and less like stone. This woman, Alia Joy, has been through SO MUCH in her life. I honestly don’t know how she was able to get up each morning and continue to see the goodness of God, her testimony is truly inspiring. She could have cursed God for all that’s gone wrong in her life, but instead she has chosen to embrace the power and strength that God gives in our times of weakness and distress. She has chosen to dig deep into the theology of suffering and in the process has used her glorious weaknesses to  grow closer to the heart of God. Maybe you are going through some hard times and looking for someone to relate to or maybe you are looking for something different to say than “God works everything for good” to your friend who is grieving or suffering through something deeper than you know how to handle. This book will help. Such an amazingly talented author, I cannot recommend it enough!

Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again. By Rachel Held Evans 

I originally picked this book up for a friend, a friend who had shared they had been having a lot of doubts recently in regards to God and how He was or wasn’t working in the world. I had heard this author was well-known for not shying away from difficult truths or conversations and so I was intrigued to read my first book by Rachel Held Evans. In the first chapter she shares, without hesitation, how her faith journey has always been a winding road full of ups and downs, times of belief, and times of immense doubting….mostly doubting actually. My first thought was “Can I even trust her? This lady seems a little too wishy washy for me. Maybe this is not a book I want to share with my doubting friend. I need to find a book about a person with a strong faith and no doubts!” (There’s that pharisee coming out in me again). But I kept reading and I realized that maybe this book wasn’t only for my friend, maybe there was something in it for me too. You see the book explores the stories of the Bible…. stories that, to be honest, are actually really hard to read and explain; stories that our modern day culture tends to gloss over, clean up, or simplify; stories that really make you question what on earth God was thinking and if He is actually who He says He is.  Stories about resistance, doubts, racism, war, rape, deliverance, pain, sin, the church, etc.  It was such an captivating read and opened my eyes to new ways to engage with and interpret the scriptures. There are so many things from the Bible that are not 100% easily resolved, immediately understood, or neatly packaged up into black/white answers. This book helped me to learn to be more OK with that and with just allowing myself to just sit in the presence of God while asking Him for answers/guidance rather than striving to create my own in order to distill and numb my own uncomfortableness with the unknown.  Reading the stories of all the bible characters better helped me to connect better to my own story as I saw myself in so many them. Definitely an thought provoking read that gave me new eyes and heart for the Bible and it’s wide array of characters!

A Hope More Powerful than the Sea. By Doa Al Zamel (faith, war, culture)

If you’re like me, you’ve probably felt a little lost when it comes to understanding the complexities of the Syrian refugee crisis that is still ongoing today. When I came across this book about a young woman about my age and her journey in escaping to a land of safety, I knew I wanted to read it. I had tried reading so many technical news articles about the civil crisis and the refugee boom in Europe, but now there was finally an opportunity to read the personal story of a real life survivor. This book wrecked me….reading about how in one minute she went from living an innocent carefree childhood to the next being a victim in the middle of a war zone. Reading about how she got separated from her family, watched her loved ones die right in front of her, got arrested and abused multiple times on her journey, all just for the chance to just live in peace…oh my gosh, I can’t even imagine. Her story is heart-breakingly beautiful and it captures incredibly well the more human side of the refugee crisis that is continuing to escalate throughout the entire world. It is a perspective that needs to be more wildly shared and considered as we think together about how best to care for and serve our neighbors who are doing their best to restart their lives as they escape from incomprehensible levels of suffering and oppression.

Well that’s my top six books from 2019. Have you ever read any of these books? Does anything look interesting to you? Do you have any recommendations for ones that I need to add to my list for 2020? Let me know in the comments or shoot me an email.

***For a complete list of the other books that I’ve read over the last few years, check out this page on our blog: https://glennsgoglobal.wordpress.com/books/.  I’ve tried to tag each book with a category or two to make it easier to search through.

The Poor Will Always be with You

Every time we open our phones or watch TV or listen to the radio, we are bombarded with the overwhelmingly heavy needs of this world….story after story and image after image of hunger, disease, war, earthquakes, religious persecution, refugees, earthquakes, etc.

