My Book of the Year 2012 Contenders

As promised, here are the books that are contending for the honor of being my fiction Book of the Year for 2012. Last year, the honor went to DIVERGENT by Veronica Roth. Tomorrow, I will announce the winner, and will open up a Rafflecopter widgety thing so you can have a chance to win a copy of that very novel!

Here they are:

The criteria I used to select these books were: 1) the book was a Book of the Month sometime this year (click on the book picture to be taken to that particular Book of the Month article), and 2) I gave the book a 5-star review on Goodreads. This means a lot of really good books I read this year are not included, which is sad, but there can only be one Book of the Month.

Of these books, which would you choose? Check back tomorrow to see who won, and to enter the raffle to win the novel!

Book of the Month for December, 2012

I know this is usually a Road Trip Wednesday thing, but the YA Highway people have been doing general “Year End” kind of stuff this week, and I’ve been a little preoccupied (in a good way) with Christmas, travel, and family to participate. But I still want to make a pick for Book of the Month, so here it is:

ANNA DRESSED IN BLOOD by Kendare Blake. An odd choice perhaps, given that I keep insisting I don’t read horror and this is YA Horror. But it was certainly the best book I read this month, and I will tell you why I think it deserves the accolade. First, let me tell you what it’s about. The main character, Cas, is a 17-year-old (I think that’s his age–either 16 or 17) ghost-hunter, a mantle he has taken from his dad ever since his father was gruesomely killed by the last spirit he encountered. He receives tips from various sources, and based on those tips, he and his mother (who is a dab-hand at witchcraft) move to where the troublesome spook is, hunts them down, and, with his father’s athame blade, sends them to their eternal home.

This time, Cas gets a tip about a murderous ghost in Thunder Bay, so they move to Canada. This particular ghost, known by the locals as “Anna Dressed in Blood” was the victim of a brutal assault, but no-one seems to know much about what happened. All they know is that her abandoned home is haunted by her, and anyone that enters that house ends up dismembered (it’s YA Horror, remember!). When Cas first encounters Anna, however, she spares his life. There’s more to Anna than Cas anticipated, and he certainly didn’t expect to second-guess his mission–but he does.

That’s about as much as I can say without giving away too much. I enjoyed the way the plot turns. Kendare does a great job of inserting backstory in a way that makes it interesting and doesn’t take you out of the story. She also puts in plenty of plot twists to keep you guessing. I can’t say there were huge surprises for me, and I guessed correctly some of the main plot points–but that’s not a big deal to me. These weren’t necessarily obvious, but she laid the clues for them and I picked up on the clues. That’s good writing, in my book. I found the characters to be believable, and well-conceived. It’s written in the present tense from Cas’s viewpoint, and his voice came through loud and clear.

It’s definitely not for the squeamish, though I shuddered more at Cas’s potty mouth than at the horror bits. That said, the book is not a blood-fest, and there’s very little (if any) sexual content. The R rating I would give it is largely because of the profanity and as a warning that there are gory bits. But again, Kendare doesn’t relish in the blood-and-guts. She tells you what happens, what Cas sees, and then gets on with the story. This goes to show that her main concern is the story, not the shock. I definitely recommend this to fans of the genre.

What was your favorite read this month?

Program Note:On Monday, I’ll post a list of contenders for my Book of the Year. On Tuesday, January 1st, I’ll announce my Book of the Year, and launch the contest to win a copy of that book.

Christmas Pancakes!

A few years ago, I started a tradition of cooking breakfast for the family on Christmas Eve. It was a full cooked breakfast, just like my dad used to do for my brothers and me when we were kids. Yes, we’re talking sausage, bacon, eggs, toast, tomatoes, mushrooms–the works, including vegetarian meat alternatives.

However, this year I decided to do something different. Cooking for a family of eight is a lot more stressful than when it was just four or five of us back when I was young. This past February, I made English pancakes for the family on Shrove Tuesday, and they were a hit. More than one person asked if we could have them more often. But when would we do that? That’s when the idea of Christmas Pancakes was born!

This morning, I cooked up a batch of English pancakes (see my Shrove Tuesday blog article for the recipe, and to learn the differences between English, Scottish, and American pancakes). I offered a range of fillings: sugar, lemon juice, strawberry jam, butter, Nutella, honey, powdered sugar, and even some maple syrup. It was interesting to see the various combinations people tried. I’m quite partial to strawberry jam on my pancakes (with, perhaps, some honey). My wife likes powdered sugar, and one of my kids made cinnamon sugar to go on hers.

