On My Shelf helps you get to know various writers through a behind-the-scenes glimpse into their lives as readers.
I corresponded with Megan Hill, a pastor’s wife and author of the soon-to-be-released Praying Together: The Priority and Privilege of Prayer: In Our Homes, Communities, and Churches (Crossway/TGC). In this interview Hill reveals what on her nightstand, what she’s learning about life and following Jesus, her favorite books on prayer, and more.
What’s on your nightstand right now?
For the past two years, I’ve had a copy of Bret Lott’s Letters & Life on my nightstand. I pick it up and dip into it when my own sentences aren’t cooperating and my paragraphs begin to feel lifeless (which is often). I’ve read Lott’s essay, “On Precision,” at least half-a-dozen times, and it alone is worth the price of the book. In the essay, Lott presses the fact that we have a precise God whose Word is “the pristine source of precision” and to whom all writers are under obligation to craft precise sentences: “And so, as believers, and as those made in God’s image, who among us can say, ‘That’s good enough,’ when we know we haven’t given our best to find the exact word for the moment at hand?”
For fun, I just finished The Tooth Tattoo by Peter Lovesey. I love mysteries—Dorothy Sayers, P. D. James, Ruth Rendell’s Wexford series—and Lovesey cleverly intertwines his police procedurals with some aspect of history or the arts. The Tooth Tattoo was part murder mystery and part inside-look at the interpersonal dynamics of a string quartet. Who knew?
With my children, I’m reading Kevin DeYoung’s The Biggest Story. They got it as a Christmas gift from their grandparents, but it’s been a treat for all of us. I’m impressed by DeYoung’s ability to get major truth into a small phrase (see “precision,” above), and I really want to write like him when I grow up.
I also usually have a book that I read on Lord’s Day afternoons—after the lunch dishes are done and the kids are settled in front of “a Christian movie” (i.e. Frontline Mission’s excellent Dispatches from the Front series)—and currently I’m reading Human Nature in Its Fourfold State by Thomas Boston. Boston’s framework (innocence, nature, grace, eternity) is familiar to me after a lifetime in the Reformed tradition, but I’ve never read Boston himself. I’ve recently been plumbing the glorious depths of this sentence in particular: “[Adam] shone brightly in the image of God, who cannot but love his own image wherever it appears.”
And this isn’t a book, but my nightstand also has a rotating stack of six or eight issues of The New Yorker and the most recent The Atlantic. Since much of what I write is short, article-length pieces, I intentionally read writers who have mastered 1,000 and 3,000 and 5,000 words. Reading these magazines also exposes me to parts of God’s world that I might not otherwise consider; recently, for example, I read an essay about the joys of playing competitive squash as a middle-aged man. It was more interesting than it sounds. Really.
What are you learning about life and following Jesus?
I just finished writing a book on corporate prayer, Praying Together, and so the duty and delight of praying with others is fresh on my heart. I’ve always loved praying with the church, but, after a year of thinking and writing about it, the necessity of joining my brothers and sisters at the very throne of God is even more compelling to me. These days, I come to the prayer meeting or join in prayer at our dinner table with a renewed sense of expectation—we are together bringing our requests to the listening Father, with the help of the Spirit, in the name of the Son. What greater privilege could we ask?
What books have most profoundly shaped how you serve and lead others for the sake of the gospel?
I’ve had the immeasurable benefit of being a covenant child, of never remembering a day when I did not love and trust Christ, and of being surrounded by good books my entire life. For this reason, I think my theological shaping has been a steady drip-drip-drip of one chapter (one paragraph?) after another, rather than a radical shift brought on by reading one or two books.
That said, I do love J.C. Ryle’s Expository Thoughts on the Gospel, and I have an (now out-of-print) arrangement of those volumes into daily readings that I’ve used devotionally off-and-on for many years. Ryle was writing more than 150 years ago, but earnest love for Christ and his church shines off the pages as freshly as if they had been written just this morning.
What books have most helped you teach others about Jesus?
The Westminster Shorter Catechism and The Catechism for Young Children. Hands down, these two books (the children’s catechism is a simplified version of the Shorter Catechism) are the best resources in my theological toolbox. They give me meaty, succinct, systematic, biblical answers to the questions people ask. They keep me from constantly re-inventing the wheel—“let’s see, how am I going to explain justification this time?”—and, because I know them by heart, they are a quick and ready tool for every situation.
Just the other day, I was serving as a substitute at a local high school and one student (thinking he could stump me, and attempting to post-pone the impending quiz) asked me, “Mrs. Hill, what is the meaning of life?” Of course, I knew the answer immediately: “To glorify God and to enjoy him forever.”
What are your favorite fiction books?
Oh, man, where do I start? In addition to mystery novels, I relish novels with good characters. Human beings fascinate me, and made-up human beings always leave me amazed at the talents of fiction writers. I love John Hassler’s books—his quirky characters cautiously edge their way around the frozen lakes of Minnesota and manage to seem all the more warm and real against their sub-zero setting. I could also happily chain-read Ann Patchett and Anne Tyler and Wallace Stegner and—lighter but still disarmingly perceptive—Alexander McCall Smith.
You’re coming out with a book on prayer soon. As you’ve prepared and written it, what would you say are your favorite books on the topic of prayer?
The tricky thing about picking a book on prayer is that there are many good ones. (This is also the thing that is terrifying about writing a book on prayer!) My own book is specifically about corporate prayer—about praying with other people—but to prepare for it, I read stacks of books on prayer in general.
For an introduction to—and theology of—prayer, Calvin’s chapter on prayer in the Institutes isn’t an easy read, but it’s incomparable in its richness.
I also appreciated Phil Ryken’s When You Pray. Ryken writes an exceptionally well-written exposition and application of the Lord’s Prayer, and his chapter on “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” is the best explanation I’ve read of that initially head-scratching petition.
But maybe my favorite books were some of the older, 19th-century writers whose works are now available electronically. Where modern writers often seem to shy away from practical instruction on prayer, older writers aren’t afraid to remind readers that prayer is a task requiring preparation and organization. I owe a hat tip to Ligon Duncan for pointing me to one such book from 1822, Edward Bickersteth’s A Treatise on Prayer; it’s a treasure box of tender, practical encouragements to prayer. “You should watch for favorable opportunities of prayer,” Bickersteth urges. And so we should.
Also in the On My Shelf series: Marvin Olasky, David Wells, John Frame, Rod Dreher, James K. A. Smith, Randy Alcorn, Tom Schreiner, Trillia Newbell, Jen Wilkin, Joe Carter, Timothy George, Tim Keller, Bryan Chapell, Lauren Chandler, Mike Cosper, Russell Moore, Jared Wilson, Kathy Keller, J. D. Greear, Kevin DeYoung, Kathleen Nielson, Thabiti Anyabwile, Elyse Fitzpatrick, Collin Hansen, Fred Sanders, Rosaria Butterfield, Nancy Guthrie, and Matt Chandler.