Theological and Devotional Book Reviews along with an update on my recent absence

display of the books reviewed
Steaming oysters poured out to be eaten
My brother dumping a pot of steaming oysters

Next week I plan to post my annual 2023 reading update. But before I get to that, let me update some of my recent readings (I have a couple more reviews from 2023 that have nothing to do with theology, which I hope to post later in January). 

After Christmas, my daughter and I headed to Wilmington to celebrate my father’s birthday and to see family. As usual, we had oysters for my father’s birthday party. I also got to spend an afternoon and an early morning walking on the beach. On my early morning walk, I took this photo: 

And now, to my reviews: 

Sunrise over the surf at Carolina Beach, NC on December 30, 2023
Sunrise at Carolina Beach on December 30, 2023
Book cover for "A Radiant Birth"

Leslie Leyland Fields and Paul J. Willis, editors, A Radiant Birth: Advent Readings for a Bright Season(Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2023), 211 pages

I generally pick a book to read during the Advent/Christmas Season.  A Radiant Birth was this year’s book. I am familiar with both editors from Calvin University’s Festival of Faith and Writing and have developed a friendship with Paul Willis over the years. This is a collection of readings for both Advent and the 12 days of Christmas. The genre varies, from poetry to prose, from scripture to sermon, from modern authors to those in the ancient world. I especially enjoyed John Chrysostom’s “Sermon on the Nativity, which he preached in Antioch in AD 386. Both Fields and Willis have pieces in the collection.

This book is a delight and for anyone looking to make the season more meaningful, I recommend this book.

book cover for "Re-Imaging Election"

Suzanne McDonald, Re-Imaging Election: Divine Election as Representing God to Others and Others to God (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010), 213 pages.

I met Suzanne McDonald last March at the Theology Matters Conference in Hilton Head, SC. She gave a dynamic lecture on John Owen’s “Beatific Vision.” Several of us afterwards spoke about how we wish our theology professors had her energy and excitement for her topic. Wanting to get to know more about her thoughts, I picked up this book, which I think must have been taken from her doctoral dissertation. This was the most difficult book I read all year and several parts of this book I had to read multiple times to fully grasp what she was attempting to say. I also kept my smart phone handy while reading so I could look up words. That said, a month after finishing this book, I find myself still thinking deeply about her thesis. 

McDonald’s title says it all. God’s elects’ individuals and peoples (such as Israel) for two purposes. Election isn’t just about individual salvation but about participating with God in God’s work in the world. I have often said in sermons that God doesn’t save us just to fill up a hotel room in heaven. We’re saved because God has work for us to do. McDonald essentially says the same thing. Our “election” is for representing God to others (to be God’s agents within the world) and to representing others to God (intercessory prayer is an example). It sounds simple but throw in a hundred or so technical terms and Latin phrases, and you’ll see it’s not so simple.

The book begins with McDonald contrasting the writings on election by John Owen and Karl Barth. Owen, a Puritan, would have a stricter interpretation of election, while Barth’s view is gentler). She plays critical attention to the role Christ and the Spirit plays in each’s understanding of the work within an individual. Next, she explores the meaning of election as seen in both the Old Testament with Israel and the church in the New Testament. While she keeps going back to Owen and Barth, she introduces a host of other voices into the dialogue on election such as Miroslav Volf, N. T. Wright, Lesslie Newbigin, George Hunsinger, and Walter Brueggemann.

If you’re interested in going deep into theology, I recommend this book. And if you read it, let me know. I’d enjoy discussing it. 

Book cover for "Drive-Through Christmas Eve"

Richard and Elizabeth Raum, Drive-Through Christmas Eve and Other Christmas Stories (Rapid City, SD: CrossLink Publising, 2020), 107 pages

Rick Raum has been a good friend of mine since we meet as Pastors of neighboring churches (25 miles apart) in Lake Michigan Presbytery. We have kept in contact over the years and have often seen each other at the meeting of the General Assembly and Theology Matter’s Conferences. A few years ago, while he had retired from preaching and was working for a Presbyterian College in North Dakota as a fundraiser, he and his wife (who has written many non-fiction books for middle school students), published a delightful collection of Christmas stories which had their genesis in Christmas sermons. This is a short, easily read, book. If you’re looking for new Christmas illustrations, I recommend this book. 

book cover for "Writing for the Ear, Preaching from the Heart"

Donna Giver-Johnston, Writing for the Ear, Preaching from the Heart (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2021), 136 pages.

While I have not met Donna Giver-Johnston in person, we have exchanged emails and have several shared friends. Currently, she is the director of the Doctor of Ministry program at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Prior to this position, she served as pastor of Community Presbyterian Church in Ben Avon, where I was a half-time student pastor during my senior year at Pittsburgh. Brent, the pastor of the church at the time, became a mentor and a friend. I wrote about his tragic death in 2006 in the Presbyterian Outlook and at some point, will share that article here. All that just goes to illustrate my draw to Diver-Johnston’s book on preaching. 