So, today was the start of a new–or, rather, newly-modified–tradition in our household: Christmas Pancakes on Christmas Eve. Do you have any Christmas Eve traditions?

Have a great, and safe, Christmas, everyone. And watch out for upcoming blog posts featuring my Book of the Month for December, my Book of the Year, and the opportunity to win a copy of that book…!

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Sunday Devotional: Romans 5:10-11

If while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

One last time, I’m using a devotional from John Piper’s free e-book of Advent devotions called GOOD NEWS OF GREAT JOY. You can download it for yourself from his ministry, Desiring God–though you’re leaving it a little late to start using it for Advent devotions. There’s always next year, though…

How do we practically receive reconciliation and exult in God? One answer is: do it through Jesus Christ. Which means, at least in part, make the portrait of Jesus in the Bible–the work and words of Jesus portrayed in the New Testament–the essential content of your exultation over God. Exultation without the content of Christ does not honor Christ.

In 2 Corinthians 4:4-6, Paul describes conversion two ways. In verse 4, he says it is seeing “the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” And in verse 6, he says it is seeing “the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” In either case you see the point. We have Christ, the image of God, and we have God in the face of Christ.

Practically, to exult in God, you exult in what you see and know of God in the portrait of Jesus Christ. And this comes to its fullest experience when the love of God is poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit, as Romans 5:5 says.

So here’s the Christmas point. Not only did God purchase our reconciliation through the death of the Lord Jesus Christ (verse 11), but even now, verse 11 says, we exult in God himself through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Jesus purchased our reconciliation. Jesus enabled us to receive the reconciliation and open the gift. And Jesus himself shines forth from the wrapping–the indescribable gift–as God in the flesh, and stirs up all our exultation in God.

Look to Jesus this Christmas. Receive the reconciliation that he bought. Don’t put it on the shelf unopened. And don’t open it and then make it a means to all your other pleasures.

Open it and enjoy the gift. Exult in him. Make him your pleasure. Make him your treasure.

Have a great week–and a great Christmas!

Nikolaos, Bishop of Myra

You all probably know that “Santa Claus” or “Father Christmas” finds his origins in the legends of Nikolaos, bishop of Myra (a city in ancient Asia Minor, modern-day Turkey). He is commonly thought to have been born in the latter part of the third century (around 270 AD). There’s not much historical certainty about his life–very little, if anything, exists of him in terms of written accounts. However, the fact that by the 500s churches were being named after him, and stories were circulating about his exploits, tells us something of his popularity and reputation.

While we can’t rely on them for historical fact, we can get a picture of this man from these strands of story and legend. The things we know of the history of the period also help us build that picture. Probably the most important fact to bear in mind is that for much of Nikolaos’s early life, Christianity was an illegal, persecuted religion. This situation came to a head during the notorious persecution by the Emperor Diocletian which began around 303, and officially ended with the signing of the Edict of Milan in 313. What does this tell us? First, that if it’s true his parents were rich Christians, they would not have kept this wealth by broadcasting their faith. Nikolaos would have been raised a Christian, but would have grown up under the scrutiny and pressure of the Empire. There were many leaders in the church who, under threat and torture, turned their back on their faith; for Nikolaos and his parents to hold firm says a lot about the strength of their convictions.

It’s possible, therefore, that Nikolaos was not as financially challenged as many of his fellow Christians. The legends speak of his generosity: leaving coins in people’s shoes, throwing money through the window of a house where the parents were about to sell their daughters into prostitution to save them from starvation, and so on. These are consistent with him being of means, but also of his wanting to keep under the Empire’s radar by giving in secret.

Under the Emperor Constantine, Christianity was recognized as a legal religion and the persecution ended. When the biblical doctrine of Christ’s divinity was challenged, Constantine feared the rift in the church would bring disunity to the Empire, so he convened a council of church leaders in Nicea. The year was 325, and it is believed that by this time Nikolaos had been appointed bishop of Myra. Though the accounts of the council don’t mention him, if our timeline is correct, then it is very likely Nikolaos was there. The stories tell of him being a staunch defender of the orthodox position. One even tells of him getting up during the council and slapping Arius for his denial of Christ’s divine status. These are later stories, but again, they are consistent with the character of a man who grew up clinging to his faith, watching fellow Christians give their lives for that same faith, while others succumbed to the pressure of persecution and recanted.

