Michael M. Massar D.Min.
One of the pleasures that became vital in my life as a minister is reading. When I was just a first-grader, my mother took me to the Ector County Library. There she helped me get my first library card and introduced me to the world of books. It was one of the best things, among so very many wonderful ones, that she did for me. Over the years I have benefitted from her introduction of books, and I have become a bit of a bibliophile, collecting books that now overflow the shelves in my study and most other surfaces of our home. My addiction is not helped by the fact that my wife is much the same.
One of the habits of bibliophiles is to constantly be attentive to recommendations from other people and sources. Consequently, I am always on the lookout for possible reads. Whether it be family or friends, the New York Times Book Review, The Christian Century or other resources, I’m always interested in what people are reading. And nothing pleases me more than to happen upon a new book or to hear a recommendation of a good read.
With that noted, here are some things I’ve enjoyed lately. Maybe one will strike your fancy.
Here If You Need Me by Kate Braestrup (recommended to me by Wendy Barker, a fellow bibliophile) is the true story of one of the first chaplains appointed to the Maine Warden Service. It is a quick-moving memoir of a person’s journey through grief by faith, not in the least schmaltzy or maudlin. Braestrup is, in John Claypool’s terms, “a fellow struggler.”
The World in Black and White by Clyde Fant, who has been my mentor and friend for many years now, captures in personal and poignant ways the struggles of the civil rights movement in Northwestern Louisiana in the 60s. Bill Moyers sums it up well in his review of the book, “When I was almost done with it, I slowed my reading because I couldn’t bear the thought of it coming to an end.”
Big Wonderful Thing by Stephen Harrington (given to me by my daughter and son-in-law, also avid readers) is a delightful short history of Texas. It reads like a novel and provides the reader with so many fascinating insights to Texas that are new to most people.
Outgrowing Church by John Killinger is, ironically enough, a most hopeful book for those who fear the extinction of the church. Killinger, who taught homiletics at Vanderbilt and has pastored churches throughout the United States, is one of the most compassionate advocates for the Christian faith.
The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes is an historical novel based on the true story of the Pack Horse Library initiative, about the women who delivered library books on horseback to remote parts of eastern Kentucky in the last century. It is a great book to read but also a joy to listen to when read by Julia Whelan. Ms. Whelan is amazing in her ability to transform her voice into a variety of characters. It’s worth listening to again and again.
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens is one of the most popular books of the past few years. It has been at the top of the New York Times booklist for over a year. Ms. Owens is a zoologist turned novelist. She describes her treasure by saying that it is “a nature-immersed mystery and love story with an ending that you’ll never guess, and never, ever forget.”
Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino is a collection of essays from a young author who grew up in Houston, Texas. She is bright, articulate and most revealing for those of us who are trying to understand the Millennial mindset.
The Dearly Beloved by Cara Wall (recommended to me by my sister) is a novel of genuine goodness and faith, a story of two couples seeking to live out their marriages and callings with faith that is unvarnished in its questionings and doubts, but still amazingly nourishing.
He Held Radical Light by Christian Wiman is the latest from one of America’s best poets. Wiman hails from Snyder, Texas, of all places and is described by author Marilynne Robinson, “Christian Wiman’s poetry and his scholarship have a purifying urgency that is rare in this world. It puts him at the very source of theology, and enables him to say things in timeless language, so that the reader’s surprise and assent are one and the same.”
God Save Texas by Lawrence Wright has been out for a couple of years, but it is a witty, insightful collection of essays that capture the joy and zaniness of being a Texan.
Editor’s Note: You will be aware that we have changed the format of “Dawntreading.” The hope with this new approach is that teachers and learners might find new reads for expanding their understanding of the Gospel.
because you have hope.
Do not forget,
for hope is always around the corner.
Be patient in suffering;
Be patient when the troubles come,
endure in distress.
For you are faithful in prayer.
persisting at all times.
You have devoted yourself
to the Lord.
So be joyful.
Because our hope is here.
“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”
John 1:14 (NRSV)
The Gospel – the Good News – of Jesus Christ, all in one verse. The incarnation – God coming to live among His people. When we think of the Nativity, we usually think of night, of the baby being born and the angels appearing to the shepherds during the night. God has often come to His people in times of darkness, more often spiritual than physical.
While the Israelites were living in captivity in Babylon, Ezekiel prophesied an ark on wheels, letting the Israelites know that God would come and dwell among His people, even in darkest Babylon. Jewish scholars have a term for the presence or dwelling of God among His people – the Shekinah of God. It encompasses both the dwelling place of God, such as the Ark in the Tabernacle or the Temple in Jerusalem, and the presence of God in those places.
