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.

Makeshift Family

December 13, 2014 § 1 Comment

Jazz O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

Translated by John Neal (1818-1866)

Each Christmas season our church musicians perform in the community. For three consecutive evenings on a weekend they do Christmas Jazz in a local eating establishment that opens its doors to us. We are on our third venue in five years because of how the event has grown. It helps to have gifted musicians, for which I am thankful (a short clip is provided below).

While our hope is to spread Christmas cheer, our deeper desire is to love our community well and provide opportunities for people to connect.

Something special happened this year. Our Band decided to ask church members to bring voluntary donations in the form of gift cards to local vendors, for the only homeless shelter in the county. These gifts would enable the residents of the shelter to be able to make purchases that we sometimes take for granted. Our people responded generously.

The music was spectacular, and the venue was perfect as it enabled us to meet, dine, converse and enjoy one another. We could not have asked for more. Katherine and I spent Sunday evening getting to know people we had never before met.

Amazingly and unexpectedly however, patrons from the larger area were so moved by the expressions of music and welcome that they wrote checks and offered cash to the cause. We posted no signs and made no mention outside our church doors, yet people figured it out any way.

I have no way of knowing why, but I do know that for two hours, three nights in a row, in that room, people didn’t have to be alone.

Here’s what I sometimes miss in the celebration each year – I miss how incredibly lonely it must have been for Joseph and Mary. They were far from home, and she was pregnant. They arrived in Bethlehem too late to get a real room, and then were stuck in a stable. There would be no family to celebrate with, and no familiarity with which to introduce their precious newborn.

Then Jesus came, and everything changed.

Angels appeared and sang from the heavens to shepherds who day and night existed in isolation, in dark, lonely fields. Magi journeyed from far away with gifts. All converged in Bethlehem to the stable, and in doing so, they served as a makeshift family to make the moment a little less lonely for the young couple and their infant.

Jesus has come, and He makes us family – I like that (my friend, Debby Sutton wrote beautifully to this on our church Advent blog – a worthy read). And one day He will gather His community – His family – in the new heavens and new earth. No one will be alone. None will be without provision. All will celebrate in reunited joy.

What good news…

peace.

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.

Now

November 15, 2014 § 2 Comments

Fire “‘I wish I had never been born,’ she said. ‘What are we born for?’ ‘For infinite happiness,’ said the Spirit. ‘You can step out into it at any moment…’”

C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce

The other night, Katherine and I sat in our courtyard, beside a small fire, reflecting on our lives together, our family and children, our ministry and calling – you name it. There is something about a fire that seems to suspend all urgency, and draw us into such conversation. And yes, we listened to Christmas music as we did, while sipping on hot chocolate.

As we conversed, we agreed that much of what we thought to be important many years ago in our lives was not so important after all. It wasn’t so much about regret, but of perspective. The thing is that we would not trade anything for where we are now. Fortunately God’s hand has not been thwarted by our stumbles.

‘If I had to do it over again…’ can be a dangerous statement. So can, ‘What if…’ Micromanaging our pasts and obsessing over the future only steal from the present.

Unfortunately the Church hasn’t always been helpful in this area. Through the years Christians have fixated on the future to the point of madness, parsing events and people, while attempting to fit them into a sensationalized ‘end times’ blockbuster movie-type scenario. Authors have raked in millions, feeding off the fears and frenzy of ‘end times’ enthusiasts.

But the gospel teaches that what God will one day do, He is already doing – Right Now. He didn’t identify Himself to Moses with the words, ‘I was’ – It was, ‘I am,’ and you can hear this in Jesus’ prayer, ‘Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven…’

The gospel works because of this. It enables us to find fresh hope in the moment – Today. Only our regrets and fear of the future will rob us of enjoying God’s grand design for our lives in the present.

Within weeks we will read and recite the beautiful announcement, ‘Today, in the city of David, a Savior has been born…’ This is the refrain we find throughout the scriptures – it is all so present tense!

In fact, you would be hard pressed to find a single instance in Jesus’ ministry, in which He dwelled on the pasts of the people He encountered. Other than opening one woman’s eyes to His ability to see through her defenses, He never drudged up incidents and failures of the people He healed and consoled. He was all about the moment.

This was no accident.  It was His announcement that with the Father there is grace to continue on with the journey, in spite of our pasts that are speckled with failures, poor decisions and regrets, as well as with the future unknown.

Settle this in your minds and hearts, friends: Regret over the past and Anxiety over the future are not on the Father’s radar.

You are.

Right Now.

‘You can step out into it at any moment…’

That’s good news…

peace.

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