I read that in recent years, Bishop Nikolaos’s bones were exhumed for scientific examination. So far, scientists have determined that he was barely five feet tall, and had a broken nose. These bare facts leave a lot of room for the imagination, especially given the historical context of his life. While many Christians rightly decry the “Santa” of popular culture, let’s not discard the Nikolaos of history in the process. From what we know of this man, Christians the world over should honor him as an example of Christian fidelity, love, and generosity.

Facial reconstruction of Bishop Nikolaos based on his exhumed skull.

 

Happy “Holidays”?

One of the most frustrating things to me about Christmas is the government/business/media insistence on replacing the word “Christmas” with “holiday.” I will grant that in some cases there is just cause for doing so. If you ‘re talking about that period from the end of November through to the end of the year, then this can quite legitimately be called “the holiday season,” since it incorporates Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, sometimes Ramadan, and Christmas. This period is not all about just one holiday.

However, when it is clear that the holiday referenced is the one that falls on December 25th, and involves a man called “Santa,” and reindeer, and decorated trees, and the exchanging of gifts on that particular day… we’re not talking about Hanukkah, Ramadan, Thanksgiving, or even Kwanza. That’s Christmas.

Yes, for me, and other Christians, Christmas is about far more than our cultural trappings. But anyone who has lived in the West for any amount of time knows that you don’t have to be a Christian to celebrate Christmas. Like it or not, Western societies have adopted this Christian celebration and made it their own, imbuing it with their own meaning and significance. In other words, I think I speak for all Christians when I say that while we like to remind you that Jesus is “the reason for the season,” we understand that just because you celebrate Christmas, that doesn’t mean you’ve converted.

And that’s why I think all this replacing “Christmas” for “holiday” is getting out of hand–especially here in the States. I think people in government, the media, and business are far more sensitive to the religious connotations of “Christmas” than the people they are trying not to offend. I have yet to come across anyone–atheist, Muslim, Jew, or whatever–who takes serious offense at being wished a “happy Christmas.”

And it’s only Christmas that seems to get this kind of treatment. Christmas trees have now become “holiday trees.” And yet the menorah is not called a “holiday candlestick.” The logic behind that is… ?

Of course, the real irony is that the etymology of the word “holiday” is from the Middle and Old English meaning “a holy day.” You know, like a religious observance. So by replacing “Christmas” with “holiday” they’re not really avoiding the whole “establishment of religion” issue at all. Indeed, every atheist should take offense!

It is true that Christmas eclipses other “holidays” here in the West, but that’s because of the heritage upon which our nations were built. In the Middle East, I’m sure this time of year is not nearly so Christmas-oriented. But here in the US, and in Europe, even if we don’t embrace Christmas for it’s religious significance, we should embrace it as part of the fabric of our culture. We as a society show our tolerance not by eliminating that which makes us different, but by celebrating our distinctiveness while allowing others to celebrate their cultures unhindered. We celebrate Christmas, and invite everyone to join with us–or not–as their creeds and consciences dictate.

So, media, government, businesses–chill out! It’s Christmas. And I hope you have a very merry one.

Sunday Devotional: John 10:10

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they might have life and have it abundantly.

Once again, this week, I’m drawing from John Piper’s advent devotional GOOD NEWS OF GREAT JOY for our devotion. This book is available for free from his ministry, Desiring God.

As I was about to begin this devotional, I received word that Marion Newstrum had just died. She and her husband Elmer have been a part of Bethlehem longer than most of our members have been alive. Marion was 87. They had been married 64 years.

When I spoke to Elmer and told him I wanted him to be strong in the Lord and not give up on life, he said, “He has been a true friend.” I pray that all Christians will be able to say at the end of life, “Christ has been a true friend.”

Each Advent I mark the anniversary of my mother’s death. She was cut off in her 56th year in a bus accident in Israel. It was December 16, 1974. Those events are incredibly real to me even today. If I allow myself, I can easily come to tears–for example, thinking that my sons never knew her. We buried her the day after Christmas. What a precious Christmas it was!

Many of you will feel your loss this Christmas more pointedly than before. Don’t block it out. Let it come. Feel it. What is love for, if not to intensify our affections–both in life and death? But, O, do not be bitter. It is tragically self-destructive to be bitter.

Jesus came at Christmas that we might have eternal life. “I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). Elmer and Marion had discussed where they would spend their final years. Elmer said, “Marion and I agreed that our final home would be with the Lord.”

Do you feel restless for home? I have family coming home for the holidays. It feels good. I think the bottom line reason for why it feels good is that they and I are destined in the depths of our being for an ultimate Homecoming. All other homecomings are foretastes. And foretastes are good.

