The Most Wonderful Time of the Year | Influence Podcast


Andy Williams sang that Christmas is “the most wonderful time of the year.” He was right, though for the wrong reasons. Now, don’t get me wrong! “Parties for hosting, marshmallows for toasting, and caroling out in the snow” are great and everything, but they’re not what Christmas is ultimately about.

In Episode 161 of the Influence Podcast, I talk to Joseph Castleberry about the real reason why Christmas is such a wonderful time of the year. We also debunk a few myths people believe about Christmas.

Dr. Castleberry is president of Northwest University in Kirkland, Washington, an ordained Assemblies of God minister, and a former missionary to Central America. More germane to this podcast, he’s author of 40 Days of Christmas, published by Broadstreet (which I reviewed here).

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A Killing at the Creek | Book Review


“All in the world Elsie Arnold wanted was a murder case,” and in A Killing at the Creek, Nancy Allen gives her one.

This is the second crime novel in Allen’s series of mysteries set in fictional McCown County in southwest Missouri. Like the first novel, The Code of the Hills, Allen’s writing is pitch-perfect in its depiction of the Ozarks, right down to a throwaway mention on page 116 of the Assemblies of God—“No drinking, no cussing. No dancing”—which is headquartered in Springfield. (I’m an AG minister and Springfield resident.)

Elsie Arnold is an assistant prosecutor in McCown County, and she wants to try a murder case to advance her career. The problem is that her boss, Madeleine Thompson, hates her and takes the case herself, assigning second chair to Chuck Harris, the newly hired chief assistant from Kansas City. (Newly hired in no small part to block Elsie’s advancement.) But when police capture a suspect, who’s a 15-year-old juvenile from St. Louis, Thompson and Harris get cold feet and had Elsie the legal briefs.

The suspect, Tanner Monroe, is an unlikable kid who insists on an ODDI defense (“other dude did it”). His cagey defense lawyer, Billy Yocum, seeks a “MD or D” defense—“mental disease or defect”— since there’s no evidence of the other dude, but Monroe refuses to cooperate. What starts out as a strong case gets weakened due to questionable prosecutorial decisions and Elsie’s romantic entanglement with Bob Ashlock, the detective running the investigation. Will these errors doom Elsie’s prosecution, or will she close the case?

I liked this novel in most respects. What Sue Grafton did for Santa Barbara in her Alphabet Mysteries is like what Nancy Allen is doing in these Ozark Mysteries. The book has a strong regional flair, the plot is believable, and the legal ups and downs of the story reflect the author’s years as a Missouri prosecuting attorney.

Even so, the last few pages have a deux ex machina feel to it. Allen drives the story line forward and then, seemingly out of nowhere, she takes the solution of the case in a suddenly different direction. To this reader, that ending just didn’t set right.

Still, I liked the novel and read it in one sitting. I look forward to reading the remaining two books in the series and hope more are forthcoming.

Book Reviewed
Nancy Allen, A Killing and the Creek: An Ozarks Mystery (New York: WitnessImpulse, 2015).

P.S. If you liked my review, please vote “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

5 Lessons I Learned by Fasting Social Media | Influence Magazine


My wife Tiffany could tell something was wrong with me. We had just spent a day with the kids at the local amusement park, Silver Dollar City. (Tiffany calls it “Steal Your Dollar City.”) The weather was perfect, the ride lines were short, the food was delicious, and the kids had a great time. And yet, my face gave away my inner turmoil.

“What’s wrong, honey?” Tiffany asked.

“My emotions are off,” I replied. “I’m not responding emotionally as I should.”

The immediate cause of my unease was an exchange on Facebook. A friend posted about a national tragedy that had just occurred. Rather than grieving about that tragedy, I commented about how people were using that tragedy to score political points. A third person jumped all over me for my comment, going so far as to question my Christianity. It got ugly.

All this took place while my family enjoyed their day out. In the midst of an amusement park, I was angry and unamused. My kids were riding rides. I was on my iPhone arguing with a stranger.

My wife asked, “What are you going to do?”

“I’m going to fast social media for a while,” I finally responded.

Right then and there, I resolved to fast social media through the month of November. When I got home, I announced on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram that I was taking a break from social media — except for work-related matters— and then deleted those apps from my iPhone and iPad. I kept my resolution, except on a handful of occasions, for which my wife gently reproached me.

