My 2012 Reading Plan

It's time once more for me to plan my reading for the year. As I've posted about here and here, I devise a reading plan at the beginning of every year, to help guide my reading in the months to come (it usually turns out that half or more of my reading is spontaneous, so my plan is plenty flexible). So here are some of the books I hope to get to in the course of 2012:

The Bread of Angels (Saldana)
The Hiding Place (ten Boom)

Splendor of God (Morrow)
The Autobiography of George Muller (Muller)
A Man Called Peter (Marshall)

Les Miserables (Hugo)
Bleak House (Dickens)
Gulliver's Travels (Swift)

How to Be A Writer (Baig)
Hooked (Edgerton)
The Virginia Woolf Writer’s Workshop (Jones)

The Gifts of the Jews (Cahill)
Desire of the Everlasting Hills (Cahill)
How the Irish Saved Civilization (Cahill)

New authors:
Possession (Byatt)
Wolf Song (Fergusson)
The Corrections (Franzen)
A Soldier of the Great War (Helprin)
I, Elizabeth (Miles)
Libra (DeLillo)
Amos Walker: The Complete Stories (Estleman)

Writing the River (Shaw)

Code of the West (Grey)
Chancy (L’Amour)
The Cherokee Trail (L’Amour)

The Naked Life (Banks)
The Power of a Whisper (Hybels)
The End of Religion (Cavey)
The Challenge of Jesus (Wright)
Just Think (Nordenson)
Seeing the Unseen (Hunt)

Related books; (read in order):
Les Miserables (Hugo) & Cosette (Kalpakian)
Something Rotten (Fforde) & Gertrude & Claudius (Updike)

International and inter-cultural:
The Bread of Angels (Saldana)

The Next Chapter After the Last (Tozer)
Introduction to the Devout Life (de Sales)
With Christ in the School of Prayer (Murray)

In Shady Groves (Lehman)
Lonestar Sanctuary (Coble)
Solitary (Thrasher)

Les Miserables (Hugo)
A Soldier of the Great War (Helprin)

Books about books:
For the Love of Books (Shwartz)
My Reading Life (Conroy)

84 Charing Cross Road (Hanff)
The Last Dickens (Pearl)
11/22/63 (King)
How to Stay Alive in the Woods (Angier)

That’s 46 (some are listed more than twice because they fit multiple categories)…probably the most realistic ratio of planned reading to total reading in a few years. Considering how many free books I read on my iPad these days, downloaded on a whim, I think that’s a pretty do-able list.

Top 10 Books of 2011

Of the 101 books I read in 2011, which I listed yesterday on this blog, ten stand out from the rest as the most enjoyable and most memorable to me.

Three novels. Two memoirs. Three history. Three from Christian publishers. One classic. One audiobook (marked with an asterisk).

If you would like to know more about why a particular book is on the list, those marked with a † have been reviewed on this blog. Simply search for the title, or go to the category sidebar and click on "Book of the Week" to display all the book reviews and just scroll down until you find the one you're looking for. Also, each book's title is linked to the Amazon listing for that title, so you can learn more, read reviews, or purchase the book online.

1. One Thousand Gifts (Voskamp)

2. Thirteen Moons (Frazier)

3. Hannah Coulter (Berry)*

4. Love Is an Orientation (Marin)

5. The Swiss Family Robinson (Wyss)

6. Hellhound on His Trail (Sides)

7. Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer (Swanson)

8. No Ordinary Time (Goodwin)

9. A Walk in the Woods (Bryson)

10. I Am a Follower (Sweet)

2011 in Books

A year-end practice of mine for many years has been a review of the books I have read in the previous year. As I've mentioned before on this blog, I assemble a reading plan at the beginning of each year, and that guides roughly fifty percent of my reading through the year. Then, at the end of the year, I look over the books I've enjoyed, looking for balance and patterns, etc.

