Books for the Advent Season

The Christmas book tree that my students at Veritas Academy put together this past week.

One of my favorite Advent traditions is reading.  Just this morning, I got up, turned on the Christmas tree lights and nearby lamp, grabbed a stack of books and a cup of coffee, and read.  Oh, I also put on a CD of classical Christmas music.

Most of what I am currently reading is not tied to the Advent season.  Most are books I am hastening through to finish before the end of the year.  But I do include some Advent readings.  Every season invites us to explore or revisit certain books.  The old and frequently read compete with the new and unread.  For this season, there are plenty of good reads to enjoy.

  Today I began reading from The Incarnation in the Gospels by Daniel Doriani, Philip Graham Ryken, and Richard Phillips.  It is published by P & R Publishing (one of my all time favorite publishers) and is a part of the Reformed Expository Commentary series (of which I own a few volumes and covet them all).

This book consists of good solid sermons from the Gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John.  There are four sermons from each Gospel account of Christ’s first coming, along with several appendixes providing helps for pastors and churches during the Advent season.

My plan is to read a sermon a day for the next week or two.  Today’s opening message was on Christ’s genealogy from Matthew 1.  Doriani writes, “There is no doubt that the Gospels, not least Matthew, take the greatest interest in the question “Who?”  Who is this who is born after such preparation, amid such signs and portents?….The whole gospel of Matthew asks and the whole gospel of Matthew tells who this is.”  Great sermon on what promises to be an enjoyment book to read and celebrate.

  In past years, I have many times pulled In the Fullness of Time off the shelf and read through it for hints and helps in preparing sermons and lessons for the Advent season.  As the subtitle to this book by Paul L. Maier states, A Historian Looks at Christmas, Easter, and the Early Church.  This book is not merely a reference work or a historical study.  It is good reading for the soul during this season.

Mark is the only Gospel writer to skip right past any reference to the birth of Jesus Christ.  Tim Keller’s book King’s Cross: The Story of the World in the Life of Jesus is based on a series of sermons he gave on Mark’s gospel.  I always associate this book with Advent. I think it is primarily because I first read this book some years ago during December.  But more important, I think the essential message of Keller’s treatment of Mark is fitting for the season.  The essentials of the Gospel story are the full story and its meaning, and not merely the details of Jesus’ nativity.  Jesus was both (1) born a King and (2) born to die on the cross.  So this book hits the essentials of the Advent and Christmas season.

 A few years back, I read The Lord and His Prayer by Bishop N. T. Wright.  I was preaching on the Lord’s Prayer at the time and it was during the summer.  But Wright originally preached the sermons in this book during the Advent season.  Because of the broader application and meaning of Scripture, all Scriptural truth is God’s truth and is profitable for instruction, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness.  All of the Bible instructs us at all times and, therefore, is fitting for the season.

  Several years ago, I read quite a bit from Jesus: A Theography by Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola.  By theography, the authors seek to write a theological biography of Jesus.  The Advent story doesn’t begin with the birth of Christ or even with the announcement by the angel to Mary.  The authors deal with the bigger picture of Christ as the second Person of the Trinity and His role in creation.  Then there is what they call “The first negative note in the Bible,” which is the fall of Adam and Eve in Genesis 3.

Just glancing back through this book reminds me of how much I enjoyed it in the past.  It is pleading for a second and more complete reading.

  A reading of the edition of St. Athanasius: On the Incarnation as shown above gives several benefits.  First, note the introduction by C. S. Lewis.  One could say, “Case closed” at this point, but wait, for it gets even better.  Lewis’ introduction was his incredible essay titled “On the Reading of Old Books.”  That essay is about the best case for reading classics and old established books ever written.  Second, this book introduces the reader to one of the great early church fathers.  It is relatively easy to buy the Early Church Fathers book set in our time, and the set looks great on the shelves.  But it is challenging to know where to begin and how to read these great theologians and apologists from the early centures.  Athanasius’ delightful study of the Incarnation is a good beginning.

