My Recent Reading List

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Every months or so, I like to let you (the Internet) know what I’ve been reading with a list and a quick synopsis or two. These aren’t proper reviews, mind you. Just a few sentences about each book and why I enjoyed it.

If you’re interested in the first two installments of this little exercise you can find them here and here. Here’s round three:

A Faith of Our Own by Jonathan Merritt — This book was always going to resonate with me. The author and I are about the same age, and we share several formative experiences related to politics and growing up Southern Baptist. Add to this the fact that A Faith of Our Own made for a timely read in the months leading up to the presidential election, and it’s no surprise that this book was one of my favorites of the year.

My Name Is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok — This is one of those classics I’d somehow missed out on. I struggled with the first quarter of the book, even as Asher struggled to make sense of the tragedies in his family and his artistic compulsion. But once I doubled down on reading My Name Is Asher Lev, I found I couldn’t stop. The story of a boy pulled apart by the irreconcilable differences between his giftedness and his religious community was, for me, both inspiring and heartbreaking.

Resident Aliens by Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon — This book was my first exposure to Hauerwas, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The focus of Resident Aliens is what it means to be the church community — “life in the Christian colony” to use the authors’ phrase. Even decades after this book was published, I found it undeniably relevant.

Sleepwalk With Me by Mike Birbiglia — Birbiglia is a talented comedian and storyteller, and in this memoir he shares his adventures in stand-up comedy, relationships, and sleep disorders. The book is an entertaining mix of hilarity and heart, so much so that Birbiglia teamed up with Ira Glass to make a movie out of it (which I also enjoyed).

Start With Why by Simon Sinek — This is Sinek’s refrain throughout his insightful book: “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” Sinek’s thesis is that great leaders start with WHY they’re going to do something, not WHAT they’re going to do or HOW they’re going to do it. The WHY is what truly moves people. I must say I was challenged and entertained by this book, and it has changed the way I think about communication and leadership.

The Alphabet of Grace by Frederick Buechner — What more is there to say about Buechner’s writing? The man was a genius, a romantic, and a pastor — and equal parts artist and architect at the typewriter, of course. Naturally, this book was deeper than I could handle, but I enjoyed it anyway.

The Crowd, the Critic, and the Muse by Michael Gungor — I find it ironic that one of “Christian” music’s most brilliant artists (Gungor) also seems to be its most reluctant. His first book is a meditation on what it means to create, what it means to relate to our Creator, and what it means to think outside the plastic container of the American Christian subculture. Gungor is both a deep thinker and a gifted writer, so read this book if you make things.

To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity In the Late Modern World by James Davison Hunter — How about that title and subtitle? The heart of this book is to survey modern Christianity’s attempts at changing the world, to evaluate those attempts, and finally, to offer a different path. Hunter is an academic, and you’ll feel that in your reading of this book. But he expertly argues his case, and so this book is worthy of your attention.

Winning the Story Wars by Jonah Sachs — Sachs insists that compelling stories are the way organizations make meaningful connections. He explores this notion in both big-picture, philosophical terms and concrete, applicable terms. And for what it’s worth, Sachs writes from experience in helping organizations tell their stories, so he’s knows that of which he speaks.

After You Believe by N.T. Wright — The great Tom Wright’s take on the importance of character, as well as its development and expression.

This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz — A critically-acclaimed string of short stories about a man’s ongoing romantic failures.

Community Wins by Bryan Allain — A quick, actionable book on building an online community by my friend Bryan.

That’s my list. What’s yours? What should I read in 2013?

(Note: This post contains affiliate links. Because I apparently can’t resist that 6 percent kick-back from Amazon if you buy something. So there.)

I Am The Man You Know I’m Not

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I Am The Man You Know I’m Not — that’s the brilliant and confusing title of my friend Ronnie Fauss‘s debut album. The album is full of what No Depression called “hook-filled twangy tunes” influenced by legends like John Prine, Guy Clark, Steve Earle, and Gram Parsons. I’ve been enjoying this record since it came out a few weeks ago, though I’m admittedly biased.

The songs are alternately raucous, clever, thoughtful, and heart-wrenching — a great combination in my book. And you need more fiddle and pedal steel in your life, don’t you? Of course you do.

I Am The Man You Know I’m Not is available on iTunes and Amazon, so grab it. If you need more convincing, YouTube has you covered:

Like I said, grab it.

I Wrote Some Things

I’ve been writing up a storm on Echo Hub, per usual, but I wrote pieces for two other outlets recently:

I’m proud of both, so check ‘em out. If you want to email them to your entire address book, or share them on Google+ and stuff, go right ahead!

What It’s Like To Hit Your Stride As A Writer

I spent seven months of this year working on the manuscript for Tell Me a Story. Throughout that stretch there were good times and bad times, creative feasts and creative famines. As a writer, there’s nothing quite like those good times, when the words flow and the ideas take shape on the page.

When I stumbled on this video today, I knew I’d found a fitting visual representation of what it feels like to hit your stride:

Do you thing. Do the work.

(Analogy guide: swordsman = writer; blade = brain and/or laptop; plastic bottles = word counts, deadlines, and Resistance.)