So here's a quick look back on last year’s reading, sorted by category (an asterisk indicates an audiobook):

A Rope and a Prayer (Rohde/Mulvihill)
In the Presence of My Enemies (Burnham)*
Decision Points (Bush)*
Going Rogue (Palin)
Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant (Grant)
I Shouldn’t Even Be Doing This (Newhart)*
A Walk in the Woods (Bryson)
The Pastor (Peterson)

Martin Luther King Jr. (Frady)
The Heavenly Man (Hattaway)*

The Life and Death of King John (Shakespeare)
The Swiss Family Robinson (Wyss)
Julius Caesar (Shakespeare)
Two Gentlemen of Verona (Shakespeare)
Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (Wiggin)
Ben Hur (Wallace)*

A Dangerous Profession (Busch)

Hellhound on His Trail (Sides)
Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer (Swanson)
Rawhide Down (Wilber)
Contested Will (Shapiro)*
The Fall of Rome (Lafferty)
No Ordinary Time (Goodwin)

New authors:
Cosmopolis (DeLillo)*
Arthur & George (Barnes)
Hard Eight (Evanovich)*
God Save the Mark (Westlake)
The Sense of An Ending (Barnes)
The Score (Stark)

Nox (Carson)
Evidence (Oliver)
Prayers from the Ark (de Gasztold)
What Can I Give Him? (Rossetti/Gliori)

Finding Our Way Again (McLaren)
The Pastor (Peterson)

The School of Obedience (Murray)
Trusting God (Bridges)
One Thousand Gifts (Voskamp)
Imaginary Jesus (Mikalatos)
The Holiness of God (Sproul)
Extraordinary (Bevere)
A Collection of Wednesdays (Hayes)
Last Light (Blackstock)
Heaven is For Real (Burpo)
Enemies of the Heart (Stanley)
No More Christian Nice Guy (Coughlin)
Day of War (Graham)
Churched (Turner)
Velvet Elvis (Bell)
Love Is an Orientation (Marin)
Mere Churchianity (Spencer)
Close Enough to Hear God Breathe (Paul)
Ancient Prophets & Modern Problems (Brengle)
The Guest of the Soul (Brengle)
Think (Piper)*
The Soul-Winner’s Secret (Brengle)
Seven Life Lessons from Noah’s Ark (Levine)*
Heart Talks on Holiness (Brengle)
When the Holy Ghost is Come (Brengle)
Gods and Kings (Austin)
Love Slaves (Brengle)
Resurrection Life and Power (Brengle)
The Way of Holiness (Brengle)
A Time to Embrace (Johnson)
The Training of the Twelve (Bruce)
The Joy of Christmas (Bianchi/Manser)
Red Like Blood (Coffey/Bevington)
The Well (Hall)

Our Iceberg is Melting (Kotter/Rathgeber)
The Principle of the Path (Stanley)
Spiritual Leadership (Sanders)
Beyond Talent (Maxwell)
I Am a Follower (Sweet)

Related books:
Martin Luther King Jr. (Frady) & Hellhound on His Trail (Sides)
Arthur & George (Barnes), Sherlock Holmes and the Dog in the Nighttime (Cohen) & The Sherlockian (Moore)
Love Is an Orientation (Marin) & A Time to Embrace (Johnson)

Love You Forever (Munsch/McGraw)
Quiet LOUD (Patricelli)
I Love You This Much (Hodges/Buchanan/Brunelle)
Heaven is Having You (Andreae/Cabban)
If I Ran the Zoo (Seuss)
Everyone Poops (Gomi)
Bartleby’s Book of Buttons, vol. 1
The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore (Joyce)
Prayers from the Ark (de Gasztold)
Just For You (Mayer)
Garbage! Monster! Burp! (Watson)
What Can I Give Him? (Gliori)

Helps to Holiness (Brengle)

When the Trees Say Nothing (Merton)

Listen (Gutteridge)
All Through the Night (Bunn)
The Brotherhood (Jenkins)

Stalina (Rubin)
The Heritage of the Desert (Grey)
Damp Squid (Butterfield)
Do the Work (Pressfield)
The Bag Lady Papers (Penney)*
Thirteen Moons (Frazier) *
Hannah Coulter (Berry)*
Grendel (Gardner)*
Way off the Road (Geist)*
Water for Elephants (Gruen)*
The Gathering (Kienzle)
The Great Typo Hunt (Deck, Herson)

Mule choker:
Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant (Grant)
No Ordinary Time (Goodwin)
Ben Hur (Wallace)*

That’s 101 books, 31 more than last year (some are listed in multiple categories). More memoirs than I’ve ever read in a year. And fewer ministry/leadership books than in recent years. Twenty-three novels. Six classics. Six history, which is a bit surprising. Pleasantly so. Three plays. I think 26 or so were read as ebooks. And 15 or so as audiobooks. I’m sure both of those numbers are the most ever for me. And some surprising twists and turns, but altogether a wonderful year of discovery and enjoyment.

