"Reading is the key that opens the door to knowledge to meaning and to adventure."
That was the first line of my award-winning speech presented on a Thursday night at the Pinellas County 4H speech contest in 1992. I was in fifth grade, and already I was absolutely convinced reading was something special, magical even.
Over the years I've found again and again that books had the power to confront me, challenge me, startle me, and reorient me in a way almost nothing else could. They opened my eyes to a bigger world and inspired me to be a bigger person. I'm convinced God uses them in particular and powerful ways, dropping them into our laps at exactly the right moment.
The other day I was texting with a friend who's making a BIG change in her life. She's thinking of moving away from friends and family, learning an entirely new skill set and taking a huge pay cut. She's thinking of doing that because she read a book and the book helped her see God and her life more clearly. I laughed thinking of all the times I'd experienced the exact same thing.
Today I want to offer you a list of nine books that changed the direction of my life. Maybe they'll help you, too.
1. My Name Is Not Angelica by Scott O'Dell
I was probably nine when I first picked up My Name Is Not Angelica. I read it in one sitting, sneaking my flashlight into my bed to read too late. It's about a girl, forced into slavery, who refuses to submit to, really, anyone. The ending was so haunting and so heroic I still think about it 25 years later. After I'd finished Angelica, I read only books about slavery for a year. I read Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry and a biography of Harriet Tubman. Later I moved into Holocaust books after reading Number The Stars by Lois Lowry.
What I loved about these stories was that they taught one simple, unmistakable truth (a truth I knew from reading my Bible and a little from mourning my grandmother and being kinda poor): They taught me that suffering produces strength. That hard things make heroes.
I have never forgotten that.
2. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Crime and Punishment isn't an easy book. It's long, graphic, dark AND anchored in gospel hope. In these pages Dostoevsky helped me understand the tension between spirit and flesh, the pull and weight of sin, the reality that we are not our worst impulses. Dostoevsky showed me that I don't have to listen to all the voices in my head (while making me feel not so totally crazy for having voices in my head) and that when I do Christ offers unfailing, unending grace. Crime and Punishment allowed me to look in the mirror at my guilt-soaked self and discover a way out.
3. Radical Restoration by F. Lagard Smith
This book is not the best book I've ever read. It's simply the book I needed at the moment I read it. As a young college graduate, fresh out of Bible college, working alongside her husband at a small country church deep in the Bible belt, this book was a breath of fresh air, a glimpse at a better way of following Christ in community, of a church freed from the shackles of "this is how we've always done it." Smith empowered me to ask questions and look for new answers. It's entirely possible my husband and I never would have moved to Brooklyn to plant a church if we hadn't read this book.
4. Disappointment with God by Phillip Yancey.
It's never easy to walk through pain and suffering. After my brother died, I started looking for help and healing. Phillip Yancey came through in a way I will always remember with deep appreciation. I devoured this relatively long, absolutely thoughtful book. Yancey helped me to understand that 1. I am not alone 2. It's okay to have questions for God 3. Some of those questions have good answers and 4. Some don't and that's okay.
5. Silence by Shusaku Endo
I read Silence in one of the most trying seasons of my life. Lonely and struggling with doubt I read a handful of books, all centered on the Christian call to self-sacrifice. The Cost Of Discipleship by Bonhoeffer was a favorite. Increasingly sure my own sacrifices were worthwhile and growing in faith, I picked up Silence and found myself face to face with perhaps the most challenging text I'd ever encountered outside the Bible. Silence, a historical fiction about Christian persecution in Japan, forces you to decide, Do I believe? and Am I willing to give up everything? Weeks later God would call me to give up what I perceived to be my life's calling. I am so thankful He put Silence in my hands first.
6. Radical by David Platt
When we think of radical faith, we're tempted to think of missionaries and world-shaping non-profits and martyrs and stuff. What I loved about this book, read in the thick of mothering two babies, was that Platt saw radical faith as achievable for everybody. He told me to pray and read my Bible. Never had I needed the reminder of the power of those simple acts more. As a writer today, I focus on "small," practical ways for people to live out kingdom-bringing acts of God-glorification. I owe that, in part, to Platt.
7. A Million Miles In A Thousand Years: How I Learned To Live A Better Story by Donald Miller
I read this with my husband aloud, cramming chapters in before bed and on road trips. We finished on a Tennessee highway, pulled the car over, jumped out, walked into the nearby woods, held hands and prayed asking God to never, ever let us forget what we'd read. And we haven't. Miller's book has directly affected the way we live in the Gerhardt family. We take risks. We celebrate. And we remember that all good stories have hard middles.
8. The Meaning of Marriage by Timothy Keller
I have a great marriage. This book made it so much better. Reading it after 13 years of partnership reminded us why we were married and what God intended for our pairing. It gave us grace for imperfection and instilled in us a deeper sense of our union's mission and purpose.
9. Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxes
I've read a good deal of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, but none of it affected me as much as reading about how Dietrich Bonhoeffer lived. As the most recent read on the list and the only one I read as a professional writer, Bonhoeffer stands as a reminder to me that my work is only as good as my life, that what God intends to do through me may have little to do with my own efforts, and that relentless trust in God results in the best kind of living. If you haven't read this book you must. Really. Right now.
So that's my list--just a few of the books God's used to shape who I am. Now, I want to know yours! Leave a title in the comments and let us know what it is about the book that had such a big impact on you.