Now, I’m not going to lie to you and tell you that my fast instantly solved the problem of my emotional out-of-whackness. It didn’t. I’ve still got work to do. But my fast did teach me a few lessons about myself and social media that I think are worth sharing, five in particular. Here they are:

First, I spend too much time on my iPhone. According to my most recent Screen Time report, I spend, on average, four hours, 7 minutes per day on my iPhone. And that’s after my social media fast. Evidently, I was spending even more timeon my iPhone before the fast.

In my defense, I do a lot of work on my iPhone. Plus, I usually stream TV shows on it when I’m at home. (At my house, Tiffany controls the remote.) Still, more than one day out of every week seems like an excessive amount of time to stare at a small pixelated screen. And yet, studies I’ve seen peg the average time Americans spend on smartphones at between three and five hours daily. So I’m average in my excessiveness. That’s not good.

Second, time is an exclusive commodity. Each day, God gives us 24 hours. Time doesn’t come with a pause button, let alone one for rewind or fast-forward. We use it; then we lose it.

The question I have to ask myself is whether spending more than four hours a day on an iPhone is the best use of my time. Just asking the question answers it. No, of course not!

Even granting that I need a smartphone to do smart work — which is true in a modern economy, to a certain degree — I’ve been reminded again and again that there are other things to do than stare at my iPhone. At the very least, arguing on Facebook with a stranger while my kids are riding roller coasters at an amusement park is a waste of time — mine, his, theirs.

Third, I have learned that I am easily distracted. In his Pensées— “Thoughts” — the Christian philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

In other words, we long for the distraction of constant activity. If you don’t believe me, try sitting quietly in a room for an hour all by yourself. No TV. No radio. No book or newspaper or crossword puzzle. And definitely no smartphone or tablet.

It’s difficult. In my case, it’s difficult in large part because I have three kids, ages 5, 6 and 10, clamoring for my attention, as well as a wife who likes to unwind by watching reality TV. There’s not a quiet room at Chez Wood.

And yet, it’s also difficult because I don’t like being left alone with my thoughts. So, I unlock my iPhone and browse the web for news. I like and comment on friends’ posts on Facebook. I unleash a string of bon mots on Twitter. I look at pictures on Instagram. I stream a movie on Netflix.

Psalm 46:10 says, “Be still, and know that I am God.” Think about that for a moment. It implies that unless we can be still, we cannot know God. No wonder Pascal thought all of humanity’s problems stemmed from our inability to be still!

Fourth, I fear missing out. When I am still, I know God. I know that He loves me because of what Christ has done, not because of what I have done. This roots my identity in His grace, mercy, and forgiveness rather than in any accomplishment on my part. And this identity gives me a deep satisfaction with life, whatever my lot in it might be. “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances,” Paul writes (Philippians 4:11).

Compare that statement with what social scientists call FOMO — the fear of missing out. One of the reasons I spend so much time on social media is because I fear missing out on the news, on the latest gossip, on the newest and best in online entertainment.

And yet, there is an irony at work on social media. Think of it this way: I present my best life online. I take (and retake) pictures to get just the best one. I write (and rewrite) posts to be the funniest or most insightful. What you see of me is the me I want you to see.

And that means what I see of you is the you that you want me to see. I’m not seeing reality online. I’m seeing filtered reality.

The problem is that when we view others’ filtered lives online, we get jealous. We think others are leading better lives than our own, and we want the lives they appearto be leading more the lives we ourselves are actuallyleading. Ironically, then, we end up fearing that we have missed a reality that is in fact fake.

No wonder studies indicate that people who spend too much time on social reality are depressed! After spending nearly a month off social media — with clearly defined exceptions — I found that my mood had improved considerably. As I said above, I’m still working on out-of-whack emotions, but I’m in a much better place than I was at the end of October.

That brings me to a fifth and final lesson: I need discernment and discipline. At one point, I considered trading in my smartphone for a dumbphone and deleting all my social media accounts.

I didn’t do that for two reasons. For one thing, my iPhone has become a helpful tool at work. For another thing, the real problem isn’t the tool; it’s how I use the tool. The abuse or misuse of a thing doesn’t destroy its proper use, after all.

So, after my social media fast, I’m trying to be more discerning about how I use my iPhone, starting with simply using it less. Less time on it is more time for my wife and kids, friends, coworkers, neighbors … and for God.

I’m also trying to be more disciplined. Instead of reaching for my iPhone to distract me from my boredom, I’m trying to sit quietly in that room, attentive to God and to how He might be leading me. That’s always more important than whatever is happening online.