Tomorrow I'll post my ten favorite books of the year.

My Favorite Things in 2011

For Julie Andrews (as Maria Von Trapp), it was raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, among other things. But neither of those made the list of my 100 favorite things of 2011 (all of which should be prefaced with “By God’s grace"). After the first few, they're only very generally in any order of priority or preference. So don't get all worked up about the order; they're all my favorites, okay?
1. The birth of our fourth grandchild, Ryder McCane
2. The lovely Robin accepting a new job
3. Re-establishing and again enjoying a writing ministry
4. Making enough money to live, after resigning a generous salary at the end of last year
5. Feeling my faith grow and deepen
6. Taking a wonderful vacation with the kids and grandkids on Old Mission Peninsula
7. Climbing the climbing dune at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
8. Having all our kids and grandkids for Christmas dinner
9. Watching my kids with their kids
10. Creating and enjoying more margin in my life
11. Seeing my son become a worship leader
12. Lunches with Aaron
13. Lunches with Calleigh and Aubrey
14. Coffee at Starbucks with Aaron
15. Easter Sunday at Cobblestone Community Church
16. Signing the Quit Going to Church book contract
17. Signing the Take Time to Be Holy book contract
18. Signing the How to Fall in Love with God book contract
19. Writing The Quest
20. Writing Quit Going to Church
21. Writing Take Time to Be Holy
22. Writing twelve sermons for publication
23. Publishing Jordan River Anthology as an ebook
24. Preaching 24 messages
25. Praying with a first-time attender to church to receive salvation
26. Performing two weddings
27. Exercising regularly at Bever Fitness Center
28. Giving away 12% of our income
29. Visiting the Cincinnati Zoo with the kids and grandkids
30. A lovely anniversary stay at The Inn & Spa at Cedar Falls
31. Introducing our grandkids to s’mores
32. Tuesdays with Calleigh
33. Mia’s second birthday party
34. Miles’s fourth birthday party
35. Calleigh’s second birthday party
36. Taking the grandkids to see the Christmas lights
37. Taking the grandkids to the Krohn Conservatory Christmas show
38. Two Gentlemen of Verona at Cincinnati Shakespeare Theater
39. The Life and Death of King John at Cincinnati Shakespeare Theater
40. Seeing The Compleat Wrks of Wm Shakspr at the Shakespeare Tavern in Atlanta
41. Visiting with Rick and Glenn in Atlanta
42. Sweet prayer times in my prayer chair
43. Posting more than a prayer a day on my prayer blog
44. Having time to mow the lawn myself and accomplish some things around the house
45. Aubrey’s thirtieth birthday party at Jessica’s house
46. Updating (and re-releasing) Don’t Check Your Brains at the Door
47. The June Great Strides walk
48. Our family gathering in Wisconsin for Vince & Amanda’s wedding
49. The Friends of the Lane Library annual book sale in May
50. A MidSummer Night’s Dream at Seasongood Pavilion in Eden Park
51. Leading J__ B_______ in a prayer of salvation in my study
52. The visit of Norah and the boys in August
53. The visit of Don and Arvilla in September
54. Taking the grandkids to the Chick-Fil-A playland
55. Taking the grandkids to McDonald’s playland
56. Lunch with Don and Christie in December
57. Playing at Hanover Township Park with Calleigh
58. Dinner at The Grand Finale with the lovely Robin
59. Staying at the Davenport Hotel in Spokane
60. Dinners at Walt’s Barbecue
61. Julius Caesar at Cincinnati Shakespeare Theater
62. Dinners at Paesano’s
63. Having my kids and grandkids living 15 minutes away
64. Having my kids and grandkids living across the street from each other
65. Swimming in the pool with the grandkids
66. Jane Eyre with Robin at the Mariemont Theater
67. Visiting the Bakers in Denver
68. Reuniting with Dorothy, Vernon, Warren, and Bill Maclean in April
69. Enjoying fires in the fireplace with the lovely Robin
70. Lunches at Ryan’s Tavern with Tim
71. Getting books from Lane Library
72. Getting new iPhones for me and Robin
73. Getting ebooks and audiobooks on Overdrive
74. Having more time to spend with the people I love most
75. Reading One Thousand Gifts (Voskamp)
76. My fifty-third birthday dinner with Robin, the kids, and the grandkids
77. Reading Thirteen Moons (Frazier)
78. Watching Royal Pains and Castle with the lovely Robin
79. Reading Hannah Coulter (Berry)
80. Saving hundreds (thousands?) of dollars in groceries
81. Reading Love Is an Orientation (Marin)
82. Reading Quiet LOUD to the grandkids
83. Reading The Swiss Family Robinson (Wyss)
84. Reading Hellhound on His Trail (Sides)
85. Anniversary drive with Robin through Ross Co., and walk through Chillicothe Corps
86. Reading No Ordinary Time (Goodwin)
87. Reading A Walk in the Woods (Bryson)
88. Reading Ben Hur (Wallace)
89. Reading I Am a Follower (Sweet)
90. Reading The Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant (Grant)
91. Re-reading the books of Samuel Logan Brengle
92. Hiking in the Hocking Hills
93. Selling hundreds of dollars worth of stuff on Amazon
94. Watching Sherlock Holmes: The Game of Shadows with Robin
95. Watching White Christmas with Robin
96. The privilege of voting
97. Publishing articles in Priority!, Seek, The War Cry, The Lookout, Direction, Christian Standard, etc.
98. Praying at the General Session of the Ohio Statehouse
99. Preaching at The Salvation Army Center Hill Corps
100. Reading Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer (Swanson)