SO MUCH poverty.

SO MANY needs.

It can be overwhelming to the point that it feels like the problem is too big and we are too small and that nothing we can do will even make a dent…and so we start to shut down and tune it all out.  Why bother?

After all, didn’t Jesus say something about how the “poor will always be with you?” in Matthew 26? Wasn’t He saying that we should just accept the fact that poverty isn’t going away? That perhaps we shouldn’t worry about it like disciples supposedly were? Is this really what Jesus meant when He said that?

The disciples and Jesus were dining at the home of Simon the Leper and the disciples were indignant when a woman came in and poured an expensive bottle of perfume on Jesus’ head. “Why this waste?….She could have sold it for a fortune and given the money to the poor,” they said. Then Jesus, in responding back to the disciples said something strange: “the poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.” It seems sort of arrogant of Jesus doesn’t it?  Is He saying the poor don’t matter in comparison to Himself? Is He saying we have to pick between loving Him and serving the poor? Is He condoning poverty? These words always confused me….they didn’t seem to quite fit the character of Jesus that I knew.

A couple years ago I read a really interesting sermon by Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis in which she discussed this very topic and it helped me to see things in a whole different light. Jesus is not condoning poverty, rather He was highlighting His role in reducing poverty and rebuking the way the disciples wanted to address the poverty…which in this case was by simply giving money. In saying that “the poor will always be with you” Jesus is referencing Deuteronomy 15:11, a scripture to which the disciples would have immediately made a connection, though many of us today do not.

Duet 15: 11 “There will always be poor people in the land.” Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.” 

Duet 15:4-5 there need be no poor people among you, for in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, He will richly bless you,  if only you fully obey the Lord your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today.

In saying “the poor will always be with you” Jesus is not excusing poverty, far from it.  According to Rev Dr. Liz Theoharis’ sermon, “it is actually one of the strongest statements of the biblical mandate to end poverty. ” If we read deeper, we see that Jesus is pointing the disciples toward what they should be doing to address the poverty. Giving charity to the poor in the form of money, supplies, food, etc is obviously good, even essential. The Bible is full of stories that show us and commands that tell us to give to and provide for the needy, we cannot ignore this as part of our call. However, God also calls for, commands even, for us to do something more… to go a step further…to work toward a total revolution and upending of the systems of injustice that allow poverty to exist in the first place.

In Deuteronomy 15, the Lord is giving the Isrealites the laws regarding the year of Jubilee and reassurance that if His people were to follow these laws, there need be no poor among you. The laws of the Jubilee states that after the end of every 7 years, the captives are set free, creditors must cancel debts, and wealth is distributed evenly among all the people.  The year of Jubilee completely upended and transformed the status quo. This year of Jubilee was a way of highlighting the values of God as well as foreshadowing all that was to come when the Messiah arrived: freedom. It was also perhaps a safety measure that God put into place for their own good, helping them guard against the tendency of the human flesh…to not trust that God would provide, to instead gather and stockpile for themselves, no matter the cost to their fellow people. It was a way to break all chains of oppression that might have formed among the people over time, oppression that inevitably is created when human beings get involved doing things their own way. It was a way to draw them closer to Him in dependence, so that they might know that He was God and that He was good…that He was in control and responsible for providing for ALL of them, not them for themselves.  It was a way for God to clearly demonstrate that in the end, we are all equal in His eyes…there are no rich or poor in His Kingdom. 

Jesus is reminding the disciples that they shouldn’t stop at simply “serving” the poor (ie. selling the perfume and giving money to the poor). He was telling them that it was their responsibility, as it is ours still today, to help break the chains of poverty completely so there are no poor in the land at all.