Tapestry Conference and Two Misconceptions About Story

In a few weeks I’m teaching a session at Tapestry Conference (Saturday, October 27) titled, Story. I’m hoping to convey the power of story for adoptive and foster families, but we’ll see.

Anyway, on the Tapestry blog I was asked three questions about the topic of story, and I thought I’d share this one with you:

Are there common misconceptions about story?

I think maybe there are two. The first is that many people associate story with fiction, and so they don’t take it seriously. Perhaps they assume that story is make believe or child’s play. Or perhaps they think story is just for artists and dreamers. Obviously, I disagree. 

The other misconception is that story is about wish fulfillment, as though we’re guaranteed any outcome we can imagine. If I decide the story of my life is that I’m going to be a professional basketball player, well, I’m still going to come up short (even though I’m 6’6”). 

Somewhere in the middle — and we’ll talk about this in my session — is the power of narrative in the life of your family.

Of course, I have a lot of thoughts on story these days because of the book, so keep an eye out for that. Oh, and if you can make it to Tapestry Conference (it’s FREE), you absolutely should.

Relationship and Transformation

John Sowers is the president of The Mentoring Project, an organization I proudly support. This morning John tweeted an insight likely related to his work at TMP, but which I’ve found to be true in all facets of life:

Many of us, myself included tend to get that backwards. We see relationship as the reward for transformation.

Clean up your life first, then approach God.

Make yourself cool/smart/attractive, then you’ll be surrounded by dear friends. 

Get your act together, then you’ll be worth my time. 

John’s observation calls us out of that trap. The truth is that meaningful relationships come first, so that’s where we ought to invest ourselves.

(If you’d like to find out more about The Mentoring Project, just click here.)

And I Didn’t Take It

In the June of 2000, I found myself in New York City at the base of one the World Trade Center towers. Instinctively, I looked straight up. I’ll never forget the dizzying combination of the summer sun and what felt like sheer vertical mile of steel and glass.

At the time I was an 18-year-old on vacation from Fort Worth, Texas, and I wasn’t accustomed to that kind of spectacle. My skyscrapers didn’t look like that, nor did my city teem and smell and sweat like NYC.

I was out of my depth, nearly overcome by the crowds and concrete. We’d done so much walking around already — we’d already spent hours waiting and trudging to the tops of the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building. And so when we reached the World Trade Center, I just looked up.

“Want to go to the top?” my uncle asked.

“I don’t think so,” I said. After all, what was another big building at that point?

Fifteen months later, I watched with my college roommates as the towers smoked and fell, I thought back to my vacation.

Amid the terror and tragedy of September 11th, I couldn’t escape the thought that I’d stood at the base of those same towers and declined to climb them. I had an opportunity, and I didn’t take it.

I don’t mean to say that I suffered a significant personal loss on 9/11 — I didn’t, and my heart goes out to those who did. What I do mean to say is that one of the things 9/11 taught us is how quickly our structures and constructs can be toppled. That which stands tall today might give way tomorrow to age or progress or the wicked schemes of angry men. Even as we remember the departed, we who remain ought to see the present and its invitations for what they are, and respond accordingly.

What Jena Nardella Prayed

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A few months ago I made reference to my disdain for the American political circus, and I’m afraid that disdain only intensified as the presidential race ramped up. Then … then … the conventions got going, and once the conventions got going, Twitter and Facebook got going too.

The rhetoric is, in my opinion, so exceedingly awful that I can’t stomach it. There’s no truth, no clarity, no empathy, no humility — in sum, no virtue. Clearly, I’m dancing with cynicism in all this. Which is why I needed to hear what Jena Nardella prayed at the close of the Democratic National Convention’s opening night.

She prayed for Obama and Romney. She prayed for red states and blue states. She prayed for character, wisdom, humility, and service rather than victory. She prayed for perspective rather than a platform. Rather than attempt to bend God to our national will, she prayed that our national will might be bent to God’s.

You can read the transcript of Jena Nardella’s prayer on her website or you can watch the video below:

As for me, well, between now and November I’m seeking the courage and conviction to pray what Jena Nardella prayed.

Echo: A Team Effort

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This week I was honored to be named to the Rejuvanate Meetings “40 Under 40 Class of 2012.” Essentially, it’s a list of 40 people under the age of 40 who plan faith-based events, conferences, and meetings. I appear on the list as the director Echo alongside people I look up to: Scott Harrison, Jon Acuff, Tripp Crosby, Lecrae, and others. Again, it’s an honor, and I’m grateful.

It’s a funny thing, though — an individual honor related to what is first and foremost a team effort. See, Echo happened last week, and so it’s still fresh on my mind. Knowing firsthand what it takes to plan and execute a conference, I started to get a little uncomfortable with being singled out for my work.

I’m the director of Echo, but I’m not Echo. Echo is a community experience comprised of hundreds of people — staff, volunteers, speakers, teachers, sponsors, vendors, and of course, attendees. On the planning and execution side, Echo doesn’t happen without a great church partner like Watermark Community Church—from top to bottom, the Watermark staff serves our conference in an incredible way.

As I said, I’m grateful to Rejuvenate for the profile. At the same time, I’d be crazy not to publicly express how grateful I am to be a part of the Echo team year after year. Together we make something that I believe to be a special experience, and I can’t wait to do it again next year.

Communications Pastor and author of Tell Me a Story