P.S. This article is cross-posted from InfluenceMagazine.com with permission.

The Code of the Hills | Book Review


The Code of the Hills is the first of four (so far) crime novels by Nancy Allen featuring Elsie Arnold. It is set in the Ozarks of southwestern Missouri, in Barton, the seat of McCown County, for which Elsie works as a prosecuting attorney. Both the town and the county are fictional, but Allen’s portrayal of southwestern Missouri is pitch perfect, from the patois (you’uns, not y’all) to the overworked foster care system, from the poverty and meth to backcountry Pentecostals. The Baldknobbers—a vigilante group from the postbellum era—get a nod, and there’s even a jibe or two thrown in at Springfield, the third largest city in Missouri and “The Queen City of the Ozarks.”

The crime at the heart of The Code of the Hills is incest, and the mystery is whether Elsie Arnold will be able to successfully prosecute Kris Taney for it. (Even the name Taney has Ozarks resonance, by the way, since Taney County is real and has its own lake, Lake Taneycomo—for Taney County, Missouri, of course.) The witness who called in the crime—Kris’s brother Al—has disappeared. The Taney women—mom Donita, daughters Charlene, Kristy, and Tiffany—aren’t cooperating. Mom has taken up with a new beau while Dad is in jail, which Kris’s defense attorney thinks points to a setup. A key piece of evidence gets incinerated. A group of misinformed “Apostolic” Pentecostals take up Kris’s defense on the grounds of “family values,” and make Elsie’s life miserable in the process. (The scene where their itinerant pastor sets them straight in a sermon was a hoot, at least to this member of the clergy.) And Elsie’s incompetent boss—Madeleine Thompson—has it out for her. If Elsie loses the case, she loses her job.

You’ll have to read The Code of the Hills to discover the outcome. (And to find out what “the code of the hills” is.) What I liked about the novel is that it tells a story that feels like the Ozarks. If you live here, you’ll know what I mean. As a former foster parent, I’ve seen the reality of abuse and neglect, the poverty of many families, and the overwhelmed resources of the state of Missouri up close. This novel has a ring of truth to it. That’s probably because Nancy Allen is a native Missourian, former prosecuting attorney, and law professor at Missouri State University in my home town of Springfield.

I enjoyed The Code of the Hills. It kept me turning pages, which is my number-one criteria for mystery novels. So, I look forward to reading the next three novels in the series. I’m sincerely hoping Elsie Arnold comes to Springfield in one of them…

Book Reviewed
Nancy Allen, The Code of the Hills: An Ozarks Mystery(New York: WitnessImpulse, 2014).

P.S. If you liked my review, please vote “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

Welcoming Justice, 2nd ed. | Book Review


On December 3, 1956, Martin Luther King Jr. opened the first annual Institute on Nonviolence and Social Change in Montgomery, Alabama, with a message titled, “Facing the New Age.” The institute was sponsored by the Montgomery Improvement Association, which King led. Almost a year to the day earlier, Montgomery police had arrested Rosa Parks for refusing to give up her seat on a crowded bus to a white man. Her arrest began a yearlong bus boycott that ended with a Supreme Court decision ordering the desegregation of public transportation throughout Alabama.

King began his address by noting that both around the world and in the United States, people of color were throwing off the chains of imperialism and slavery. In place of that oppression, King proclaimed, “We have before us the glorious opportunity to inject a new dimension of love into the veins of our civilization.” He defined that love in a mashup of Matthew 5:44–45 and Luke 6:27–28: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you, that you may be the children of your Father which is in Heaven.” Love—not violence nor hate nor boycotts—was both the means and end of the movement King sought to lead.

It is true that as we struggle for freedom in America we will have to boycott at times. But we must remember as we boycott that a boycott is not an end within itself; it is merely a means to awaken a sense of shame within the oppressor and challenge his false sense of superiority. But the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform oppressors into friends…. It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men.

King’s speech plays an important role in Charles Marsh and John M. Perkins’ Welcoming Justice. On the one hand, it helps explain the fragmentation of the Civil Rights movement that began in late 1964 when the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee “moved away from Christian formulations of nonviolence and beloved community,” as Marsh puts it. He continues, “Removed from its home in the church, the work of building beloved community withered and died.”