This seems like a big call, mind-boggling big actually. So what does that even look like? How do we do this as a church and as individuals in ministry? How do we honor God in this? These are some thoughts:

  • First, I think it always has to start with a time of humble self-reflection and prayer as the Body of Christ, asking God to open our eyes and hearts.
    • Have we become apathetic/overwhelmed to the plight of the world’s poor? If so, how and why is that? Why are our hearts not breaking for what breaks His? In our giving, have we unintentionally propped up systems that perpetuate injustice or the poverty cycle? 
  • Secondly, I think it means sharing and calling out on the name of Christ. In 2 Corinth 3:17 it says “Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” People need more than just our good deeds or material gifts, they need to encounter Christ. A transformed life, starts with a transformed heart.
    • What good is it to feed someone’s stomach and leave their soul aching and empty?  Are we pointing people toward Christ’s goodness and love or toward ourselves and our own generosity? As we are sharing our money are we also sharing our testimony? Are we relying on ourselves to do the work or surrendering to God and asking for His help?
  • Thirdly, I think it means an in depth analysis of the complex systems that can lead to poverty, as well as our own part in them. 
    • Have we looked at the various forces, internal and external, that create chains of injustice and oppression in our society? Are we putting band-aid fixes on things rather than doing the hard work of digging deep down to discover the root of the problem? Do we consider that poverty is actually a result of sin, our collective sins as a society and not just one individual’s sins? Do we believe that not every person in poverty has the same story? Do we take the time to listen to each person, to understand each story? 
  • Lastly, I think it means by empowering people with skills/opportunities to escape the cycle of poverty. Equipping people with tangible skills and/or opportunities that allow them to engage in the good works that they were created to do. We, the economically privileged, are not the only ones Jesus created to do good works. Ephesians 2:10 reminds us that “we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”  Each of His children were made for this, every part of the Body has something to contribute to the whole.  
    • How can we help others to be able to work and feel the same pride and dignity that we do when we provide for our own families and our own communities? If it is a blessing to be able to give and not receive, how can I bless others? How can we involve others in the work of bringing God’s Kingdom here on Earth? What gifts has He given to others that the Body needs right now? 

This all seems so simple, and yet it is so messy and complicated. It is so easy to get overwhelmed and want to use Matthew 26:11 as a justification or excuse, rather than as a command to do more.  There is no “one-size-fits-all” method. We cannot judge or chastise those who go about this differently than we do. The beauty is that there are so many ways of doing it, so many different people that need help in so many different situations, so many different opportunities for each of us to be a part in some small way. All we can do is continue to ask ourselves these questions and ask for God’s guidance along the way. This has to start on our knees in prayer. 

Before we pray, we want to leave you with these quotes, one from Martin Luther King and one from Paulo Friere (a Brazilian philosopher and educator), bo :

On the one hand we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice [or system] which produces beggars needs restructuring.” -Martin Luther King Jr, “A Time to Break Silence”

“True generosity consists precisely in fighting to destroy the causes which nourish false charity. False charity constrains the fearful and subdued, the “rejects of life,” to extend their trembling hands. True generosity lies in striving so that these hands–whether of individuals or entire peoples–need be extended less and less in supplication, so that more and more they become human hands which work and, working, transform the world.”― Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed

Gracious God, we come to you humbly asking for your blessings over our church’s or our individual ministries to the poor, both local and foreign. Jesus, you demanded that in everything that we do, we practice holistic development and work that address the spiritual needs of people without neglecting the physical needs and vice versa. We ask for you, Father God to open our eyes, hearts, and minds. We ask for humility and courage and grace. We ask for wisdom and compassion. We ask for unity in working toward meeting the immediate needs as well as ending the cycles and systems that unjustly and unfairly continue to contribute toward holding our brothers and sisters in oppression. We ask that you would give us the desire and the strength to do more, even when it seems daunting. We trust that you will work through us and in spite of us to bring freedom to your people as You reconcile Creation back to Yourself. In Your Son’s Name, Amen.

Note: This contents of this blog originate from a video devotion that Nathan and I did with Freedom Church’s “21 Days of Prayer” series. The link to the original video can be found here: https://www.facebook.com/myfreedom.org/videos/868355873558997/.