And that is the third point.  Athanasius was not writing a “Christmas book.”  He was exploring the depth and meaning of the Incarnation.  It is the fact of Incarnation and the not the sentimentality of a little baby that gives the season its meaning.

  Another favorite book that I have often read from and used is Christmas Spirit by Gregory Wilbur and George Grant.  I have borrowed ideas and quotes from this on many occasions.  This book includes stories, hymns, traditions, backgrounds to the season, and quotable quotes.  Both author/compilers are friends of mine, but the book stands on its merit regardless of personal connections.

I don’t know if we have ever consistently made it all the way through Christ in Christmas: A Family Christmas Advent Celebration by James Dobson, Charles Swindoll, James Montgomery Boice, and R. C. Sproul.  But we have enjoyed this book (i.e.. the opening chapters) on many occasions through the years.  This is not a “read from cover-to-cover” book; rather, this is for the family to read from and enjoy as a family.

I have The Christ of Christmas by James Montgomery Boice on my shelf for future readings.  Maybe, I will get to this year.

COMING UP NEXT…AND HOPEFULLY SOON:  Novels, stories, poems, and histories for the Advent season.

Western Christmas Corral–Roundup 2

ROUNDUP TWO

THE FIRST OF THE THREE GHOST RIDERS

[WHEN Scrooge awoke, it was so dark, that, looking out of bed, he could scarcely see anything in the room. Off in the distance, he could hear coyotes howling. Looking at his watch, he tried to make out the time. It was just after midnight.
Light flashed up in the room upon the instant, and Scrooge saw what looked like a cowhand standing thee in the room. Scrooge waren’t sure whether it was a young feller or an old timer. It was some strange lookin’ cowhand or night rider. Or what Jake Marley had called a Ghost Rider. Strangest of all, there was light shining on his hat.                                                                                                                                                                    Lookin’ closer, Scrooge noticed that he was not even a feller. It was a woman, a cowgirl maybe.]

Spirit: “Howdy!”
ES:  ”Are you that Spirit, that Jake tole me was headin’ this way?”
SPIRIT: ”Yep, shore am!”
ES:  “Who and what are you?”
SPIRIT:  ”I am the Ghost Rider of Christmas Past.”
ES:  “Long past?”
SPIRIT:  “Nope. Your past. I am goin’ to show you some things, but they’s only shadows of the things that have been. You‘ll see them, but they won‘t know you‘re there.”
ES:  “What you doin’ here. Ain’t there you somewhere else you need to be?”
SPIRIT:”I came to help you out, Ebenezer. Git up, get yore boots on, and let’s go for a ride!”
[ES rises and follows the Spirit.]

[Eb and the Spirit passed through the wall, mounted on a couple of spirit horses and rode off far into the west, faster and farther than Eb thought it possible to ride. They came to a small ranch and tied up their horses and began walking around.]

SPIRIT:   “Do you know this ranch?”
ES:  ”Know it! I was a greenhorn when I first came here. This is where I earned my first spurs back when I left home and set out on my own.”

They walk around and see an old cowboy with a happy look on his face.

ES: “Why, it’s old Fezziwig! Sure nough, it’s Tom Fezziwig. Bless his heart, old Fezzi, alive again.”

FEZZIWIG: “Hey, Eb, come here. Eb, where are you, boy.”
[Young Ebenezer enters.]
FEZZIWIG: “Eb, my boy, there’s no more work tonight. It’s Christmas eve, Ebenezer! The horses have been fed and the cows are over in the north pasture, so let’s enjoy ourselves for a spell. Let’s clear out some space here in the barn. I want to have lots of room for a dance.”
ES:  “Don’t you think I ought to ride out and check on the herd one more time?”
Fezziwig: “Boy, you fret too much. Them cows are just fine. This is the time for a young feller to be thinking of gals and maybe finding’ one to take up with for life. Ranchin’ life can be awful lonely if you don’t have a good woman at your side.
Let’s get this barn ready for dancin’.”