I Am a Follower

I am a Len Sweet fan. In my opinion, Sweet, the E. Stanley Jones Professor of Evangelism at Drew University (as well as Distinguished Visiting Professor at George Fox University), is one of the most innovative and influential thinkers in the Church today.

So I was excited to read his newest book, I Am a Follower (The Way, Truth, and Life of Following Jesus). I was not disappointed. The book skewers the modern church's success-worshiping, corporate-obsessed "leadership" fixation, and contrasts it with the example and message of Jesus--what Sweet calls "followership culture." He says, "Leadership is an alien template that we have laid on the Bible." And then he goes about showing us the more excellent way of Jesus, in his typically colorful, thoughtful, biblical, and entertaining style.

After the prologue (don't skip it), the book is divided into three sections, characterized by four Latin words: Vece (the place), Via (the way), Verita (the truth), and Vita (the life). It features "Interactives," suitable for individual and group use, in which the author offers questions for discussion and more content for further application. The text is enriched with quotes from a diverse spectrum of voices--from Wendell Berry and Dietrich Bonhoeffer to Hunter S. Thompson and Tom T. Hall. It is a delight to read and a spur to thought.

My Bible for 2012

For the last ten years or so, I have enjoyed and benefited from the practice of using a different Bible each year as I read through the Bible. In this way, I've discovered and become familiar with the English Standard Version, the Complete Jewish Bible, The Message, the Narrated Bible, and more.

I'm very excited about my Bible for 2012. It's The Mosaic Bible, a new NLT edition from Tyndale House Publishers. Besides the fact that it is an absolutely gorgeous book, with color illustrations that incorporate the best of modern and ancient, traditional and contemporary, it offers a devotional component that walks the reader through the Church Year, beginning (of course) with Advent and proceeding through the seasons of the liturgical calendar. The weekly readings are deep and meaningful, and incorporate voices from a wide spectrum--or mosaic--of Christianity. The volume also includes a helpful introduction, Tyndale's NLT Word Study System, key words, and an NLT dictionary and concordance.

Since the Church Year begins with Advent, I've already begun using The Mosaic Bible, and will continue through Advent next year. I also plan to use the NLT in my three-year plan to memorize the Psalms, in their entirety, fifty psalms a year. I hope to update the readers of this blog every so often on how I'm doing, and how God is using the psalms in my life.

You can preview The Mosaic Bible online, here.

A 1,625-Year-Old Christmas Message

A Christmas Day tradition here on the Desperate Pastor blog is the following, the earliest Christmas sermon still extant. It was written and delivered in A.D. 386 by John Chrysostom, the Archbishop of Constantinople:
BEHOLD a new and wondrous mystery. My ears resound to the Shepherd’s song, piping no soft melody, but chanting full forth a heavenly hymn. The Angels sing. The Archangels blend their voice in harmony. The Cherubim hymn their joyful praise. The Seraphim exalt His glory. All join to praise this holy feast, beholding the Godhead here on earth, and man in heaven. He Who is above, now for our redemption dwells here below; and he that was lowly is by divine mercy raised.

