On My Shelf helps you get to know various writers through a behind-the-scenes glimpse into their lives as readers.
I asked Wendy Alsup—blogger at Practical Theology for Women and author of books such as Companions in Suffering: Comfort for Times of Loss and Loneliness and The Gospel-Centered Woman—about what’s on her nightstand, favorite fiction books, books she regularly re-reads, and more.
What’s on your nightstand right now?
I’m reading Jared Wilson’s The Gospel According to Satan and Paul Brand’s Fearfully and Wonderfully Made.
In general, I’m a slow reader, particularly if a book has profound insights (and both of these do). I can only take in one profound insight in a sitting. Then I have to go off and process it—which makes reading good stuff a slow process. If something doesn’t have profound insights, I usually just put it down.
What are your favorite fiction books?
I love the two great epics, The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia. Both deeply shaped me and opened my eyes to the greatest story ever told that I didn’t get before I read them.
I also love Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry. I live on a farm now, and Berry’s insights have given me much to ponder about my own experience with the land.
What biographies or autobiographies have most influenced you and why?
These Strange Ashes by Elisabeth Elliot. The story of her first missionary journey has stayed with me since I read it. It’s given me much-needed perspective on ministry failures in my life, the ashes in my own life that seem strange, that don’t make sense.
I also appreciated A Chance to Die, Elliott’s biography of Amy Carmichael, for similar reasons.
What are some books you regularly re-read and why?
The Last Battle by C. S. Lewis. The moment the children go through the door, presumably because they’ve been killed, was the first time as a youth I understood that there’s something good waiting for me on the other side of death. The picture Lewis painted of that moment has stayed with me, and I occasionally re-read it just so I can feel the build of desperation that brings them to that moment and wonder in the glory as they cross to the other side. It leaves me with hope every time I read it.
I also love The Sacred Diary of Adrian Plass, a little-known humorous book that a friend gave to me when I was at my lowest point after my first cancer surgery. It’s worth a yearly read for the laughs as well as for the warm encouraging message on perseverance in the weird messiness of life with our community of believers.
What books have most profoundly shaped how you serve and lead others for the sake of the gospel?
Michael Card’s The Walk changed how I thought about discipleship. I grew up in churches that emphasized confrontational evangelism, and I had never seen or experienced the type of discipleship Jesus did with his inner circle. Card told the story of the man who had discipled him in the faith. It was powerful for me to read this real-life relationship, and it has stuck with me as I’ve mentored and been mentored by others.
I don’t have to invent the new thing to do for God, but I do need to prayerfully watch where he is at work around me, ready to join him in that work.
I was also shaped by Experiencing God, that old study by Henry and Richard Blackaby and Claude King that was popular in many circles back in the day. One thought stuck with me then and is still at the forefront of my thoughts on ministry today: God is always at work building his kingdom. I don’t have to invent the new thing to do for God, but I do need to prayerfully watch where he is at work around me, ready to join him in that work.
When I moved back to South Carolina after 13 years in Seattle, I felt the untrue thought that I was leaving the place where God was at work, moving home to a stagnant area, rife with racism in conservative churches. Instead, I found a group of believers God was already building, burdened to bring the gospel to our racially divided community. It has blessed me greatly to join in what God was well ahead of me already doing in my hometown, and I’m thankful for the Blackabys and King seeding that thought in my head 20 years ago when I first did the study.
What’s one book you wish every Christian should read about suffering?
These Strange Ashes. It’s not a book to read in the early days of suffering, when the shock is new and the grief is fresh. But as time goes on, it’s a sobering and deeply helpful reflection on the strange things that happen to us—strange in the sense that they don’t fit what we thought God was doing in our lives.
We thought he had called us to a relationship, or a ministry, or a friend, just to find the whole thing— including all of our love and investments in that relationship or ministry—burned up completely. We sit in the middle of the ashes, not sure how to think about them. Once we finally move from numb disbelief, through agonizing grief, to the point of actually considering what just happened and what it means for us now, Elliot’s story is a helpful companion.
What are you learning about life and following Jesus?
I’m learning that my life is a long story, playing a part in a much longer story. It’s blessed me to grow in my understanding of the beauty of the long story of Scripture and my location in it, with redemption complete, waiting on the new creation, where all will be made right. When I understand my place in God’s story, I’m better equipped to put my hand to the plow for the kingdom work God has in front of me now, particularly in my church and community.