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.

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‘Four Faces of a Leader’ by Bob Rhoden and Dean Merrill


201304_062_Four_artThe fall 2013 issue of Enrichment, the quarterly journal I edit, has an excerpt from Bob Rhoden and Dean Merrill’s new book, Four Faces of  Leader. Here are the opening paragraphs:

How do you know if you are an effective Christian leader? If you are like most in ministry, you first check attendance. “How many are coming on Sunday morning?” “What’s my percentage of increase compared to last year?”

Next, you look at your church’s financial record. “Are all the bills paid? Have we stayed on budget? Will the fiscal year end in the black?”

What if I measured myself by standards that told the real truth? Am I passionate about holding true to my original calling? Am I regularly doing acts of practical service? How good am I at casting vision and bringing about necessary change? These tell much more than a weekly head count or dollar total.

The Library of Congress has some 32 million books. Which world leader commands the most shelf space? George Washington? Abraham Lincoln? This may surprise you, but this auspicious place holds more books about Jesus Christ than any other person.

This confirms my inclination to use Jesus as a benchmark for effective leadership. In just 33 years, He accomplished more that has lasted longer with greater impact and wider reach than any leader in history. How did He do it?

In this article, I explore the four leadership faces of Jesus — the shepherd, the servant, the steward, and the seer. I summon you to a leadership journey that can potentially move you from simple survival … to success … and on to significance.

Read the whole thing.

Jimmy Carter Calls Christians to Return to Jesus’ Moral Agenda on Prisoners


In general, I’m not a fan of Jimmy Carter. He was a mediocre president and a meddlesome ex-president. However, over the last two weeks, I spent time in Ph.D. classes with a correctional chaplain from South Carolina. She informed the class of the dehumanizing effects of incarceration and encouraged us with examples of how Christian ministry can rehumanize inmates. What she said helped me cut Jimmy Carter a little slack and pay attention to his remarks.

Jesus’ moral agenda is summarized in Luke 4:18-19.

Unfortunately, U.S. Christians in general and Baptists in particular have neglected it, especially the part about prisoners.

That was the observation of former President Jimmy Carter in a video interview with EthicsDaily.com last week at the Carter Center.

“I don’t think there is any doubt but that Luke 4:18-19 describes Jesus’ moral agenda,” said Carter. “That part of Luke best encapsulates in a very brief way the entire thrust of Jesus’ ministry.”

“I think of all the several facets describing Jesus in Luke 4 about his own moral agenda, the one we have neglected most, and violated most, is the release of the captives, that is prisoners,” he said. “We’re going backward, not forward” in terms of the prison issue in the United States.

He lamented the nation’s “eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” approach to punishment.

“Unfortunately, led by some Christian leaders, our country has gone from a basic philosophy of rehabilitation of a prisoner to a punishment only – and the more severe and extended the punishment,” the better it is, he said.

“And this has resulted in the massive increase in America exclusively of the number of people serving prison sentences,” said Carter.

The World Wide (Religious) Web for Wednesday, June 15, 2011


This summer, the General Council of the Assemblies of God will vote on a proposal to consolidate the three nationally owned schools in Springfield, Missouri: AG Theological Seminary, Central Bible College, and Evangel University. Dr. George O. Wood, who serves as AG general superintendent (and is my dad) outlines the proposal in the video below:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Consolidation Proposal for Springfield Resident…, posted with vodpod

More information on the proposed consolidation is available here.

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In “Anthony Weiner and the National Adultery Ritual,” Kay Hymowitz writes: “Far from a vestige of American prudery, then, the National Adultery Ritual is best understood as a modern protest in behalf of women against the persistence of male infidelity in an age of equality.” Read the whole thing.

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“Nigeria’s violence political, not religious, says Muslim leader.” If you’re on the wrong end of the stick, does it matter what the stick-wielder’s motivation is?

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Make sure to read Scott Yenor on “The Family’s End” and “The Family: What Is To Be Done?” in which he battles against the notion that marriage is merely a contract between two individuals.

Marriage has contractual moments, but it ultimately, as Hegel writes, supersedes the point of view of contract as the individuals lose their identity by becoming members of the family. A healthy culture recognizes this and laws create a fertile space for such mutual self-giving. It is difficult to see how a healthy marriage culture can exist until we recover the language of self-giving to reflect its continuing reality in our lives. The language of contract is not sufficient to that experience.

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“Demonize the opposition, chapter 666”: about how the media portrays opponents of same-sex marriage, of course.

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“Can Government Get Out of the Marriage Business?” Contra Ron Paul, evidently not.

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“I Am Second.” Inspiring videos from people who have decided to live for God and others rather than for themselves.