Bethlehem this day resembles heaven; hearing from the stars the singing of angelic voices; and in place of the sun, enfolds within itself on every side, the Sun of justice. And ask not how: for where God wills, the order of nature yields. For He willed, He had the power, He descended, He redeemed; all things yielded in obedience to God. This day He Who is, is Born; and He Who is, becomes what He was not. For when He was God, He became man; yet not departing from the Godhead that is His. Nor yet by any loss of divinity became He man, nor through increase became He God from man; but being the Word He became flesh, His nature, because of impassability, remaining unchanged.

And so the kings have come, and they have seen the heavenly King that has come upon the earth, not bringing with Him Angels, nor Archangels, nor Thrones, nor Dominations, nor Powers, nor Principalities, but, treading a new and solitary path, He has come forth from a spotless womb.

Since this heavenly birth cannot be described, neither does His coming amongst us in these days permit of too curious scrutiny. Though I know that a Virgin this day gave birth, and I believe that God was begotten before all time, yet the manner of this generation I have learned to venerate in silence and I accept that this is not to be probed too curiously with wordy speech. For with God we look not for the order of nature, but rest our faith in the power of Him who works.

What shall I say to you; what shall I tell you? I behold a Mother who has brought forth; I see a Child come to this light by birth. The manner of His conception I cannot comprehend.

Nature here rested, while the Will of God labored. O ineffable grace! The Only Begotten, Who is before all ages, Who cannot be touched or be perceived, Who is simple, without body, has now put on my body, that is visible and liable to corruption. For what reason? That coming amongst us he may teach us, and teaching, lead us by the hand to the things that men cannot see. For since men believe that the eyes are more trustworthy than the ears, they doubt of that which they do not see, and so He has deigned to show Himself in bodily presence, that He may remove all doubt.

Christ, finding the holy body and soul of the Virgin, builds for Himself a living temple, and as He had willed, formed there a man from the Virgin; and, putting Him on, this day came forth; unashamed of the lowliness of our nature’. For it was to Him no lowering to put on what He Himself had made. Let that handiwork be forever glorified, which became the cloak of its own Creator. For as in the first creation of flesh, man could not be made before the clay had come into His hand, so neither could this corruptible body be glorified, until it had first become the garment of its Maker.

What shall I say! And how shall I describe this Birth to you? For this wonder fills me with astonishment. The Ancient of days has become an infant. He Who sits upon the sublime and heavenly Throne, now lies in a manger. And He Who cannot be touched, Who is simple, without complexity, and incorporeal, now lies subject to the hands of men. He Who has broken the bonds of sinners, is now bound by an infants bands. But He has decreed that ignominy shall become honor, infamy be clothed with glory, and total humiliation the measure of His Goodness.

For this He assumed my body, that I may become capable of His Word; taking my flesh, He gives me His spirit; and so He bestowing and I receiving, He prepares for me the treasure of Life. He takes my flesh, to sanctify me; He gives me His Spirit, that He may save me.

Come, then, let us observe the Feast. Truly wondrous is the whole chronicle of the Nativity. For this day the ancient slavery is ended, the devil confounded, the demons take to flight, the power of death is broken, paradise is unlocked, the curse is taken away, sin is removed from us, error driven out, truth has been brought back, the speech of kindliness diffused, and spreads on every side, a heavenly way of life has been ‘in planted on the earth, angels communicate with men without fear, and men now hold speech with angels.

Why is this? Because God is now on earth, and man in heaven; on every side all things commingle. He became Flesh. He did not become God. He was God. Wherefore He became flesh, so that He Whom heaven did not contain, a manger would this day receive. He was placed in a manger, so that He, by whom all things arc nourished, may receive an infant’s food from His Virgin Mother. So, the Father of all ages, as an infant at the breast, nestles in the virginal arms, that the Magi may more easily see Him. Since this day the Magi too have come, and made a beginning of withstanding tyranny; and the heavens give glory, as the Lord is revealed by a star.

To Him, then, Who out of confusion has wrought a clear path, to Christ, to the Father, and to the Holy Ghost, we offer all praise, now and for ever. Amen.

Last-Minute Christmas Giving Opportunities

Done with your Christmas shopping? Every gift bought? Good to go?

