I’ve added a hymnal to the pile of books I tote between laundry room and dining room table on the daily. Starting at page one, I’ve been working my way through the familiar and the unfamiliar and then recording a line that stands out to me in my journal. Playing hymnal roulette is not even close to being an inspired practice, but I’ve been amazed at the relevance of old hymns to my new day:
All that hath life and breath, come now with praises before Him.”(That’s me! And I hear the birds outside doing the same!)
Lord, how Thy wonders are displayed wheree’er I turn my eye…”(Even the bleakness of late fall has its own unique wonder!)
As warriors, through the darkness toil till dawns the golden day.”(Don’t give up! The normal Christian life is one of striving and “toil!” Anyone who tells you otherwise is probably selling something.)
This month, I’m sharing five books, two of which are designed to prepare your heart for a celebration of Jesus’s birthday. Let’s get started:
The Way Up Is Down
Some writers speak for justice from the outside of a circle. Their heart is in the right place, but their story is far afield from the lives of those they hope to represent and for whom they aspire to advocate.
Born into a poor family, Marlena Graves knows about poverty’s embarrassment and the claustrophobia that comes with limited access to opportunity. The Way Up Is Down employs the rich stories of Christianity’s historical saints alongside Graves’s compelling witness that those who see and walk Jesus’s way know a fullness borne out of emptiness.
Jesus also “lived at the bottom of society’s barrel and grew up on the wrong side of the tracks.” (17) Despised and rejected, he comforts the lowly and empowers us, his followers, to disregard public opinion as we allow God to reshape and reorder our categories.
Graves stands five feet and three inches tall in her small Puerto Rican body, but her voice is large and fiery as she calls the church to repentance of our indifference, of our selfish and apathetic response to the needs of the world. I was challenged particularly to ponder God’s goodness as it is demonstrated in his open-handed generosity. All he has given to us is ours to enjoy–and to share! “Modest living” in its truest sense flows from humility as we follow our giving God into lives of obedient sacrifice.
One of my favorite old hymns includes the line, “I ask no other sunshine than the sunshine of His face,” and whenever I have sung it, I’ve sensed a dissonance in my spirit that has nothing to do with the music. The truth is, I ask God for all kinds of sunshine, and I imagine you do as well. Here in North America, we accept stable employment, safe and comfortable living conditions, ample sustenance, and adequate (and even stylish!) clothing as our due, and we then go on to acquire any number of possessions that, eventually may come to possess us.
Cheryl Smith stood one day in her dream house and heard the Lord speak startling words to her spirit: “You are allowing this house and this yard to hold you prisoner.” God was calling her and her family to unload their home, most of their possessions, and to embark upon a life of simplicity which she now describes as Biblical Minimalism.
As Smith followed Jesus from “a life of abundance to a more abundant life,” she realized that what she owned truly owned her. She tells her family’s story, describing the freedom she experienced — but not prescriptively, for her path will not be everyone’s assignment. Her words are an anthem to what God has done in one woman’s heart and a challenge for every single one of us to beware of the bondage to our “things.” She concludes with practical advice learned along the way that may come to you just in time to align your own heart more faithfully with an uncluttered discipleship.
In this follow up to his first book, The Things of Earth: Treasuring God by Enjoying His Gifts, Joe Rigney perseveres with a question that bubbles to the surface for every believer at one time or another: Can I love God and still enjoy this world? With the precision of a theologian and the enthusiasm of a fresh raspberry eating, summer baseball playing young dad, Rigney places the question before readers once again, this time with a lighter touch.
Strangely Bright explores biblical passages to reconcile the tension there and in our own hearts as to how “a single-minded pursuit of the glory of God fits with a real and deep enjoyment of created things.” Perhaps the experience of loss is where we feel this most when we sense the subtle pressure to suppress our grief so as not to dishonor God or to be found loving something more than him.
Is it possible that Scripture contradicts itself?
“Whom have I in heaven but you?