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“The Perennial Brain-Mind Gap.” In which Raymond Tallis argues that “neuroscience cannot–not just has not yet, but cannot–explain consciousness itself.”

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“Jesus for Jews”: on the resurgence of Jewish interest in Jesus.

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“Too Late for Apologies: Three Steps the U.S. Bishops Should Take to Prevent Another Sexual Abuse Scandal.” Good advice!

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Don Carson, Tim Keller, and John Piper on pastoral succession plans.

The World Wide (Religious) Web for Wednesday, June 8, 2011


 

“Are You Smarter Than Anthony Weiner?” I certainly hope so. But Russell D. Moore provides a timely reminder about temptation and self-deception:

Almost every adultery situation I’ve ever seen includes a cheating spouse who honestly believes that he or she is not going to get caught. The cheater often doesn’t want the marriage to end in divorce. Instead, like the characters in today’s headlines, he or she instead wants to keep everything the same: spouse, kids, and lover too. That’s irrational and completely contrary to the way the world works. Anyone can see that.

But you can convince yourself…or be convinced…that it will work for you. You’re special, after all. That’s the way temptation functions. We put consequences out of our minds, both temporal and eternal consequences. We start to believe that we are gods, with power over good and evil and life and death. And then we do crazy things.

This doesn’t have anything to do with intelligence. Satan is hyper-intelligent. And yet, even knowing that he will ultimately have his skull crushed, he rages all the more against Christ and his people, “because he knows his time is short” (Rev. 12:12). In terms of the most basic principles of military strategy, that’s crazy. What we need is not intelligence, but wisdom. Wisdom includes seeing where the way I want to go will lead (Prov. 14:12).

I don’t know who you are, reader, but I know you are probably not smarter than Anthony Weiner or Arnold Schwarzenegger or John Edwards. And neither am I. Both of us, you and I, are on the verge of wrecking our lives. We’re probably not on the verge of a situation quite like any of those men, but the gospel tells us we have vulnerabilities just the same, and they all can lead to destruction.

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“What Sarah Palin Got Wrong—And We Did, Too.” If we’re going to criticize politicians, might as well be bipartisan about it.

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“Christian Conservatives flock to Michelle Bachmann.” You have to love this line from Haley Barbour: ““There’s only been one perfect person that ever walked on this earth. And there ain’t gonna be another one in this election.”

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“Perry’s Planned Prayer Event Riles Critics.” Though, truth be told, it doesn’t take much to rile them.

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Is a vote for Romney a vote for “a false and dangerous religion”? Hard to argue with the “false” part, though dangerous seems a bit of a stretch.

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“Must Christian Voters Choose Between Ayn Rand and Jesus?” Let’s see: an avowed egotist who created a cult of personality around herself or the Savior of the world… So (a) yes and (b) the choice is obvious.

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“1919 signed letter contains Hitler’s first known stance on Jewish ‘removal.’”

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“Religious art: fig leaf or full frontal?” How about a suit and a tie?

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“Americans Still Believe in God.” In other news, the pope is still Catholic.

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 “World soccer officials defend hijab ban after Iranian team forfeits match.” My guess is that most of the women don’t want to wear hijabs either, but they have to in order to play for the national team. Solution: Let them play!

The World Wide (Religious) Web for Tuesday, May 10, 2011


Best. Conspiracy. Ever.

Make sure to watch it all the way through. And read the credits; they’re hilarious.

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“Egypt in crisis talks after Muslim mobs attack Christian churches” or “12 dead in Egypt as Christians and Muslims clash”? GetReligion.org tries to sort out the facts.

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Is a bad marriage better than a good divorce? “Social scientists are concealing the harm that divorce, single parenting and stepfamilies do to children. Not only that, they are also hiding the benefits which even unhappy marriages bestow, not just on children, but on the couples involved.”

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Is a national curriculum a good idea? “National control over curriculum creates a single lever you can pull to move every school in America. Would conservatives trust progressives, and would progressives trust conservatives, not to try to seize control of that lever to inculcate their religious and moral views among the nation’s youth? And if you don’t trust the other side not to try to seize the lever, is there any reasonable alternative to trying to seize it first?”

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In “Europe’s Concerned, Worried, and Doubting,” David Mills reflects on the differences between European and American reactions to the death of Osama bin Laden.

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California college adds major in secularism. Of course, on many college campuses today, students get a minor in it already, though without knowing it.

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“How Christianity and capitalism can ‘heal’ the world.” An interesting article about “social investing.” Theologically, however, I’d prefer to delete –ity and capitalism from the title.

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“LGBT ‘Welcome’ Ad Rejected by Sojourners, Nation’s Premier Progressive Christian Org.” I’m on the opposite side of the issues from Rev. Robert Chase, but I too wonder how a Christian magazine can avoid taking sides on this issue.