In the Old Testament, the “glory of God” is one of the ways that God makes His presence known. In Ezekiel 11:23, the prophet refers to the “glory of Yahweh” moving from Jerusalem and toward Babylon, so that He might dwell with them. It is this glory that Moses saw and that both Ezekiel and John wrote about. John 1:14 reflects this connection between God’s presence or dwelling (His Shekinah) and the glory of God.
As John proclaimed, God chose to “pitch His tent” among us, to dwell among us, in the midst of our darkness, and we know it, because in Jesus, we have seen the glory of God. Emmanuel. God with us.
When something brings excitement to children or overwhelms them with joy, what do they do? They shout, they scream, they squeal with delight! They express it by making a loud and joyful noise! They certainly don’t whisper or sit and reflect on it quietly. And hearing their unrestrained reaction brings others great delight to see and hear that they can’t contain their joy!
We are God’s children, and in Psalm 98: 4-9, He tells us, “Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth!” … “with trumpets and the blast of a ram’s horn.” Even the earth joins in on the celebration — “let the rivers clap their hands, let the mountains sing together for joy…” In Luke 19:40, when the crowd of disciples was loudly praising God as Jesus entered Jerusalem, Jesus told the complaining Pharisees, “…if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.” God deserves all of our praise. As a child of God (John 4:12), why not praise Him as such? “Shout for joy before the Lord, the King.” (Psalm 98:6)
As the Christmas season is upon us, children will be shouting for joy on Christmas morning. We should be shouting for joy, about Christ! Just as when the angel announced Jesus’ birth to the shepherds and “a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God” (Luke 2:13-14) on the very first Christmas! It wasn’t a “silent night” but it was Holy.
Jeni and Ray Cook Furr
8 That night in the fields near Bethlehem some shepherds were guarding their sheep. 9 All at once an angel came down to them from the Lord, and the brightness of the Lord’s glory flashed around them. The shepherds were frightened. 10 But the angel said, “Don’t be afraid! I have good news for you, which will make everyone happy.
Why shepherds? Jesus is the Messiah. The King of Kings. Shouldn’t the angels have appeared to kings? Lots of people listen to kings. Shepherds were poor, simple people. They didn’t spend much time with others because most of their time was in the fields watching their sheep. They didn’t take many baths so they were not allowed inside the Temple. So, does it really make sense for the angel and the heavenly choir to make such an important announcement to shepherds at night in a field?
Maybe Luke wants us to make the connection that Jesus is related to Israel’s greatest king—David. He was a shepherd when he was a boy. He was born in Bethlehem. The Prophets said the Messiah would be one of David’s offspring. Telling the shepherds first reminds us about these prophecies.
Maybe Luke is trying to tell us something else too. In Luke’s gospel, he says the kingdom of God is like a huge dinner banquet that includes all kinds of people — people who don’t dress like us, speak English, and even those who need a shower. Maybe going to the shepherds first was God’s way of announcing to all of us — don’t be scared. I have good news. Starting now, you have a place reserved at God’s dinner table. Come eat with us—just as you are. Now that’s some really good news.
As puzzled as a virginal teenaged Mary must have been by the angel’s announcement in Luke 1:30-33, she readily accepts her role as expectant mother of the long-awaited Messiah. In Luke 1:46-48, she pours out her song of joy, praise, and gratitude to God in the beautiful Magnificat.
When given this scripture to ponder for an Advent devotional, I was reminded of a great Christmas joy that my family experienced on Christmas Eve, 2015. My daughter Julie and her husband Chris were a little tardy joining us for the Woodland service (occasioning a few choice glances at the saved seats from the assembling crowd). When they did arrive, each had an excited but stunned countenance. “Is everything okay?” I queried. Julie whispered with tears in her eyes, but joy and awe in her voice, “We just got a phone call on the way here. We’ve been chosen. We are getting a baby girl in January.”
Having experienced several miscarriages and failed pregnancies, they had prayed and grieved but became involved in the lives of many children and families in ways that would not have been possible had they had their own child. They had been on a waiting list for an adoption for almost 3 years and were feeling discouraged, but not abandoned by God. So, while it was not an angelic announcement, prayers were answered on that holy night! The entire family spent that service with tears of joy, “glorifying the Lord” and rejoicing in the “blessings of God our Savior.”
Our precious Avery will soon be four years old. We remain humbled and in awe of the marvelous gift that the “Mighty One” brought us in the form of this miraculous baby girl. Julie and Chris have told me that had God answered their prayers sooner, they would have never had Avery in their lives. Now, they would not have changed anything. Indeed, we are blessed. “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”
Mary Johns Nichols
2 The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned. 3 You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy; they rejoice before you as people rejoice at the harvest, as warriors rejoice when dividing the plunder.