Sermons cannot be written in one medium, Giver-Johnson insists, and then delivered in another. Speaking and writing are different things. In this book, the author describes her process from being a manuscript preacher to one who preaches without notes. While she still writes a manuscript, she doesn’t use the manuscript in the pulpit. She also doesn’t memorize it. Instead, she preaches shorter sermons as she recalls the themes of her message. I admit that I have not tried her method. Yet, like her I have a set ritual for writing my sermons and for memorizing them. 

Giver-Johnston draws on many top teachers of homiletics, biblical scholars, and communication experts. I’ve read most of these and have studied under a few of them: Walter Brueggemann, Diana Butler Bass, Neil Postman, Brian McLaren, Eugene Lowry, Fred Craddock, Alyce McKenzie, Tom Long, Barbara Brown TaylorN. T. Wright, And Paul Scott Wilson.

While I appreciate learning about her style of preparation, I am still debating whether I will try to give up the manuscript. Not all those Giver-Johnston draws upon preaches without manuscript (Barbara Brown Taylor is an example of a manuscript preacher who, like me, has internalized much of the text so that by Sunday doesn’t read the sermon). The key, I think, to preaching is to have internalized so that you don’t just read what’s on paper and you have freedom to change things if necessary. 

I recommend this book to preachers, but it also has something to say to writers and others who depend upon words to convey a message. For those interested in writing for the ear, I would also recommend G. Robert Jacks’, Just Say the Word: Writing for the Ear. I think it’s out of print, but I read this book nearly 30 years ago and it changed the way I prepared and preached. I would also recommend Jana Childers, Performing the Word: Preaching as Theater. Childers draws upon her theater background and introduces “blocking” and other techniques into the preacher repertoire, which helps internalize the message we are bringing to a congregation. I have adopted some of her suggestions which help me internalize the message. 

Book cover for "Dinner with Jesus"

Timm Oyer, Dinner with Jesus (2023), 94 pages. 

I met Timm shortly after moving to Hastings, Michigan in January 2004. At the time, he was the pastor of the Nazarene Church. For the next eight years, we remained close. Then he went and retired and moved out of state. But we keep up, often through Timm’s reading of this blog and responding with an email or a comment.

Timm, along with the Reverend Jon Carnes, has published a study guide that looks at the meals Jesus enjoyed and how they might inform our own dining habits. Tim wrote a short insight into each text(s), often drawing on personal experiences around his own table or of others. He concludes each of the 13 lessons with questions to encourage the reader to reflect on how to interpret and utilize the message. Jon wrote a centering prayer for each of the passages.  This book could be used in a group study, or an individual could work their way through the lessons, spending time in thought and prayer over each one. 

Kure Beach Pier
Kure Beach Pier, December 28, 2023

Easter Sunrise Services

Much of this blog post had been originally published as an article in The Skinnie published in March 2018. This version has been slightly edited and altered. 

Easter Sunday 1982, Old Salem, North Carolina

The wake-up call came at 4:30 AM Sunday morning. I am staying at a hotel right across from Old Salem in present-day Winston Salem. Washing the sleep out of my eyes, I hear the music playing from the street down below. It was been warm when I left home in eastern North Carolina, but a cold snap descended on Saturday. I dress as warmly as possible, pulling on multiple layers. I realize I don’t even have gloves with me. 

By 5 AM, I am outside the hotel, walking with strangers, heading to Home Moravian Church. On most street corners, we pass brass quartets playing Easter music, calling people to come. By the time I reached the church, thousands had gathered, waiting in front of the steps of the sanctuary. A cold wind blows and the dark sky spits snow. In the distance, we hear the brass playing. We shuffle around trying to stay warm and waited. The anticipation of the crowd is high as we have all gathered to participate in the second oldest Easter sunrise service in North America. The honor for the oldest sunrise tradition belongs to the Moravians of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, who began holding such services in 1754. 

It was still dark when a light comes on inside the church foyer. Then massive wooden doors fly open. The pastor steps out on to the porch. He raises his arms and shouts, “Christ is Risen!” We respond, “He is Risen Indeed!” The Pastor and his assistants step out of the church, and we follow them down Church Street to God’s Acre, the community’s cemetery. God’s Acre is many acres, large enough to hold the thousands who have gathered. We pack in and wait as the sky becomes lighter gray. A few stray flakes of snow still fall.

Then it starts. All those brass quartets unite, and they march in from behind us playing Easter hymns. As they move to the front, we stand and began to sing.  The ministers pray and read scripture. The pastor offers a brief message about the hope of the resurrection. Somewhere behind the gray clouds, the sun rises. A new day begins. The benediction is pronounced and we head our separate ways.  

Arriving back in the hotel, I stop by the restaurant for breakfast. The place is packed with those coming back from the service. The poor lone waitress is running around trying to serve everyone. Most of us just want hot coffee and are willing to wait to eat as we warm up. She apologizes and says the management had forgotten that it’s Easter Sunday and hadn’t scheduled anyone else to work the shift. Several of us help out, taking turns making and serving coffee as she takes and delivers our orders.  

