James Howell Turns Book Signings to Book Singings


By Sam Hodges | UMNS Why-This-JubileeThe Rev. James Howell’s latest book signings have turned into book singings. The prolific United Methodist author-pastor is out with “Why This Jubilee?” — an Advent devotional book that’s grounded in Christmas carol texts. Howell, a pianist since age 5, has taken to sitting down at the keyboard and leading in song those who come to his book signings. At one, he noted that the last stanza of “Away in a Manger” (“Be near me, Lord Jesus …”) is really a prayer. Then he and the group sang the stanza. “You could tell people were not just singing a song anymore,” Howell said. “They were actually prayerful. The tone was really gentle.” Howell, longtime pastor of Myers Park United Methodist Church in Charlotte, N.C., was asked byThe Upper Room to do an Advent book. He agreed, and said he’d like to focus on Christmas carols. He credits his keen interest in them to a conversation he had years ago with Kevin Siers, Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist for the Charlotte Observer. Siers mentioned that his favorite line to ponder from Christmas carols was “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight,” from “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” Howell felt a little chastened. “I realized I had cheerfully sung Christmas carols all my life, but I hadn’t done much pondering,” he writes in the new book’s introduction. “Why This Jubilee?” draws on Howell’s careful consideration of Christmas carol texts since his conversation with Siers. Its goal is to illuminate the Christmas story and deepen the Advent experience for readers, by de-familiarizing the season’s songs. “It’s probably what all preaching and teaching ought to be about in the church,” Howell said. “We’ve got this old familiar stuff. How do we waken to it?” The book consists of short daily readings, organized into four sections, one for each week of Advent. The first is titled “The Place,” and considers Bethlehem and the physical surroundings of Jesus’ birth. The second is “The Men,” and deals with the shepherds, the magi, Joseph and other males in the Christmas story. The third section is on Mary, and the concluding section deals with the Christ child. Howell delves into theology, history, literature, etymology and popular culture — with references ranging from John and Charles Wesley to Charles Dickens to Monty Python — but keeps circling back to individual Christmas carols. He describes “O Little Town of Bethlehem” as a “treasury of silence” whose images and sentiments sum up the kind of receptivity to God that Advent should be about. A line like “Let every heart prepare him room” — from “Joy to the World” — Howell sees as a crucial challenge to Christians distracted by gift-buying and the general busyness of the season. As for the line “Shepherds, why this jubilee?” from “Angels We Have Heard on High,” Howell writes: “To those impoverished men whose homes were rocky, grassy fields out in the cold, who were exposed to the elements, Christ came before he came to anybody else.” The many Mary references in Christmas carols prompted Howell to give space in the book to sharing his reasons for believing in the Virgin Birth. They boil down to having noticed that his greatest heroes in the Christian faith, past and present, all have believed in it. “I want a piece of the relationship they enjoy with God,” Howell writes. “So if the virginity of Mary mattered to St. Francis, Mother Teresa, my grandfather, and others of their ilk, then believing this can’t be the ruin of me.” Even secular carol texts have Advent meaning for Howell. For example, “Through the years we all will be together, if the fates allow,” from “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” strikes him as quite telling of the human condition. And “All of the other reindeer, used to laugh and call him names,” from “Rudoph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” connects with Howell personally. “I’m the kid who got laughed at,” he said. For years, Howell has found time in his busy schedule to write books on a range of Christian topics. This one has sold well, he said, adding that it’s been a kick to have it being read and discussed during Advent. He’s also enjoyed the times when book signings became something more, including a recent gathering with a women’s group from his church. “They wanted to talk about the book,” Howell said, “but mostly we just sang.” Hodges, a United Methodist News Service writer, lives in Dallas. Contact him at (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org  

Resources for Vital Congregations



Lewis Center for Church Leadership

Lewis Center for Church Leadership: Books

Lewis Center for Church Leadership: Serve Your Neighbor

GBHEM Leadership Resources


Living Faithfully: Human Sexuality and the United Methodist Church

Englewood Book Review

Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations

Ted Talks: The Golden Circle

Ted Talks: The Power of Vulnerability

Ted Talks: The Price of Invulnerability

Design Thinking

Meditations on the Ministry of All Christians


Be A Disciple

A Disciple’s Path; A Guide for United Methodist

Lewis Center for Church Leadership: Adult Christian Studies from the Wesley Ministry Network

Traveling Together: A Guide for Disciple Forming Congregations


Living As United Methodist Christians

Methodist Doctrine: The Essentials

Reclaiming our Wesleyan Tradition: John Wesley’s Sermons for Today

John Wesley Sermons: Anthology


Get Their Name

Evangelism & Theology in the Wesleyan Spirit

Canoeing the Mountains

Fresh Expressions

Fresh Expressions: Dinner Church

Lewis Center for Church Leadership: Reach New Disciples

Lewis Center for Church Leadership: 50 Ways to Reach People

Community: The Structure of Belonging


Institute for Emerging Issues

Congregations 4 Children


The Royce and Jane Reynolds Ministry Fund Grants

The Duke Endowment


The Appalachian District Church Vitality Team has been prayerfully seeking ways to help support you and the ministries of your local congregation during this COVID-19 pandemic. Together they have diligently researched and connected with others throughout the conference and our denomination to identify resources and offer them to you. We hope they will be helpful to you and bless you greatly in leading your churches and communities through this unprecedented time. We are very grateful to the District Vitality Team and other contributors for their great work on this resource.
This faithful team has created three documents, two of which you are receiving today. They include:

  • Family Home Worship – designed to help families establish a regular worship space within their homes as well as a time where they can worship together.
  • Tech Strategies – to help guide you in selecting effective tools and resources within your budget to best communicate in the digital world.

We believe these resources will be of great benefit to you. Also know that the District Vitality Team is available to answer any questions you might have in regards to the documents attached. If you have questions, you may email Rev. Howard Fleming at hfleming@wnccumc.net.


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