Of Advent, Christmas Trees & Rocky

December 5, 2015 § 2 Comments

Trees“The Advent tension is a way of learning again that God is God: that between even our deepest and holiest longing and the reality of God is a gap which only grace can cross; otherwise we are alone again, incommunicado, our signals and symbols bounced back to us off the glassy walls of the universe.”

Rowan Williams, A Ray of Darkness

The other night Katherine and I saw Creed, the latest installment of the forty-year Rocky series. Without spoiling the story, it turned out to be arguably one of the top three of the series (but it would take a huge for-Rocky-fans-only conversation to explain). As we watched, I found myself overwhelmed with emotion throughout, and it dawned on me that it was because Rocky (played by Sylvester Stallone) is getting old, and he has been part of my entire adult life. Don’t laugh. In 1976 four of us were on a double date. We ate at a local favorite called LUMS on US-1 in Miami. LUMS was where I had my first beer with high school friend, Chris, after turning 18 (I can’t speak for Chris). On this night we planned on seeing King Kong, but dinner took too long and we ended up going to an unknown film (Rocky). And thus began the shared journey with this very down-to-earth boxer – until last night.

Okay the Christmas Tree thing. Two weeks ago I posted a pic of this year’s
tree. Another lifelong friend, Cookie, posted a comment that it was the same as last year. I was puzzled until I looked, and amazingly she was right! We basically decorated the tree exactly as we had a year ago.

And then there is Advent. Advent is about arrival, and it is accompanied by waiting and longing. We celebrate that Jesus has come, while longing for Him to return. Because the world isn’t right – all one has to do is read the headlines. The world is in torment and the fall is reflected in every violent, tragic and broken expression. So while we celebrate that Jesus has inaugurated God’s Kingdom by coming and has conquered the curse of the fall with His death, resurrection and ascension, we also anticipate that one day all Creation will be healed and heaven and earth be one.

Which leads to putting the three together…

In some sense, Advent too is always the same thing. Just as with our tree, each Christmas season is adorned with the same longing and decorated with the same songs of hope. It is supposed to be this way. As our storylines unfold the big story remains the same – and we need this. I need this. I need something that I can look to and find that it has not changed or the deep, unchanging consistency of God in my life – we all do.

So back to Rocky. You have to know that in the story he is old. Some say Rockythat Stallone should get an Academy Award for his performance (I’ve been screaming this for 40 years!). In nuanced ways, Creed, though a very unique movie, is beautifully and hauntingly similar to the first Rocky movie. And I think this is why I was emotional. Rocky got old. But the story didn’t.

So in a few weeks the ornaments will come down and get packed away until next year, one day after Thanksgiving when they are unpacked and put on a fresh tree for the new season.

It will be beautiful.

All over again.

And the story we have been invited into, though accented with fresh twists and turns, will still be about Jesus, who came and who is coming.

And this is good news, friends…

peace.

PS Friends, check out the Chapelgate website for a daily Advent Blog: https://cpcadvent.wordpress.com

Come Before Him

December 25, 2014 § 1 Comment

Christmas Morning When blossoms flower e’er ‘mid the snows,
Upon a winter night,
Was born the child, the christmas rose,
The king of love and light.
The angels sang, the shepherds sang,
The grateful earth rejoiced;
And at his blessed birth the stars
Their exultation voiced.

O come let us adore him
O come let us adore him
O come let us adore him
Christ the lord.

Gesu Bambino, Pietro Yon, 1917

It is Christmas Morning. The coffee is brewed and the tree lights on. Katherine is making her Christmas breakfast casserole. Within a few hours gifts will be opened, and some time today we will go to our traditional Christmas movie. By tomorrow the entire family will be gathered. We are blessed. Each Christmas brings its own joy.

I am not deluded to think that everyone is experiencing joy, and in spite of my utterly latent immature perspective, I know that the point of Christmas isn’t my own happiness, or anyone else’s for that matter.

But Jesus has come. His humble entrance and sacrificial life bear evidence to the fact that He is doing much more with the world He created to be good, than to ‘fix’ the moment.

So come to Jesus, friends. The rhythms of life are crazy, aren’t they? Our hope is in who Pietro Yon refers to as, ‘the King of Love and Light’ – Jesus. Tears fill my eyes as I type these words. It is that beautiful and He is that precious.