Congratulations. Well done. But many of us neglect the kind of gift-giving that may be most pleasing to God and most reflective of the spirit of Christmas: giving to the poor, the lonely, the neglected, those outside our own families.

In my tiny brain and heart, Christmas isn't truly celebrated unless I give generously, not only to my family and friends, but also to the types of people God made sure to include in the first Christmas: foreigners, despised, poor, forgotten, old people. If you are of a similar mind and heart, I'd be tickled if this post encourages you to give a Christmas gift to one of my favorite causes:

The Salvation Army Online Red Kettle

WEGO Peru, the missionary enterprise of our friends Don and Christie Latta

Harvest of Hope, through which you can buy nutrition for a slum child or a goat, cow, or chicken for a family

Samaritan's Purse, which offers an online "gift catalog" from which to choose

Christmas Revelations

Sunday, while the lovely Robin and I were being blessed by Sunday morning worship and a fine sermon on Luke 2, I enjoyed a flurry of new questions and thoughts regarding the account of Joseph and Mary's Bethlehem experience.

I've often said that I am amazed at how the Bible continues to speak to me, and reveal new things to me, no matter how many times I have read, studied, or preached a passage. And so it does.

I'm sure that, to many of my erudite friends (who know what erudite even means), the following will be thoughts they've already thought. Long ago, even. Well, that just shows that I am still a babe in the woods when it comes to biblical scholarship. No one ever claimed otherwise. The bright side is that I find questions like these immensely fun and rewarding.

For example, Luke 2:4-5 says,
Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.
How many times have I read, studied, and preached that? But yesterday I was taken aback by the realization that here, approximately nine months after the angel Gabriel's appearance to Mary (and also to Joseph), she was not yet "his wife," but "his betrothed." This probably indicates that, despite the unexpected (and, to all the world, scandalous) pregnancy, they apparently followed the customary twelve months of betrothal before the bridegroom claimed his bride from her father's house. Maybe moving the wedding feast to an earlier date would have been more scandalous than the pregnancy and the baby's arrival before a wedding feast. Or, maybe there was no point to moving faster, if the pregnancy affected Joseph's plans (or his family's) to cancel or downgrade the wedding feast. Maybe it shows a godly disregard for the pressures of society and the opinions of gossips. Or maybe none of the above.

A second thought occurred to me about that scenario. Joseph was traveling with Mary, "his betrothed." But according to first century Jewish custom, Mary's place was at home with her mother and father until the bridegroom came to claim her and carry her away at the start of the wedding feast. But there she is, in Luke 2, traveling a hundred miles from home with her betrothed. While the betrothed parties were considered husband and wife after the betrothal took place, and only divorce or death could then separate them, they did not live together as husband and wife until after the wedding feast. But they apparently traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem as husband and wife, and when they found lodging, they lodged together, rather than Mary with her parents. Unless, of course, Mary and Joseph were part of a larger traveling party that included her parents--maybe her parents likewise counted Bethlehem their ancestral home and were simply unmentioned members of the traveling party. Maybe they even stayed in the nativity cave with Joseph and Mary--though all the above conjecture seems pretty unlikely. So maybe there was some special dispensation for Joseph and Mary's peculiar situation.

Another thought. Verses six and seven say:
And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
So familiar. We all have read and heard those words bajillions of times. I've preached on that text, of course, numerous times. We may infer that all their relatives' homes (and it's reasonable to believe that Joseph had many relatives in Bethlehem) were booked solid. But even so, for family to turn them away would probably have been unthinkable in that culture, even if there was no room. Right? So, why an "inn," or khan? Was the "innkeeper" family? Or was the inn simply on the route into Bethlehem...when labor hit, and they had to find lodgings immediately? Admittedly, the wording of the phrase, "While she was there, the time came" seems to indicate that she was NOT in labor when they arrived at the inn, but settled into their digs for the night and then labor began. But if that's the case, it is still curious that they found no lodging with extended family. Even strangers, in that culture, would have considered it shameful to turn away someone in need of shelter. So it all still makes me wonder--or at least think it possible--that Jesus may have been born in a cave and laid in a manger because labor came on before the family quite arrived at their intended destination. That scenario suggests many new wrinkles to the story, to me, at least.

