My Ten Best Books in 2014

It is time once again to post the ten best books I read in 2014. I have done this in past years here on the Desperate Pastor (see 20132012, 2011, 2010, and 2009) so this should not come as a great surprise.

Rather than trying to rank them from 1-10 (which would take much too much wisdom...or effort...or both), I will post them here in the order in which I read them:

Year of Wonders (Geraldine Brooks)

Bootstrapper (Mardi Jo Link)

The Mad Farmer Poems (Wendell Berry)

The Well-Played Life (Leonard Sweet)

Money Secrets of the Amish (Lorilee Craker)

Boone (Robert Morgan)

One Summer: America 1927 (Bill Bryson)

The Memory of Old Jack (Wendell Berry)

Unbroken (Laura Hillenbrand)

Let's see, that amounts to two biographies, one memoir, two novels (one a historical novel), one history, one poetry, and three nonfiction. And those had to be whittled down from a hundred books read in 2014, and nineteen I had starred as "favorites" throughout the year. 

A New and Wondrous Mystery

In what has become a Christmas tradition here on the Desperate Pastor blog, here is 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.

A Christmas Greeting

The Hostetler Family Christmas Newsletter includes our greetings to all the readers (both of you) of The Desperate Pastor blog. Read it here:

Church of the Week: The Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem

This week's church is among the oldest in Christendom, because it rests atop the grotto that has been revered since the first century by Christians as the birthplace of Jesus. It's the Church of the Nativity, in Bethlehem. (I've featured this church a couple times before on this blog, but thought it would be good to revisit it, in honor of the coming Feast of Christmas).

Below (in a photo taken in 2000, one of the four times Robin and I have so far visited this church), my kids (Aubrey and Aaron) prepare to enter the church (behind their cousin, Elissa) through the Door of Humility, a small rectangular entrance to the church which was created in Ottoman times to prevent carts being driven in by looters, and to force even the most important visitor to dismount from his horse as he entered the holy place. The doorway was reduced from an earlier Crusader doorway, the pointed arch of which can still be seen above the current door. The outline of the Justinian square entrance can also be seen above the door.

The Basilica is a rectangle 177 ft. long, the nave is 86 ft. wide, and the transept is 117 ft. Entering the Church, one can notice 4 rows of pillars, 44 in total, 20 ft. high, and made of the white-veined red stone of the country with white marble Corinthian capitals.

A short history of the church: In 326, Constantine and his mother St. Helena commisioned a church to be built over the cave where Jesus was born. This first church, dedicated on May 31, 339, had an octagonal floor plan and was placed directly above the cave. In the center, a 4-meter-wide hole surrounded by a railing provided a view of the cave. Portions of the floor mosaic survive from this period. St. Jerome lived and worked in Bethlehem from 384 AD, and he was buried in a cave beneath the Church of the Nativity.

The Constantinian church was destroyed by Justinian in 530 AD, who built the much larger church that remains today.The remnants of the octagonal building which covered the Grotto of the Nativity can still be seen in the Armenian Chapel.

In 1852, shared custody of the church was granted to the Roman Catholic, Armenian, and Greek Orthodox churches. The Greeks care for the Grotto of the Nativity, pictured below, where a silver star marks the birthplace of Jesus.

After You Believe

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am an unabashed fan of the theologian N. T. Wright. He is one of a handful of people I would pay good money (and even travel more than ten minutes from home) to hear speak. So one of the books on my 2014 reading plan (see here for more about my annual reading plans) was his After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters.

After You Believe is the third in a trilogy from Bishop Wright (he is a retired Anglican bishop), following Simply Christian and Surprised by Hope, which are among the best books I've read in recent years.