On the other hand, King’s words provide the setting for Perkins’ life work in completing “the unfinished business of the Civil Rights movement.” In 1960, Perkins and his wife Vera Mae had returned to their home town of Mendenhall, Mississippi, to teach Bible stories to kids in public school. But the entrenched poverty and racial antagonism he experienced there led him to expand the vision of his ministry and to articulate the “three Rs” of community development, which Marsh defines this way:

  • Relocation: “incarnational evangelism, the lived expression of the great Christological theme that Jesus Christ ‘did not consider equality with God something to be grasped’ but took on ‘the very nature of a servant’ (Philippians 2).”
  • Redistribution: “sharing talents and resources with the poor,” as well as “observable changes in public policy and voting habits.” More than politics, Marsh explains, Perkins understood the Christian community itself as a “distinctive social order.”
  • Reconciliation: “embodying the message that ‘ye are all one in Christ Jesus’ and that Christ has ‘destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility’ in lived social experience.”

Perkins has spent the last six decades of his life in pursuit of this vision of the beloved community.

Welcoming Justice alternates chapters between Marsh and Perkins, who have been friends for nearly forty years. In his chapters, Marsh, who is director of the Project on Lived Theology and professor of religious and theological studies at the University of Virginia, provides historical background to the Civil Rights movement and Perkins’ life and ministry, as well as introducing other contemporary expressions of community development, such as the “new monastic” movement. Perkins, in his chapters, shares his thoughts about the cultural captivity of the church, what the next Great Awakening will look like, and what it will take to build the “beloved community” in America today.

I don’t agree with everything Marsh and Perkins write in Welcoming Justice. I’m awed by Perkins’ life story, cognizant of the deep strain of racism that runs through our nation’s history—including its churches, and committed to racial reconciliation. I agree that churches must do more than they do now, both to heal our racial wounds and to lift up the poorest in our community. I’m just not sure that Perkins’ brand of community development is the way to go economically. That said, Marsh and Perkins—especially Perkins—inspire and challenge me to do more than I have been doing. My guess is that the book will have the same effect on you.

Welcoming Justice was first published in 2009, a year after Barack Obama was elected president of the United States. The second edition, just published, comes out a year after white supremacists organized a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee from Emancipation Park. On the day of the rally, a white supremacist drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, injuring many and killing Heather Heyer.

The prefaces to the first and second editions of the book, by Philip Yancey and Marsh, respectively, capture the “two steps forward, one step back” character of American discussions about race. Our country has come a long way in the half-century since Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, but we still have a way to go before we realize the “beloved community” he dreamed of. Toward that end, to quote the sentence Perkins ends the book with: “Love is the final fight.”

Book Reviewed
Charles Marsh and John M. Perkins, Welcoiming Justice: God’s Movement Toward Beloved Community, 2nded. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2018).

P.S. If you liked my review, please vote “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

Woke Church | Book Review


The word woke is slang for being “aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice).” Dr. Eric Mason appropriates this term to describe a church that has been “awakened to the reality of implicit and explicit racism and injustice in [American] society.” Such a church is characterized by four attributes:

  1. Awareness of the “overarching truths” that unite the Body of Christ, including the relationship of justice to the gospel (chapter 2) and the Church as the holy family of God (chapter 3);
  2. Acknowledgement of the history of racism among American Christians (chapter 4), which provides a list of beliefs and practices to lament (chapter 5);
  3. Accountability for churches to “reclaim our roles as light and salt in the world” by means of “prophetic preaching” (chapter 6) and advocacy for justice, which is understood to encompass how both individuals and systems act and react (chapter 7); and
  4. Action, which suggests “ten action steps” churches can take “to bring healing and justice into our spheres [of influence]” (chapter 8).

Mason concludes the book (chapter 9) with a brief study of the book of Revelation, which paints the “bigger picture” of God’s vision of the Church. “If the church can keep this image of what is to come before us,” Mason writes, “we will be energized to accomplish His purposes in the earth. We will work as one unified body, across all ethnic lines” (Revelation 7:9–10).

Mason is the founder and pastor of Epiphany Fellowship in Philadelphia, PA. He is a black evangelical who describes himself as “exegetically at home with my conservative family on the doctrines of grace, but ethically at home with my liberal family on issues of race and justice.” My guess is that Mason’s dual at-home-ness may frustrate readers. Conservatives may think some of his suggestions go too far, while liberals may think they don’t go far enough.

As a conservative white evangelical, the best piece of advice I can give to readers like me is this: listen. White and black Christians may read the same Bible, but they read it from very different social locations. And in my experience, white Christians are often unaware of the breadth and depth of racism in American history, including the history of the American church. Until we listen to our black brothers and sisters we cannot hope even to begin bridging the racial divide in our churches, let alone our country.