Unless they become substitutes. O, don’t let all the sweet things of this season become substitutes for the final great, all-satisfying Sweetness. Let every loss and every delight send your hearts a-homing after heaven.

Christmas. What is it but this: I came that they might have life. Marion Newstrum, Ruth Piper, and you and I–that we might have Life, now and forever.

Make your Now the richer and deeper this Christmas by drinking at the fountain of Forever. It is so near.

Have a great week!

RTW: Reading Habits

It’s Road Trip Wednesday time again! This week, we’re talking about our reading habits, specifically the YA Highway team want to know:

About how many books do you read in a year? Do you want to read more? Or, less?

As I’m sure is true for many readers, the number of books I read per year varies according to what else is happening that year to disrupt my reading schedule. It also depends on the type of book I’m reading. Typically, I can get through a novel much quicker than a theological or historical book, especially when that work is more academic in nature. If I must throw out a number, I would say I average around 50 books a year.

Would I like to read more? Heck, yes! For the simple reason that there are so many books I want to read. But I’m not going to sacrifice quality reading for quantity reading. In other words, I’m not going to speed-read my way through lots of books just to maintain a healthy quota of books read, or to get to all the books I want to read. I don’t like treating books like junk food. Knowing how much time and effort goes into writing a book, whether a work of fiction or non-fiction, I want to be sure I take time to enjoy it, to savor its words, and, at the very least, remember what it was about a week later!

How many books do you get through in a year? Feel free to comment below, or join the YA Highway fun (see the YA Highway blog for details).

On a different note, Doctor Who fans in the UK–take a look at this:

Yes, it’s a TARDIS PC! And not only does it look good, but the specs look very nice too. If only they were marketing them in the US… *sigh* Here’s the website for more details: http://www.scan.co.uk/shops/drwho/tardis

Sunday School Notes: Romans 11:33-36

33 O the depth of [the] riches and [the] wisdom and [the] knowledge of God; how unfathomable are His judgments and inscrutable are His ways! 34 “For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has become His counselor?” 35 “Or who has given to Him in advance, and it will be repaid to Him?” 36 For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory for ever, Amen.

We started this week with a thought carried over from last week: if God has promised to save Israel (i.e., to bring salvation to Israel on a large scale, not necessarily every Israelite who ever lived), doesn’t this make election depend upon national identity, which contradicts what Paul has said before about the election of God not being a matter of ethnicity? While this seems like a legitimate objection, it falls apart when we remember what Paul has been saying. Salvation is, and always has been, by faith in Christ (or in God and His promises in the Old Testament, which, of course, encompasses the Messianic promises). Election is totally according to God’s will, as we saw in Romans 9. God clearly did not choose to save every Israelite, and there’s no reason to believe He will change that plan. However, we do know there will be a finite number of the elect, both Gentile and Jew, and the proportions of each will be up to God. Why should God save any from Israel? That’s perhaps one of the mysteries that Paul spoke of in verse 25. God doesn’t owe us anything; we are all law-breakers, both Jew and Gentile. The number of times Israel violated their side of the covenants made with God, there is no reason why God would have to continue to maintain such covenant agreements. However, God made those promises, and He will keep them. It is not so much the Israelite’s national identity that God respects, but the covenant He made with Israel centuries ago. And it is because of that, God promises that one day, “all Israel [whatever that might mean at that time] will be saved.”

Paul concludes his discussion about Israel with this hymn–perhaps an early hymn he’s reciting, or one that he’s composing in this letter! Is it an expression of frustration at how little of God’s mind and ways he understands? Probably not. Paul has already mentioned the mysteries of God, and how there is a limit to what we can understand with regard to God, His decrees, and His plans. While we can study Scripture, and come to an understanding of the revelation He has given us, there will always be a point where our finite understanding hits God’s inscrutable ways and unfathomable judgments. At that point, we have to be humble and confess our ignorance. We can never fully know the mind of God, and we shouldn’t try to second-guess Him, or get two steps ahead of Him. I think this is simply an expression of praise and wonder at the awesomeness of God.

In 9:11, Paul spoke of the lump, and how it has no right to question the potter’s use of that lump. If the potter wants to make the lump into something honorable, that is his right; likewise if he wants to make it into something dishonorable. I think there is a sense of that in these verses. We need to recognize that God is sovereign, and our understanding of Him and His ways is totally dependent on how much He chooses to reveal to us, and whether He opens our minds to understand that revelation.