[Room prepared for dancing. Mrs. Fezziwig and others enter.] [In came a fiddler and a guitar player. ]

In came Mrs. Fezziwig, a smiling’ just like Ole Tom, and along with her came the whole passal of Fezziwig gals. And after that, all the young guys in the territory who were sweet on the Fezziwig gals. Folks brought in all kinds of good food, including cakes and pies that the women folk had been cooking all day.
There were more dances, and more dances, and there was cake, and there was drink.
The highlight of the evening was when the fiddler struck up a tune and Old Tom Fezziwig and his Missus led the way on dancing’ a Virginia Reel they had learned back when they were young.
It was late in the night before the party broke up and the cowhands went back to the bunkhouse.
Before they left, Old Tom and is Missus’ shook the hands of everyone and wished ’em all a Merry Christmas.

SPIRIT: “Ain’t that something’. All those folks dancin’ around acting silly. And them so polite to old Tom and his Missus. He must have spent a whole pocketfull of silver and gold, paying the fiddler and buyin’ all that extra grub. You reckon he deserves all that carryin’ on by those folks?”
SCROOGE: “Well, Spirit, it seems to me that Ole Tom had the power to make folks happy. He made work on his spread a pleasure. All us cowhands in the bunkhouse liked him. Why we were all happy workin’ for that man. He was a good boss.”
SPIRIT:  ”What’s eatin’ at you, Ebenezer?”
ES:  “Nothin. Ain‘t nothing‘.”
SPIRIT: “Somp-in’s botherin you, I reckon?”
ES:  “No, no. I just got to thinking I that I need to tell the ranch foreman a word or two. That’s all.”

SPIRIT”I ain’t got much time left. Let’s go see another time”

[Young Scrooge sitting beside a girl, in whose eyes there were tears. ]

Young Eb Scrooge tries to tell Miss Belle that he hasn’t changed.

GIRL: “It don’t matter, Eb. To you, it don’t matter at all.  You found another that you love more than me. There’s no reason for me to act like nothing is wrong. I would have made you a good wife. But I hope you find comfort in what you have found.
ES:  “What are you talkin’ about? There ain’t no other woman, Belle, besides you..”
GIRL”Nope it’s not another woman. It’s that ranch you and Jake bought. That’s what you love. It’s all about makin’ money off that spread. It’s all about land and more land. You don’t really want the things we used to talk about. A nice home, with kids running around, and a good life on a small spread. You want something different and I am not part of your dream”
YOUNG ES:  “Belle, don’t you see what me and Jake doin’? Why, we can git the whole valley. The biggest ranch, the most cattle anyone ever had. I ain’t changed. I always told you that I wanted my own spread. I now know how to make a real livin’ and I will be able to buy you anything you want, lots of store bought stuff, given enough time.”
BELLE:  “It wasn’t money or land or cattle that I wanted. And it wasn’t store bought stuff I dreamed of.  God owns the cattle on a thousand hills.”
YOUNG ES:  “I can own even more. I ain’t changed. We’re set to marry, ain’t we? That ain’t changed.”
GIRL:  ”You never exactly said it had changed. Never.”
YOUNG ES:  “What’s changed then?”
GIRL: “You. The way you talk, the way you act, the things you want. What you live for. Eb, if you were free to-day, to-morrow, yesterday, can even I believe that you would choose a girl like me? A girl with no money, from a family with no land, no dowry from my Papa.”
YOUNG ES:  “No money, no land, now dowery…I reckon they’s still things to be said in your favor, Belle.”
GIRL: “Eb, I release you. With a full heart, for the love of him you once were. I will be leavin’ the valley soon. May you be happy in the live you have chosen.”

[Song: Red River Valley]

Old Eb and Young Eb lament what they have lost—“the cowgirl who loved you so true.”

ES:  “Spirit! Git me out of here.”
SPIRIT: “I told you these were shadows of the things that have been . That they are what they are. You cain‘t blame me for that.”
ES: “Git me out of here. I don’t’ want to see any more of this. Git me back to my ranch. Haunt me no longer!”

[Eb Scrooge realizes he is back in his room.]