And, finally, when the angel told the shepherds (in verse 12), "this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger," why was that all the directions given to those shepherds? Couldn't the angel have added, "in the khan, on Route 27?" Or something like that? But the angel said only to look for a baby in a manger. Were there more and better directions given that just aren't recorded in Luke's account? Or was the purpose of the scant directions to create a "buzz," as the shepherds asked around and looked everywhere (the preacher pointed out yesterday that the wording of verse 16 in the original Greek indicates a thorough search)? Or perhaps to require some effort on the shepherds' part?

Intriguing questions, and of course they can't be answered with anything approaching certainty. I'm sure I'll learn more as I study more. But as I said before, I'm amazed at the depth and reward the Bible offers, time and time again, to the inquisitive seeker.

Church of the Week: Veritas Church, Liberty Twp, OH

The lovely Robin and I, with our dear friend Phyllis, enjoyed a fine morning worship experience today at Veritas Church, just off Cin-Day Road in Liberty Township, east of Hamilton.

We were welcomed warmly immediately upon entering, and were quickly met by the pastor, Chris Russell, his wife Leigh, and a mutual friend of some of our dearest friends, from waaaay back.

The worship took us to God's throne. Only after the service did we learn that the worship leader, Ernie, was unable to sing due to a bout of laryngitis.

The message of the morning, "Nothing Too Hard for God," from Luke 2, was quite good. It inspired many new thoughts and had me writing repeatedly in my iPad Bible.

Veritas is a Christian and Missionary Alliance church, which we know well (Robin's BA degree is from Nyack, a CMA school) and with which we feel an affinity.

It was a warm and refreshing worship experience, and we're grateful for the warmth and enthusiasm of the fellowship.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

In Which "Elf" Provokes Deep Theological Thought

This excellent post makes a great point about why the "Stopped believing in Santa/stopped believing in God" parallel doesn't work, logically, for atheists, though it does for believers in God. It's written by C. Michael Patton, from the Parchment and Pen blog of Credo House Ministries.
One of my all-time favorite movies is “Elf.” Our family probably watches it three or four times every Christmas season. The child-like naivety of “Buddy” the elf is more than enough to make anyone smile. He believes in Christmas. He most certainly believes in Santa. It takes us back to the time when we, who’s parents introduced us to the Jolly man, anticipated his coming every Christmas and defended his existence on the playground. There is one scene in Elf that I really love (okay, there are a hundred that I really love!). It was when Buddy was being told by Santa that many people did not believe he existed. An astonished Buddy does not know how to respond (as if it is the first time he ever considered that people might not believe in Santa). First he wonders who they think brings all the gifts. After Santa says that there is a rumor that it is the parents, Buddy says, “That’s crazy. What about Santa’s cookies? I suppose parents eat those too?” Don’t be too hard on Buddy. He is just trying too find a sufficient explanation for the presents and cookies.

Many times when I am talking to atheists about the Christian faith they bring up their graduation ceremony from believing in Santa. As they graduated from a belief in Santa, so they say, they have also graduated from a belief in God. While this has an emotional appeal and seeming parallel, it does not really work. In fact, it works in favor of theism more than atheism.

The reason why people believe in Santa is not simply because their parents tell them he is real, but because parents tell them that Santa is the explanation for a phenomenon that happens every Christmas morning. Santa is the one who brought the toys and ate the cookies. When the kids wake up Christmas morning and see all the new toys (at my house the ones from Santa were unwrapped) and ask, “Who got me this?”, they are asking a very reasonable question. They are seeking to find the cause behind the presence of their new toys. It’s the whole cause and effect thing. If the new toys were not there, there would be no reason to ask such a question. Therefore, the presence of Santa is invoked by a need to find causation for their Christmas morning joy associated with the toys.

Therefore, Santa is, by definition, the cause behind the effect of the toys and cookie crumbs. When people quit believing in Santa, they don’t quit believing in a cause, they just change the association behind the cause. It is not as if one day kids come of age and realize that the toys magically appear every Christmas morning with no explanation. It is not as if they believe that given enough time, chance will produce a situation where every year on December 24th you can place a plate of cookies by the fireplace and expect that they will be gone the next morning without explanation. You see, Santa just changes names. No one quits believing in the agent (whatever the name may be) responsible for the presents and the cookies. They just no longer believe that the agent’s name is “Santa.” Therefore, in a very real sense, no one quits believing in Santa (the cause of the toys and eaten cookies).