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In “Judas,” Lady Gaga goes clubbing with Jesus, who’s a Latin biker, and… Oh, who cares! There’s no “shock value” in this video, only “shlock value.”

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In closing, and a bit more reverentially, Carrie Underwood and Vince Gil shine on this country rendition of “How Great Thou Art”:

I totally want to go to whatever church these two provide “special music” for.

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 P.S. Shameless self-promotion: Check out my article in Enrichment: “Up There, Down Here, Among Us, In Me.” It’s about praying for God’s kingdom.

The World Wide (Religious) Web for Friday, May 6, 2011


CNN Poll: Majority in U.S. say bin Laden in hell. The rest have read Love Wins.

Jackson Lears critiques atheism, specifically Sam Harris, from the port-side of the political spectrum.

On Harris’s view of science:

To define science as the source of absolute truth, Harris must first ignore the messy realities of power in the world of Big Science. In his books there is no discussion of the involvement of scientists in the military-industrial complex or in the pharmacological pursuit of profit. Nor is any attention paid to the ways that chance, careerism and intellectual fashion can shape research: how they can skew data, promote the publication of some results and consign others to obscurity, channel financial support or choke it off. Rather than provide a thorough evaluation of evidence, Harris is given to sweeping, unsupported generalizations. His idea of an argument about religious fanaticism is to string together random citations from the Koran or the Bible. His books display a stunning ignorance of history, including the history of science. For a man supposedly committed to the rational defense of science, Harris is remarkably casual about putting a thumb on the scale in his arguments.

On Harris’s view of religion:

But Harris is not interested in religious experience. He displays an astonishing lack of knowledge or even curiosity about the actual content of religious belief or practice, announcing that “most religions have merely canonized a few products of ancient ignorance and derangement and passed them down to us as though they were primordial truths.” Unlike medicine, engineering or even politics, religion is “the mere maintenance of dogma, is one area of discourse that does not admit of progress.” Religion keeps us anchored in “a dark and barbarous past,” and what is generally called sacred “is not sacred for any reason other than that it was thought sacred yesterday.” Harris espouses the Enlightenment master narrative of progress, celebrating humans’ steady ascent from superstition to science; no other sort of knowledge, still less wisdom, will do.

On Harris’s confusions about ethics:

Harris’s version of scientific ethics does not allow for complexity. In The Moral Landscape, he describes his philosophical position as a blend of moral realism (“moral claims can really be true or false”) and consequentialism (“the rightness of an act depends on how it impacts the well-being of conscious creatures”). He does not explain why he has abandoned the intentionalism he espoused in The End of Faith. Nor does he spell out how his newfound consequentialism can allow him to maintain his justification of collateral damage (which surely “impacts the well-being of conscious creatures”), or how his new view differs from the pragmatism he had previously condemned. Pragmatism, the argument that ideas become true or false as their impact on the world unfolds, is nothing if not consequentialist.

And on Harris’s fundamental reductionism:

There is a fundamental reductionist confusion here: the same biological origin does not constitute the same cultural or moral significance. In fact, one could argue, Harris shows that the brain cannot distinguish between facts and values, and that the elusive process of moral reasoning is not reducible to the results of neuroimaging. All we are seeing, here and elsewhere, is that “brain activity” increases or decreases in certain regions of the brain during certain kinds of experiences—a finding so vague as to be meaningless. Yet Harris presses forward to a grandiose and unwarranted conclusion: if the fact-value distinction “does not exist as a matter of human cognition”—that is, measurable brain activity—then science can one day answer the “most pressing questions of human existence”: Why do we suffer? How can we be happy? And is it possible to love our neighbor as ourselves?

Interesting.

Stoicism: The Army’s newly invented faith?

Why the National Day of Prayer endures. Because we need economic miracles to cover the distance between what government spends and what it makes? That’s my answer.

Random thoughts on theodicy and psychics. My favorite line about psychics: “Only in America, I guess, do fake practitioners of false phenomena worry about the authenticity of their professional work.”

Howard Kainz offers a Catholic explanation of how Jesus had brothers if his mother was a perpetual virgin. Color me unconvinced.

Christ wasn’t a communist. No duh! But he wasn’t a capitalist either.

Hebrew baby names still tops in 2010, but Jews constitute only 1–2% of the American population. Two explanations: (1) The biblical tradition continues to influence American culture. (2) Hebrews have cool baby names.

Using History to Mold Ideas on the Right: An article about David Barton, WallBuilders, and the quest of the historical Christian nation. UPDATE: Over at GetReligion.org–an indispensable blog about religion stories in the news–Sarah Pulliam Bailey has some questions about this article.

A two-part series on the Christian redemption of the “dismal science”: Part 1 and Part 2.