History of the Sunrise Service

The Moravians of Old Salem have been celebrating Easter Sunrise at God’s Acre since 1772, picking up on a practice that begin in Europe in 1732. In the town of Hernhut, which is now in the Czech Republic, the young men of the church gathered in the cemetery during the night and waited for dawn by singing hymns of the faith. The services are simple with hymns, prayers, scripture, and a brief message that is all done to the glory of God. The sunrise service is now an established tradition within the Moravian Church and one that has been adopted by many other Christian denominations.  

Of course, those Moravian young men were not the first to be up at sunrise on Easter. That distinction goes to the women described in the gospels who headed out before sunrise to anoint Jesus body before the tomb was sealed. They were shocked to find the grave open and Jesus’ body missing. As the events of that day unfold, they learn of his resurrection, an event that gives hope to Christians to this day.  

Easter Sunday, 1975, Wilmington, North Carolina

I first attended an Easter sunrise service as a high school student. It was held in a cemetery off Greenville Sound, east of Wilmington, North Carolina.  Unlike the year I was at Old Salem, the skies were clear. And just as the sun broke over the horizon, its rays reflecting off the water and bring warmth to the marsh grass, several ducks took the skies, their calls and the flapping of their wings drowning out the voice of the preacher. Even they celebrated the new day.  In the years before seminary, I would attend many such services at a variety of locations. The message was always the same.  Christ has risen! 

Easter Sunday 1989, Virginia City, Nevada

Mount Davidson from Boot Hill at sunrise

For obvious reasons, sunrise services seem to be more popular in the American South, but as a seminary student pastor, I brought the tradition to Virginia City, Nevada. There, we gathered on “Boot Hill” on a cold morning. The temperature was in the mid-20s and the wind was blowing hard over Sun Mountain. But we witnessed a glorious sunrise, the rays racing up Six Mile Canyon. Afterwards, we enjoyed coffee and warm pastries back at the church.  

Easter Sunday 1991, Ellicottville, New York

In my first call to a church in Ellicottville, New York, a community known for skiing, we partnered with Holiday Valley, the local ski resort, to host the service on a deck outside a clubhouse. It was even colder than at Virginia City, but we dressed appropriately, wearing ski bids and parkers. Nicky, a young woman volunteered to provide music on a keyboard.  We started with a song and were going to close with the traditional hymn, “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.”  As we began to sing, Nicky missed note after note. I looked over to see what was wrong. The keyboard had frosted over between hymns and her fingers were sticking to the keys. Afterwards, with hot drinks and donuts inside the lodge, we had a laugh over the situation. The next year, she brought a blanket to lay over the keyboard.

Easter Sunday 2020, Skidaway Island, Georgia 

When I accepted the called to the Presbyterian Church on Skidaway Island, I saw the perfect opportunity to hold an Easter Sunrise Service in a park next to the marina on the north end of the Island. Starting in 2015, we began holding services. The first year, we had maybe 50 in attendance. It was beautiful as the sun rose over the marsh and the Wilmington River. 

In 2016, a heavy rainstorm was ensuing, so about 30 who came out made their way to the church’s fellowship hall where held the service. Afterwards, Thom, a member of the church volunteered to video tape a sunrise in which we could use inside just in case of rain. Over the next several years, we had beautiful weather and our number grew to nearly 200 worshippers. 

Sunrise at Landings Harbor, 2017

Then, in 2020, everything shut down because of COVID. The park had been closed and churches were not meeting inside. We decided to to record a sunrise service that involved just a few of us, all maintaining safe distance. After a live stream Maundy Thursday Service (which only had a camera operator, my associate, the organist, a soloist, and myself), we set up a green screen in the sanctuary to record. While the organist played in the background, we all did our parts, stepping in front of the green screen to be recorded. This allowed Thom’s sunrise to play behind us and it appeared as if we were at the marina. 

The most precious moment in the service came when Gene, the soloist, sang “Jesus Christ, is Risen Today.” On the tape, the sun rose as birds took to air. A seagull, on the tape, flew toward the camera then turned back and flew out over the water. On the recording, this bird appeared to fly right through Gene’s head. We laughed and laughed and decided not to cut it out. “That alone is worth the price of admission,” Gene said. 

Sunrise at Landings Harbor Marina, overlooking the Wilmington River

We uploaded the sunrise service to YouTube and set it to go live on Easter Sunday morning. That Easter, we all slept in. 

Sunrise 2022, Bluemont Church

Bluemont Church
Blue Ridge Parkway Milepost #192

This year, there will be a sunrise service at Bluemont Presbyterian Church, located along the parkway at milepost #191. The service is outside so you may want to bring a lawn chair and a blanket. The service will begin at 6:45 AM. Afterwards, coffee and a light breakfast will be hosted in the fellowship hall.  We hope you will join us. 

Other Holy Week Services along the Blue Ridge Parkway

Mayberry Church
Blue Ridge Parkway Milepost #180

April 14        Maundy Thursday communion 
Mayberry Church at 6 PM

April 15        Good Friday Service
Bluemont Church at noon

April 17        Worship at Mayberry at 9 AM
Worship at Bluemont at 10:30 AM