The New Year presents an opportunity to look back and reflect on all that has happened and what has been accomplished.  Goodreads offers an easy way to display the books you completed during the previous year.  My list is below.  Last year, while I didn’t read many books I did read a lot of pages!  Two books in particular consumed much of my reading time.  The City of God is a classic book by Augustine of Hippo and takes a while to read through.  I also spend most of the year working through N.T. Wright’s two volume work, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, but because I just completed it in the last week, it won’t show up until next year.

Books 2014

Some books spark additional thoughts or just simply a book review, which I share from time to time on this site.  Last year, I shared some further thoughts on these books:

What books highlighted 2014 for you?

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I really enjoy the writings of Thomas Merton and those he has influenced, sNew Seedsuch as Thomas Keating.  He has a way of writing that does not seem to revolve around any single profound idea, yet you find yourself profoundly influenced by a hundred little ideas that pepper you as you read his books.  Earlier, I wrote that his book, No Man Is An Island, was one of the books that has influence me the most.  So it was only natural to follow that up with New Seeds of Contemplation.

I’ll be honest, there is much in this book that is very personal and I am not ready to process in public space.  In Merton’s own words, contemplation “cannot be taught.  It cannot even be clearly explained.  It can only be hinted at, suggested, pointed to, symbolized.”  All this is very personal and unique to each individual.

Yet there is one very simple idea that I keep coming back to. It is not even a central idea, but its’ echoes are insightful.  It is an idea that speaks especially to our virtually connected world of social media.  It is this:

One of the first things to learn if you want to be a contemplative is how to mind your own business.  Nothing is more suspicious, in a man who seems holy, than an impatient desire to reform others.

I had to read it several times to get past the initial bluntness of this spiritual directive:  Mind your own business.  Yet what he is addressing is the gut response to a new, challenging idea to rush off and enlighten everyone else before fully internalizing it, letting it really sink in and begin to shape the way you live.

One of the areas this wisdom seems especially appropriate is in the area of social media.  It seem anymore like I cannot peruse my Facebook news feed without being told what I should think, eat, wear, support, or be in a panic over.  Social media is a great way to keep in touch, network, and even share ideas.  But it is not the best way to really influence and shape another person.  That is best left to discussion, personal interaction, and conversation.  Mind your own business.

It is also much more effective to let others observe the way a cause or idea has actually shaped your life, which is Merton’s point.  As others observe the change in your life, there will be opportunities to share soon enough.

And yes, I realize the irony of pointing all this out in a blog post!  But I do so with the same intent as Merton’s words of wisdom.  Thus, everything else in New Seeds of Contemplation I will continue to process through and keep to myself for now.

I recently happened upon a website called Goodreads, which allows you catalogue and rate books you have read, and gives you the ability to share your interests with others whom you have friended.  Predictably, this site only fueled my book addiction.  While compiling my library and rating my books, I began to wonder which books have impacted me the most – which books get a 5-star rating in terms of rocking my world?  I thought it would be an interesting list to share, so here they are in no particular order.

Walking The Bible by Bruce Feiler

  • Why It Impacted Me – I had just returned from a trip to Egypt and Israel in 2005 and this book absolutely fueled my desire to further experience these ancient places you read so much about in the scriptures.  Feiler sets out on a pilgrimage to many of the places mentioned in the five books of Moses, visiting the sites, talking with the people, and gaining an understanding of the cultural backdrop of the Hebrew Bible.  The television program of the same name is itself a spiritual journey.
  • Why You Should Read It – If you want to read familiar stories in the Bible in a new way, paying attention to oft overlooked details, this book is a great primer – written in narrative, non-academic language – in the importance of cultural context for a full understanding of scripture.

Jesus and the Victory of God by N.T. Wright

  • Why It Impacted Me – I read parts of this book in seminary, but then again, I read a lot of books in school and didn’t always have time to process what I was reading.  But I remember this was a book I wanted to pick up again.  So a couple years later I read through it again.  N.T. Wright is one of my favorite theologians/thinkers and this book really showed me how much there was in scripture to understand beyond the surface reading.  Much of the New Testament was written not just from the Hebrew worldview, but also the Greek and Roman worldview as well.  Stories and references begin to take on new meaning when processed through these multiple lenses.  Wright in many ways rekindled my love for scripture.
  • Why You Should Read It – Unless you reeeeeeally love the topic, this may not be a book you want to read – it is over 700 pages and it isn’t easy reading.  Fortunately, Wright’s popularity has grown and he has written a number of more accessible books for those wanting an introduction to his work.  Try After You Believe or Surprised by Hope.

Abba’s Child by Brennan Manning

  • Why It Impacted Me – At a time in my life when I was tired from maintaining an image of having it all together, I read Abba’s Child and Manning gave me permission to get real with myself.  To use Manning’s words, we all have inside of us a struggle between the impostor and the beloved.  When we have the courage to quit living as an impostor, we are freed up to truly be embraced by God.  It was a message that had me in tears more than once and I have returned to this book many times since.
  • Why You Should Read It – Manning has a way of giving you permission to be yourself and embrace the love of God.  If that isn’t something you need, then skip this book.  But if you ever struggle to live in the freedom of authenticity, this book will help you embrace the beloved inside.

Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross

  • Why It Impacted Me – There are times on your spiritual journey when God’s presence seems more distant than near.  And then there are those times when God’s presence feels completely absent.  I have encountered the latter on my own journey and it was very disconcerting.  Reading this book both gave me words to describe that experience and hope that it doesn’t last forever.  It helped me relate to God in new ways and in many ways normalized the entire experience.  For that I am thankful!
  • Why You Should Read It – For hundreds of years, this writing has encouraged people through dark times in their lives.  I would almost recommend not reading it if you are in a good place.  Rather, keep it in mind if you ever find yourself feeling distant from God.

No Man Is An Island by Thomas Merton

  • Why It Impacted Me – I have to confess that there isn’t any one thought that jumped out at me in this book.  I just know that I read it three times before I was able to put it down.  It is so full of small profound insights into navigating this life that I had to include it.  Merton, though not necessarily in this book, speaks quite a bit about contemplative prayer and the role that contemplation can play in your daily routine, and I have benefited much from a more contemplative life.
  • Why You Should Read It – Don’t let the title fool you.  Though this book uses the language of men, there is plenty for both men and women to take from it.  It is broken up into manageable chapters that make it easy to read a handful of pages and process that reading throughout the day.  It is a very insightful book into navigating the spiritual life on a daily basis.

So there you have it.  If I were compiling a list of the best written or the most interesting books, perhaps the list would look different.  But these are the books that have influenced me the most.  So what about you?  Have you read any of these and if so, what did you think?  What books would you include on your list of books that influenced you the most?