Christmas Suggestions

What I think my study area looks like:

Something closer to reality:

With Christmas coming, it is time to start making suggestions to all of you as to what book selections you need to get for the readers in your life.  If, by the way, you have no readers in your life, I can only grant you pity.  Please note that this is not MY CHRISTMAS LIST.  This are books and authors I am recommending to others.  In most cases, I have and have read from the books and authors mentioned.

I will begin today by mentioning 5 authors whose works I have enjoyed.  And though their works have not made me a penny richer, they brought me joy and delight, which are the two prime attributes of reading.

1.  Rick Bragg.  All Over But the Shoutin’ is the best place to begin.  It is also Bragg’s first book dealing with his family, and it is about his mother.  The next book was about his grandfather and is titled Ava’s Man.  The third book is darker, more painful, but still incredibly moving.  It is The Prince of Frogtown.  A more recent book is The Most They Ever Had.  This short book is an account of the poor Southerners who sacrficed their lives and health working in cotton mills.  Bragg’s books are about the hardships of life in the South.  The South has been a land of faith and suffering.  These books are a chronicle of that world.  You may have discovered Rick Bragg in your Southern Living magazine where he contributes a great column about his experiences in Southern living.

2.  Bret Lott.  I have been singing the praises of Bret Lott’s books for several years now.  He is one of the best novelists in the country today.  Novels by Lott that I would recommend include Jewell, Ancient Highway, The Hunt Club (scary!), and A Song I Knew By Heart.  His two books on writing Before We Get Started: A Practical Memoir of a Writer’s Life and Letters and Life: On Being a Writer, On Being a Christian are great reads.  As noted, Lott is a Christian.  He also writes very realistic fiction.  He is not in the vein of sweet, sentimental, gushy Christian authors whose characters come to Jesus in the last chapter.  But there are strong chords of the faith in his books.  He writes far more like Flannery O’Connor than like the author of the Elsie Densmore series.  Reader beware:  God’s grace is for a fallen world.

3.  Jesse Stuart.  I have only like Jesse Stuart’s books since I was a ninth grader in 1970.  The Thread That Runs So True is the about the most influential book I have ever read regarding teaching school.  Hie to the Hunters is one of my favorite books to teach junior high students.  This past year I read Stuart’s first major collection of poetry, titled Man With a Bull-Tongue Plow.  These 750 rough sonnets chronicle life in Kentucky, filled with both the beauties of farm life and the harsh realities of life.  Stuart wrote a number of novels, many short stories, an incredible number of poems, and several autobiographical accounts of his life.  I am always thankful for the on-going work of the Jesse Stuart Foundation in keeping his books and legacy alive.

I still lack an autographed copy of a Jesse Stuart book.

4.  Jan Karon.  I read the Mitford novels some years ago and really enjoyed them.  I read them slowly and only at those times, to quote Robert Frost, “when I’m weary of considerations, And life is too much like a pathless wood….”  Father Tim and the community of Mitford, both church and neighbors, offered a glimpse of the real struggles and challenges of life.  I always feel inadequate as a pastor when I compare myself to my Episcopal fictional colleague Father Tim.  My wife first read this series and was constantly laughing uncontrollably and telling me that Father Tim reminded her of me.  So, initially, I hated the books, but finally began reading them out of spite and grew to love them.  These books are a picture of how the church is to, or ought to, exist in community.

5.  James Herriot.  It was about or possibly even over 30 years ago that I began purchasing paperback copies of James Herriot’s wonderful books about his life as a veterinarian in Yorkshire, which is the northern farm country of England.  His four main books took their titles from a great English hymn.  The books are All Things Bright and Beautiful, All Creatures Great and Small, All Things Wise and Wonderful, and The Lord God Made Them All.  These stories will make you laugh; they will make you cry; and sometimes you will do both. I read these books slowly, very slowly.  I only allowed myself to read James Herriot when I was either exhausted or defeated by some events in life.  Back in the 1980s, the day-by-day battles were different, but the books were good medicine.  Many of Herriot’s works have been reprinted and repackaged in picture books, children’s editions, and other formats.  I feel like I need to start the whole series over.