Verses 34 and 35 draw from Isaiah 40:13-14 and Job 41:11 (Job 41:3 in the LXX, the Greek Septuagint). I say “draw from” since neither are exact quotations. Isaiah 40 is a rich passage that is used more than once in the New Testament (e.g., John the Baptist quotes Isaiah 40:3, and Isaiah 40:6-8 is cited in 1 Peter). The purpose of these quotations is to underscore the point that God is able to sustain the universe and make wise judgments beyond our capabilities. He doesn’t require our help. Nor is His grace dependent upon us. We cannot out-give God, and His generosity pours from the depths of the riches of His mercy, not out of some need to repay our “good” behavior. Indeed, any “good” we might do is merely what we ought to do; we only think it special because we so often fail to be obedient!

Paul borrows the language of Stoic philosophy for verse 36: from Him, through Him, to Him (Greek: ek autou, di’ autou, eis auton). This is an all-encompassing statement of God’s power and sovereignty. All things come from God: He is the source of all things. All things have their being and continue to exist through Him: He sustains all things. And He is that to which all thing are directed; He is the goal of all things. It’s important to note that “all things” means all things, just as it does in Romans 8:28. We can trust God, His judgments, and His sovereign plan, because everything there is in all of creation is dependent on Him and is working for Him to accomplish His purposes.

We finished up our time by briefly reviewing some of the important doctrines Paul has discussed over these past eleven chapters. I identified Romans 1:16-17 as a statement of Paul’s overarching argument. In the course of unpacking that statement, he brings up many important issues. Some of the subjects I picked out were:

  • The universality of sin, affecting both Jew and Gentile equally.
  • Man’s suppression of the knowledge of God, and his guilt in light of God’s clear revelation of Himself.
  • The Law is good, but was never intended to bring salvation. Even the Gentiles can keep the Law because it’s on the hearts of all men. But because of sin, no-one is truly able to keep it.
  • Justification brings peace with God to ungodly, undeserving sinners.
  • Christ’s death was a substitutionary death–the righteous on behalf of the unrighteous. It was not a ransom paid to Satan (as some believe), but the payment of the penalty we owe God for our sin.
  • In Christ, the bondage to sin has been broken. We are no longer slaves to sin, and we don’t have to continue to live as if sin is our master.
  • We are adopted sons of God, and co-heirs with Christ. We don’t have a second-class inheritance: ours is equal with Christ’s!
  • Salvation is on the basis of God’s will alone, not due to our desire, or our nationality, or any merit we might find in ourselves.
  • Israel’s only hope is Christ, and God has not finished dealing with Israel, but will one day bring Israel to a knowledge of Christ.

I’m sure you can come up with many others!

I don’t plan to start Romans 12 until the New Year. One reason is because I want to take a week or so to let the theological foundation of Romans 1-11 sink in before we get to the practical teaching in 12-16. Another is due to increased absences over the Christmas season. We will study some other things over the next couple of weeks, so there won’t be any further notes on Romans until the New Year.

Have a blessed and safe Christmas!

Sunday Devotional: Luke 2:6-7

6 And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

This morning’s devotional comes from a book of Advent devotions by John Piper called GOOD NEWS OF GREAT JOY. This book is available as a free pdf download, or as a e-book from his ministry, DESIRING GOD. There’s a short Scripture and devotion for each day of Advent. I’ve been using this with my family and been blessed by it. I hope this preview blesses you!

Now you would think that if God so rules the world as to use an empire-wide census to bring Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, he surely could have seen to it that a room was available in the inn.

Yes, he could have. And Jesus could have been born into a wealthy family. He could have turned stone into bread in the wilderness. He could have called 10,000 angels to his aid in Gethsemane. He could have come down from the cross and saved himself. The question is not what God could do, but what he willed to do.

God’s will was that though Christ was rich, yet for your sake he became poor. The “No Vacancy” signs over all the motels in Bethlehem were for your sake. “For your sake he became poor” (2 Corinthians 8:9).

God rules all things–even motel capacities–for the sake of his children. The Calvary road begins with a “No Vacancy” sign in Bethlehem and ends with the spitting and scoffing of the cross in Jerusalem.

And we must not forget that he said, “He who would come after me must deny himself and take up his cross” (Matthew 16:24).

We join him on the Calvary road and hear him say, “Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you” (John 15:20).

To the one who calls out enthusiastically, “I will follow you wherever you go!” (Matthew 8:19), Jesus responds, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20).

Yes, God could have seen to it that Jesus have a room at his birth. But that would have been a detour off the Calvary road.

Have a blessed week!

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