Isaiah 9:2-3 (NIV)
The nation of Israel was walking in darkness in Babylonian captivity. There are times we feel we are walking in the land of deep darkness due to grief, depression, chronic pain or other life setbacks.
After my husband, Wally, died in May of 2000, I had my own time of darkness. He was so young! I was heartbroken! There was no will! There were bills to pay and little income! There were so many documents! The pain of loss was like heavyweights across my chest! Going to work and church with loving friends and family helped me continue the daily task of living.
The following spring, I was outside on my patio and noticed that several bougainvillea plants were growing new leaves after a hard winter. One of them, however, looked totally dead and I moved it aside to throw away. I often sat outside on the patio to read, think and pray. Every time I saw that dead plant, I thought about throwing it away, but it seemed too much effort. Weeks later, long after any hope was left, I saw a leaf starting to grow from that pitiful plant. It wasn’t dead—it had been in darkness. Seeing that plant deciding to survive to bloom again filled me with hope that I could start a new life. I felt God’s presence and light. What joy to feel the darkness melting away!!
Dear Lord, Please help us see your great light and respond to your love with great joy! Amen
Luke 2:11-14 (NIV)
11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” 13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
This past year, Jennifer and I welcomed the birth of our third grandchild, our first granddaughter, Annalise. As I’ve watched her grow from those very first 3-D sonogram images to the tiny preemie who was born five weeks early and now to a sweet and wonderful almost toddler, I’m reminded every day of the potential she carries inside her. As humans, we invest ourselves in our progeny. We have all kinds of dreams for them. We try to ensure they have all they need to grow into loving, giving, responsible adults.
I often think of Joseph and Mary in their role as the earthly parents of a young Jesus. While both understood the role they were chosen by God to play, I suspect they were still very human parents. They had hopes and dreams for their infant son. They both knew who their child was. I’m sure they both understood there would be times of joy, times of trial, and even times of heartbreak ahead. Imagine the responsibility they felt knowing who their child would grow to be. In the end, Joseph and Mary likely had to trust God to take care of their child. You know, just like all parents – at the end of the day, we choose to worry ourselves to death or to trust God to look out for our children. And that’s one of the hardest things for any of us to do – trusting God. In this Advent season, let’s choose to trust God and focus on hope.
Romans 15:13 (NIV) 13“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”
Psalm 136:1-9, 23-26
Memory. Remembering. How many times a day do we comment about our memory or the things we need to remember? We hear comments like, “I’d forget my head if it wasn’t screwed on!” or “I don’t have a good memory for peoples’ names.” I laugh at comments like these and at my own forgetfulness, but deep down, I am really bothered by the possibility of forgetting something important — a loved one’s birthday, an anniversary, an important meeting or appointment. Even worse is the prospect of being forgotten myself, of being invisible.
Psalm 136 assures and reminds us that we are remembered always and that God’s love endures forever. Our God is the God of gods and Lord of lords, the God of goodness, and the God of great wonders. The text says God remembered us, even in our “low estate.” This term is used historically to refer to the children of Israel, a nation of oppressed slaves. For us interpreting this today, “low estate” might mean our moments of darkness and despair, times when we are separated emotionally or physically from those we love, or just when we are feeling emptied out. And aren’t these exactly the moments when we need to hear God’s voice telling us we are known, loved and remembered?
This Advent season, I will be making a lot of lists to remember everything that needs doing during the holidays. I’ll undoubtedly have some exasperating moments or periods of sadness, as most of us do, but I plan to keep the words of Psalm 136 handy. They give me a boost, reminding me that I am never forgotten by God and that God’s love keeps coming my way.
Hallelujah! What a gift to keep in mind!
There’s not a lot of peace in our modern, daily lives. Pressures abound. Cell phones ringing. Email pinging. Obligations tugging at our shirttails. Maybe that’s why I so look forward to the worship hour at Woodland each Sunday.
Daniel chimes the hour, and I begin to feel at peace.
I hear the sound of the choir from the narthex, and the feeling of peace continues.
Randy leads the congregation in our opening hymn, and the peace expands throughout the sanctuary.
Mike and Lance bring our prayer, and we speak to God in peace.
Lois plays the offertory, and I’m reminded of the peace we receive through the giving of our tithes and offerings.
Lisa is surrounded by an ever-growing group of children, and I’m at peace for the future of the Church.
Garrett brings the message, and I’m challenged to understand and accept the Peace that God has provided to all of us through the gift of His Son.
Behold the gift of Peace that we celebrate this season. May we rejoice in the Peace that God provides us through Christmas; and allow this Peace to follow us throughout the coming year.
“Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine.”