What good, sweet news of great joy…

Merry Christmas.

“Adeste fidelis. Come and behold him, born the king of angels. Speak to him or be silent before him. In whatever way seems right to you and at whatever time, come to him with your empty hands. The great promise is that to come to him who was born at Bethlehem is to find coming to birth within ourselves something stronger and braver, gladder and kinder and holier, than ever we knew before or than ever we could have known without him.”

Frederick Buechner, The Hungering Dark

Candlelighting

(with thanks to Steve Dallwig for this photo from our Candlelight Service last evening)

Christmas Song

December 20, 2014 § 1 Comment

Choir “He was checked in his transports by the churches ringing out the lustiest peals he had ever heard. Clash, clang, hammer, ding, dong, bell. Bell, dong, ding, hammer, clang, clash! Oh, glorious, glorious!

Running to the window, he opened it, and put out his stirring, cold cold, piping for the blood to dance to; Golden sunlight; Heavenly sky; sweet fresh air; merry bells. Oh, glorious. Glorious!”

Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

The picture in this post is from a mall in Nashville, taken earlier this month. While Katherine browsed the shops, I stood above and listened as the children sang to their proud parents and other gatherers. The music was lovely.

It is impossible to navigate the Christmas story without hearing the music that runs through its narrative. Elizabeth sings God’s glory when she learns that she will bear a son that would prepare the way for the Christ. Mary sang the goodness of God to the angel who revealed that she would give birth to Jesus. The Angels fill the skies with song and worship before the shepherds in fields to announce Jesus’ arrival.

Music is obviously high on God’s list. Early in the scriptures we learn of Jubal, who was the ‘father’ of all who played the harp and flute (Genesis 4). In music God has given us something lovely, something that weaves itself between the logical checkpoints of reason, and the confining precision of time and space.

John Calvin said something to the effect of how even the unbelieving ‘unwittingly express the beauty of God in their music.’

I’ll never forget the comment a friend made when his world fell apart. He was a good pastor who lost his way, and when it all came crashing in, it was too late. Later he would tell a gathering of friends, ‘I have lost my song.’ So sad.

How sweet that when Jesus was born, the silence of God’s voice in Israel of nearly 400 years, was broken, not with a fresh command, or display of strength, but with song.

I am blessed with a wife who is also a musician. Not only does she sing, but she teaches, plays, hums, and sometimes even verbalizes entire thoughts – in Song. Our running exchange when the latter happens goes like this: ‘Did you have to sing that?’ ‘Yes, I did.’

One day I’ll get it.

Advent tells us that one day we will sing the new song of the redeemed. One day our hearts will no longer be burdened by deadlines and pressures, by thoughts of past failures and present worries. One day we will no longer be at a loss for words in expressing ourselves. One day, those who have lost their song, will once again find it.

We won’t have to any longer understand or process or parse or worry about accurately expressing the Faith. In God’s new world, we will be before Jesus, and all the hints and tastes and glimpses of the beauty that have dotted our lives in anticipation of that day, will converge in full measure before the majesty and loveliness and beauty of the Father, who in His Son has made us His.

And we will Sing.

What beautiful, good news of great joy…

peace on earth.

First Christmas

December 6, 2014 § 3 Comments

Katherine & Opa “The Christian future hope is the Advent hope.”

N.T. Wright, For All the Saints

Yesterday Katherine and I visited with her father where he is being cared for in a Nashville medical center. We are here because I am performing a wedding ceremony for friends who live in Baltimore (and I fly back late tonight!), and it gave us an opportunity to spend some time with ‘Opa,’ as our children call him. It was a sweet time.

At some point Katherine and her Dad, both gifted with beautiful singing voices, joined together in singing ‘Great is Thy Faithfulness.’ Lovely would be an understatement.

This Christmas is a first for us. For the first time we will celebrate without either of my parents in this world. Along with Katherine’s Mom, both have died and are no longer here. From time to time sadness overtakes us. Ornament

Regardless of how old we become, we can look all the way back to childhood in remembering Christmases past.