In After You Believe, Wright tackles the topic of Christian character and virtue. Using the wonderfully apt illustration of Captain "Sully" Sullenberger's heroism in saving lives on the ill-fated Flight 1549, he makes the case that "virtue is what happens when wise and courageous choices have become 'second nature.'...Like an acquired taste, such choices and actions, which started off being practiced with difficulty, ended up being, yes, 'second nature'" (p. 21). With his usual thoroughness and eloquence, he leaves the reader no choice but to agree and to desire such character and virtue. He makes it clear that "virtue" doesn't "just happen," nor is it achieved by following someone's example--even that of Jesus. Instead, he depicts what he calls "The Virtuous Circle" (see photo), comprised of regular and intertwining

influences of scripture, stories, examples, community, and practices--the "habits of mind and heart which develop those corporate virtues of which we have spoken" (p. 278), such as shared worship (prayer, scripture, sacrament, and giving). When this "virtuous circle" is habitual (not occasional), cyclical (not sequential), and sincere (not rote), our characters will be transformed and virtue will result.

It's impossible to do justice to what Commonweal calls "Wright’s close reading of Scripture, his clear prose, and his evident love for his Christian faith" in a short review, but After You Believe is a helpful and compelling book by one of the world's leading biblical scholars.

The Daily Routines of Creative People

Here (click on the link) is a fascinating graphic depicting the daily routines of numerous creative people--such as Balzac, Mozart, Freud, and others.

As a writer, I suppose I would aspire to Flannery O'Connor's schedule. As a pastor, my schedule looked nothing like any of these. I wonder how a similar chart of well-known pastors throughout history might look.

How does your daily routine compare? How should it look?

Pastors and Office Hours

This post by Thom Rainer is priceless. I never had a church leader stalk me to make sure I was putting in "office hours" like he did, but I did once lose a series of battles with church leaders over the issues he lists here. Read it. It's good.

(photo by Steve Snodgrass via

An Artist's Prayer

M. Craig Barnes made the case that pastors are minor poets, in his book, The Pastor as Minor Poet. And Walter Brueggemann has said, "The business of the church is poetry." I believe both of those things. I also believe that the church collectively and its members individually are artists, whether consciously or unconsciously, whether fulfilled or failed. So I was blessed to read the acceptance speech for the 2014 American Academy of Religion Award in Religion and the Arts by one of my favorite living artists, Makoto Fujimura. It begins:
This speech is a prayer: a prayer uttered in the liminal zone between art and religion, a prayer to repair the schism between the two, a prayer to be — in T.S. Eliot’s words — “reconciled among the stars.”

I pray that some day, in the near future, our children and our grandchildren will see an age when faith and life, art and scholarship, the rational and the intuitive will be so integrated that there will no longer be a need for this award.
Read the whole thing here. It's beautiful.

More Or Less

One of the things God has been doing in me lately is calling me to a life of greater generosity. More than that. He's been urging me toward more awareness of and sensitivity to the needs of those around me. More than that. He's been prodding me to reflect in my lifestyle what my Jewish friends call "tikkun olam," a Hebrew phrase that means "healing the world." So, when I happened upon Jeff Shinabarger's book, More or Less: Choosing a Lifestyle of Excessive Generosity, I knew I had to read it.

In fourteen very readable chapters, Shinabarger makes the case that, "if you are reading this book, you are rich," and can find tremendous blessing in facing that fact and coming to the conclusion that you have enough. Maybe he lays on a guilt trip, a little, but since I read his book on an iPad, it's nothing I don't deserve. But he does more than show that I have enough possessions, food, clothing, presents, transportation, time, access, and more. He also gives many practical suggestions for how to turn my excess possessions into generosity and blessing and wealth of a different kind.

It was not only his (and his wife's) generosity that interested and excited me, but also their ingenuity. He is an entrepreneur, and so when he and his wife realized that most people have gift cards just sitting around unused, they established And that's just one example of the brilliant and energizing ideas that enliven this book. And the book is supported by one of the best book-related websites--with videos, discussion guides, and more--I've ever seen.

If you're interested in living better, read this book. If you're tired of consumerism, read this book. If you're not convinced that you have enough already, read this book. If you're spending more and more but enjoying life less and less, read this book. If you don't think you can afford to buy this book, read it anyway. As Shinabarger says, "Only you can contribute what only you can give to the world."

Church Signs with Moveable Letters Should Be Outlawed (Pt. 21)

This church sign comes to the Desperate Pastor by way of @jesusneedsnewpr. I'm not sure, but I think the assumption behind the message is that people will be led to repentance by their love for turkey.