Dr. Eric Mason’s Woke Church is a right step in that direction.

Book Reviewed
Eric Mason, Woke Church: An Urgent Call for Christians in America to Confront Racism and Injustice (Chicago: Moody, 2018).

P.S. If you like my review, please vote “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

40 Days of Christmas | Book Review


Christmas doesn’t begin at my house until Thanksgiving is over. But once the turkey is digested, the tree goes up, Mariah Carey’s Christmas album gets played on endless loop (it’s that good!), and the countdown to December 25th begins. Literally. The kids have a chalkboard that says, “Santa comes to our house in _____ days.” (As of today, it’s 28 days, in case you’re wondering.) For my family, Christmas is a season, not just a day.

Joseph Castleberry’s family and mine are evidently of like mind about the Christmas season. In his new book, 40 Days of Christmas, he provides a daily devotional to guide individuals and families from November 28 to January 6. In the traditional Christian calendar, November 28 is the earliest date Advent can begin, and January 6 is the Feast of Epiphany — a total of 40 days to reflect on the humble birth of Jesus Christ at Bethlehem and to hope for His glorious Second Coming.

Castleberry — “Joe” to his friends, among whom I count myself — is president of Northwest University in Kirkland, Washington, a Pentecostal minister, and a former missionary. He brings scholarly erudition, pastoral insight, and intercultural sensitivity to bear in these short daily devotions. Even if you don’t follow the traditional Christian calendar, these devotional thoughts are certain to inspire your celebration of the Savior at this time of year.

I appreciated three things about 40 Days of Christmas in particular. First, the book skillfully handles Old Testament prophecy. At Christmastime, we too often detach messianic prophecies from their original contexts. But as Castleberry reminds us, “Old Testament prophecies [such as Isaiah 9:6–7] usually had a near-term meaning that related to the time in which they were given, but the prophecies would carry a ‘surplus of meaning’ — elements that contemporary fulfillment did not exhaust.” By noting both the “near-term meaning” and “surplus of meaning,” Castleberry’s devotions help us better understand and appreciate the prophecies Christ fulfilled.

Second, 40 Days of Christmas debunks several Christmas myths. There was no “inn” at Bethlehem that refused Joseph and Mary service. The Greek word refers to the extra room at a house. Christ was not born on December 25, but the reason we celebrate His birth on that date is not because early Christians sanctified pagan holidays. And, there’s nothing wrong with Christians singing “secular” holiday classics like “White Christmas” or “Jingle Bells.” For Christians, even Santa Claus is OK. “He’s a good brother, and he does good work,” as one Pentecostal “prophesied” after his pastor excoriated St. Nick in a sermon — a funny and true story Joe got from my dad, as it turns out.

Third, and most importantly, the book keeps its focus on Christ. Bing Crosby memorably sang, “I’ll be home for Christmas,” and many of us associate Christmastime with going “home for the holidays.” But as Castleberry notes, this isn’t what Christmas is really or ultimately about. Ironically, he writes, Christmas “has everything to do with leaving home on a noble and holy mission to save those who have become lost and helpless without God, who face the danger of losing their heavenly home for eternity.” Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners. That’s the reason for the season.

Castleberry concludes the book with a brief nod to Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which speaks of the “Spirit of Christmas.” For Dickens, the spirits of Christmas Past, Present and Future showed Ebenezer Scrooge what his life could have been and still could be. For Castleberry — good Pentecostal that he is — the Spirit of Christmas is the Holy Spirit, who played such as prominent role in Christ’s birth (see Luke 1–2) and who “continues to deliver every good and perfect gift that comes from the Father.” If we want to celebrate Christmas all year long, we must be filled with the same Spirit who filled Jesus Christ.

If you’re looking for a devotional to read personally or with your family, I highly recommend my friend Joe Castleberry’s 40 Days of Christmas. Here are his closing words: “My prayer for you is that God will fill you richly with the Holy Spirit, bringing miraculous help to your everyday life throughout the year to come, and indeed throughout your whole life.”

Amen to that!

Book Reviewed
Joseph Castleberry, 40 Days of Christmas: Celebrating the Glory of Our Savior (Savage, MN: BroadStreet, 2018).

P.S. If you liked my review, please vote “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

P.P.S. This review is cross-posted from InfluenceMagazine.com with permission.