Recently some of us recalled growing up in Miami. When I was a young boy we lived in Carol City, which is almost as far north as one can go without leaving the city. Each year the streetlights on NW 27th Avenue were decorated with those colored frilly foil candy canes and Christmas bells. We would drive past them and throughout the neighborhoods as a family, listening to Christmas music on our car AM radio, looking at the lights as we embedded ourselves into the season.

Sweet memories.

One day our children will remember after we are gone.

The memories bring a kind of muted joy. Though sometimes I am brought to the point of tears in recalling them, I wouldn’t trade them for anything.

Advent is as much about embracing sadness as it is looking to a future joy. Herod plotted Jesus’ death as Mary and Joseph celebrated His birth. This is our world – joy and sorrow always intermingled. And until Jesus comes and makes everything new it will be this way. Even in blessing Jesus at his presentation at the temple, Simeon said to his mother, ‘and a sword will pierce through your own soul also…’ (Luke 2:35).

To insulate ourselves from the world’s sorrows is to live as though Jesus is merely an ornament rather than the Deliverer that He is, and it robs us of the joy of the expectation of His coming. It is in the sadness that we find a deep longing for the sweeter day when Jesus returns.

We celebrate that He has come, and that He is coming. We limp along with our world, longing for the day when it will forever reflect His good reign.

We look to the day we will see our parents again – at the Feast. Until then, we embrace the sorrow that in Jesus, leads to unending joy. Every now and then we are given opportunities to hear the sweet song of life, and maybe even to sing along.

What good news of great joy…

grace and peace.

Contact

November 29, 2014 § 1 Comment

Less Than Three “Our longings remind us of the essential human fact that we are talked and touched into life, and that a human race struggling to do all its talking and touching for itself faces a paralyzing unhappiness and anxiety.”

Rowan Williams, A Ray of Darkness

Earlier this month Katherine and I, along with friends, saw Interstellar, a beautifully filmed thriller involving outer space. It did not disappoint. In it the earth is threatened with a fatal cosmic drought due to an atmosphere that can no longer produce water for crops, and therefore sustenance for life. The star, played by Matthew McConaughey, the world’s top astronaut, is commissioned to fly to three distant planets in order to find a new home for the future of mankind. Don’t worry, there is more to the story.

‘The people walking in darkness have seen a great light…’

We in the human race are obsessed with finding our way out of our brokenness. We launch movements. We produce films. We rally people and protests and attention and positions, but our vivid imaginations, though often spectacular, always fall short, because unless light shines into the darkness, our sight remains dimmed. We long for something we can’t obtain by our own resourcefulness.

Advent. Coming. Longing.

In light of the events surrounding Ferguson, Missouri – the shooting – the protests – the violence – the publicity – it seems to me that there is a deeper issue than the incident at hand, and even beyond the historical issues that may have contributed to shaping the incident.

Don’t hear me saying that these issues don’t matter – they do and I am still learning. What I am saying is that what we celebrate at Advent is the longing for something outside of ourselves – it is a longing for contact – light invading darkness, God taking the initiative to touch humanity, in flesh and blood, and then give us something to collaborate with Him in His work of renewal. We long for His coming.

Darkness. Life without light. Hopelessness. Despair. Isolation.

When Jesus was born the world was as messed up as it is today. Injustice and the inhumane treatment of people prevailed in an empire that made itself strong on the backs of oppressed people.

And when He left, it was just as wrecked, but those who encountered Him knew that they had been loved by God.

There it is! Love. ‘Less than Three’ Heart

What we so easily miss in the exchange of ideas, the social debates, the explanations, the rationalizations, the protests, the violence, the social media, the commentary, the characterizations and the polarization of races, classes and politics… is Love.

Love enables us to make contact. It makes us touch rather than assume – it is human- and it obliterates all self-protective and superficial boundaries.

Friends, I believe that we were given these beautiful imaginations – they are a gift. But they don’t exist in order for us to find the fix or the cure, or the answer. They exist in order to inform our spirits and affirm the gospel story, that God has found us, and that we are loved… in Jesus.