And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.” (Psalm 73:25)
Everything is rubbish compared to Christ! But listen:
“For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving…” (1 Timothy 4:4)
This is permission to enter into the goodness of all God has made!
Rigney places these messages side by side and argues that we put supreme love for God on display when we enjoy his gifts. Tracing our enjoyment back to the Giver of all good things is one sure fire way to guard our hearts from idolatry and ingratitude as we make a spiritual practice of “enjoying God in everything and everything in God.” (LOC 699)
The Advent Narrative
Time bound and mired in the here and now, I can barely comprehend a God who functions outside of time. When Moses picked up his pen and wrote “In the beginning…” he was describing the creative work of Someone who had already been active, who Himself had no beginning.
Entering the constraints of time, it seems to me, would have been among Jesus’s greatest sacrifices in joining us here on Planet Earth with its fixed tides and its daily rhythms of daylight and darkness. Joining us, he ushered in a reason to celebrate, and in The Advent Narrative, Mary Geisen offers the gift of her own ponderings on the gift of Jesus’s coming.
Advent spreads a banner of hope over ordinary time as we accept God’s invitation to live in perpetual awareness of Jesus’s glorious second coming. Perhaps what you need as we all come careening into December of 2020 is a “call to posture yourself before God as you lean in to know him better.” (xviii)
As Advent people, we find in Jesus’s coming more than an occasion for empty traditions or a self-help program. Our hope is in the intersection of our own story with God’s story.
Imagine discovering that the wilderness wanderings you thought were wasted have actually been the doorway to a greater intimacy with God and others, for in the wilderness, we learn the depth of our own insufficiency, our own neediness.
I am receiving The Advent Narrative as a wake up call to the presence of God and year-round Kingdom living, for after the tree gets dragged to the burn pile and all the fudge has been mailed (or eaten), Emmanuel remains:
God with us in the waiting;
God with us in the growing;
God with us in our imperfect obedience;
God with us in the letting go;
God with us in the ongoing work of paying attention and being transformed into his likeness.
Hosanna in Excelsis
Did you ever stop to think about the hundreds of songs that have been written about the birth of Jesus? Every language and culture has made its contribution, ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous, but David and Barbara Leeman have collected the brightest and the best of them in a lovely volume that’s just right for the delightful combination of singing and pondering that have been part of my family’s Christmas tradition for a couple of decades.
Beginning on November 25, Hosanna in Excelsis: Hymns and Devotions for the Christmas Season offers forty three readings and Christmas hymns to take you through Advent, Christmastide, and into Epiphany and the New Year! Brief biographies of the authors and composers accompany each devotional reading, but the point is to get you and your family to sing your Christmas joy in the tradition of believers from the fourth century through today.
Perfect for gift giving or as an addition to your own Advent traditions, Hosanna in Excelsis will be a fresh infusion of joy to our first empty nest Christmas, and as Tucker the lazy St. Bernard adds his howling descant to our singing, we’ll nod in agreement with poet, Robert Herrick:
What sweeter music can we bringRobert Herrick (1591-1674)
Than a carol for to sing
The birth of this our heavenly King?
Now It’s Your Turn…
How is God showing up in your every day living?
Do you find yourself drawn to Jesus’s humility and a simpler way of life in the crazy season of acquisition that Christmas has become here in North America?
Do you have special books to enrich your Advent reading that you look forward to every year?
I hope you’ll share your thoughts in the comments below!
Many thanks to Intervarsity Press, Crossway, Moody Publishing, and the authors for providing copies of these books to facilitate my reviews, which, of course, are offered freely and with honesty.
Reading with Thanksgiving!
The November email newsletter lands in subscribers’ inboxes tomorrow, and if you’ve enjoyed this month’s gratitude series on the blog, perhaps you’ll want to subscribe to the newsletter, where I’m offering my readers a free devotional booklet: Make Gratitude the Music of Your Life. It’s a PDF compilation of the seven devotionals I’ve shared for Thanksgiving 2020. It’s just right for starting on Friday and reading one each day until Thanksgiving Day arrives. Click here to find details for subscribing.
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