When it comes to God, the situation is the same. Existence itself demands a causal explanation. We are an effect, looking for the cause. God, by definition, is that cause. Just as we cannot say that there is no cause for the toys under the tree Christmas morning, you cannot say that there is no cause for all of existence. That is why R.C. Spoul has said that the best argument for the existence of God is this: “If something exists, God exists…Something does exist, so God does exist.”

“If toys are under the tree, somone must have put them there…Toys are under the tree, so someone put them there.”

Considering this, while we could not say that the parallel between God and Santa works for atheists (for it is simply a slight of hand illustration), it does work for theists because it illustrates that effects always need an explanation. Just changing the name of the explanation does not in any way do away with the need for a cause. Santa (the cause behind the toys) is still needed. God (the cause behind existence) is still needed. No one graduates from either, even if they change their names.

Even if his conclusion is misplaced, Buddy’s logic was sound: “That’s crazy. Who do you think is responsible for eating the cookies?” Who do you think is responsible for existence? Whatever your answer, that is your God.

Church of the Week: Park Avenue UMC, Hamilton

I had the privilege of performing a wedding this weekend at Park Avenue United Methodist Church in Hamilton, Ohio.
It is a venerable old church with strong and deep roots in the community. The lovely Robin and I were so honored to partner in ministry with the Reverend Barbara Dafler, the pastor of the church, in marrying a couple of dear friends.
The church, located at 801 Park Avenue in the Highland Park neighborhood on Hamilton's west side, is warm and welcoming in architecture and in spirit. The sanctuary is striking and the acoustics very nice. They hold a 9 a.m. "traditional" service and an 11 a.m. "contemporary" worship service on Sundays.

While this was not my first time inside the church, it was my first worship experience there, and it was one I hope to remember for a long time to come.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

My Biggest Shortcoming as a Pastor

I have had and still have many, many shortcomings as a pastor. But clearly one of the biggest--perhaps THE biggest--is that I've never had a "soul patch." Like (from top to bottom) pastors Pete Wilson, Steven Furtick, Clint Archer, and Richard Baxter.

An Advent Lesson from Our Grandchildren

My wife, the lovely Robin, and I were excited to introduce our three grandchildren to the new "Little People" nativity set we recently bought, as a fun tool for teaching them the story of Christmas.

The set included adorable figures representing Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus, three Magi, a camel, a sheep, a donkey, a cow, and an angel (we had to order a shepherd and extra sheep separately). So we set it up and at the first opportunity, told the story, letting them help us act it out, and then set them loose to play with the set.

Later that evening, after the grandchildren had gone home, we set to the task of putting the house back together, and discovered a nice little Advent message waiting for us.

Sometime during the course of that evening, one or more of the grandkids had added to the set from other figures in the playroom. A horse. A deer, I think. And, most striking of all, a pig. A pig.

Of course, they have no awareness that a pig in the scene would have been anomalous that first Christmas (I'm pretty sure they don't even know what "anomalous" means). But no matter. Neither do they know (yet) that the shepherds themselves would have been a shocking addition to the first "nativity scene," despised as they were in first century Jewish society. But even if they knew, they wouldn't care. And I'm glad. I'm glad my grandchildren found a place for a pig and a horse and a deer among the figures around the manger. It was--and is--a reminder to me that Advent and Christmas--and the Kingdom itself--is more inclusive than we tend to think. Maybe more so than we like to think, or are able to think.

Come, let us adore him.
Let us ALL adore him...Christ, the Lord.

The Heavenly Man

The Heavenly Man tells the riveting story of Brother Yun (Liu Zhenying), a Chinese house church leader who began to follow Jesus Christ as a teenager in China's Hunan Province.

His story reads like a modern day Acts of the Apostles, complete with a miraculous delivery of a Chinese Bible to young Yun, a miraculous (and Acts 12-like) escape from prison, explosive growth of the Chinese church amid persecution, and more. It is written in a straightforward, matter-of-fact style that enhances the credibility of this remarkable testimony.

This excellent book is not a missionary story (though one chapter presents a Chinese-born missionary vision that ought to challenge--maybe even shame--the Western Church), but a compelling story that will engage and encourage everyone who reads it. Brother Yun taught me much about commitment, mission, prayer, Bible reading and memorization, and loving and following the Lord one step at a time. His testimony of faith and faithfulness in spite of poverty, persecution, arrest, imprisonment, beatings, and torture will challenge readers to re-evaluate their own faith...and seek God anew.