This is our good news of great joy.

peace.

the Sweet Song of Advent…

December 21, 2013 § 6 Comments

Mom's Room “We matter to God. Inexplicably. Undeservedly. Even we dedicated Christians tend to forget this truth – or doubt it or altogether reject it – when we encounter trouble. It is difficult to understand why we matter, but we do. God is watching, listening to us, speaking promises into the cacophony of our worries and the certainty of their fulfillment into our most deeply buried hopes.”

Patty Kirk, Confessions of an Amateur Believer

For years I have been sitting here – at ‘my’ Starbucks – writing, reflecting, observing and praying.

In observing, I see weariness, weirdness, craziness and determination, in fellow regulars who have become friends I will likely never see outside these walls. And strangers. Strangers who walk by, and strangers who stop by.

We talk. Antlers

Many are desperately trying to survive and navigate the details of their lives. Some are actively searching, looking for meaning and purpose. They are in touch with their longings and can hear the music, but haven’t yet discovered the source.

All of them matter. Each was created in God’s Image, shattered though that Image may be by the fall. Not all have discovered the beauty of Jesus, but with tears, I hope each will.

As I write, my Mom is dying. She is a Christ-follower and woman of God, and when she passes I’ll write more. But on this the day of my sister’s 50th Birthday, my sense of awe is with her. Venus works in home health care and for a year she has relentlessly pursued a dignified setting for Mom’s passing.

The picture at the head of this post is of the bedroom she and my brother-in-law prepared for Mom in anticipation of her arrival. It isn’t merely a room with a bed, but a suite, with classical Christmas music playing, lovely family pictures, homey furnishings – and massive doses of love.

Mom is barely ‘here,’ and she can only communicate with a nearly undetectable whisper and nuanced facial expressions that we kids recognize as being uniquely ‘hers,’ yet this dying woman is being treated like a beautiful queen who has everything before her – and she is and she does.

She matters. You matter. We matter. God’s Image. How sweet.

The Advent longing is not a hopeless cry, but the song of redemption, a beautifully hopeful melody, whose music emanates from the humbleness of the manger and the conquest of the Cross, sung into the messy reality of our fallenness, which is precisely the point of Jesus’ entrance into the world.

It isn’t enough to say that God loves the broken. Stopping there leaves incomplete the fullness of the gospel. God not only loves the broken and has entered into our mess with forgiving grace, but amazingly, He also sees us as though we are perfectly whole – because in Jesus, we are.

Ornament

What good news of great joy…

peace on earth and good will to all.

a Gift for the Broken…

December 14, 2013 § 3 Comments

Broken“Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue? What’s happened to the world?”

A great Shadow has departed,” said Gandalf, and then he laughed and the sound was like music, or like water in a parched land; and as he listened the thought came to Sam that he had not heard laughter, the pure sound of merriment, for days upon days without count.”

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King

Just this week a young pastor in Florida took his own life. It is a tragedy. He was our son and daughter-in-law’s pastor until last year when his personal life began to unravel publicly. He was both gifted and brilliant. But he carried pain.

His dad (also a pastor) and I have corresponded since things began to fall apart last year. My initial contact was to encourage him with what his son had been to ours. Some years ago, at a crucial point in our son’s life, this young man took time out of his crazy schedule to field his questions about life and faith and ministry – We will always be in his debt, and nothing that has transpired since will take that away. At this point I have no words – only sadness.

And I am freshly reminded that as long as the world is broken, people will be too – you – me – everyone. We carry our pain.

The Advent cry is God’s gift to the broken. We long for healing and wholeness, when we will no longer walk the earth in the confusing tension of secret shame, besetting sin and genuine hope. The insecurities, weaknesses, ‘demons’ and struggles we carry are real – they are our right-now reality.

But our hope is every bit as real, and because of Jesus we live in the promise of what we will one day be, when He will come and make everything new.

What you need to know is that God is okay with this. He isn’t the One expecting you to be perfect – you are. And that isn’t helpful (it also isn’t righteous!).

Jesus has come and He is coming. Until He does, He has given us the assurance that His grace is sufficient. It is ‘from the fullness’ of this grace, and not our ability to keep it all together, that we receive ‘one blessing after another’ (John 1:16).

With full view of our flaws, sins and failures, Jesus extends Himself.

Friends, this is good news…

peace on earth.

What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.

Christina Rossetti, In the Bleak Midwinter

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