Saturday, December 24, 2011

Merry Christmas!

Thank you, God, for being born,
You who first invented birth
(Universe, galaxies, the earth).
When your world was tired & worn
You came laughing on the morn.

Thank you, most amazing Word
For your silence in the womb
Where there was so little room
Yet the still small voice was heard
Throughout a planet dark & blurred.

Merry Christmas! Wondrous day!
Maker of the universe,
You the end, & you the source
Come to share in human clay
And, yourself, to show the Way.

-Madeleine L’Engle

Thursday, December 22, 2011

"O Come, O Come Emmanuel" Sermons

These past few weeks of Advent, my pastor at Rogers Park Community Church has been preaching through the ancient Christmas hymn "O Come, O Come Emmanuel." Check it out. They are well worth the listen.

"The Man and the Birds"

My parents are hard-core Advent celebrators. They have a ton of books, a beautiful Advent wreath, lots of nativity sets from different countries, and a beautiful Charlie Brown Christmas tree. Many years ago, they compiled all their favorite Advent hymns, poems, and stories into a little book. I remember this one most vividly. I tried to find the author online, but had no luck. This is the version as told my radio-host Paul Harvey.

The man to whom I'm going to introduce you was not a scrooge, he was a kind decent, mostly good man. Generous to his family, upright in his dealings with other men. But he just didn't believe all that incarnation stuff which the churches proclaim at Christmas Time. It just didn't make sense and he was too honest to pretend otherwise. He just couldn't swallow the Jesus Story, about God coming to Earth as a man.

"I'm truly sorry to distress you," he told his wife, "but I'm not going with you to church this Christmas Eve." He said he'd feel like a hypocrite. That he'd much rather just stay at home, but that he would wait up for them. And so he stayed and they went to the midnight service.

Shortly after the family drove away in the car, snow began to fall. He went to the window to watch the flurries getting heavier and heavier and then went back to his fireside chair and began to read his newspaper. Minutes later he was startled by a thudding sound...Then another, and then another. Sort of a thump or a thud...At first he thought someone must be throwing snowballs against his living room window.

But when he went to the front door to investigate he found a flock of birds huddled miserably in the snow. They'd been caught in the storm and, in a desperate search for shelter, had tried to fly through his large landscape window. Well, he couldn't let the poor creatures lie there and freeze, so he remembered the barn where his children stabled their pony. That would provide a warm shelter, if he could direct the birds to it.

Quickly he put on a coat, galoshes, tramped through the deepening snow to the barn. He opened the doors wide and turned on a light, but the birds did not come in. He figured food would entice them in. So he hurried back to the house, fetched bread crumbs, sprinkled them on the snow, making a trail to the yellow-lighted wide open doorway of the stable. But to his dismay, the birds ignored the bread crumbs, and continued to flap around helplessly in the snow.

He tried catching them...He tried shooing them into the barn by walking around them waving his arms...Instead, they scattered in every direction, except into the warm, lighted barn. And then, he realized that they were afraid of him. To them, he reasoned, I am a strange and terrifying creature.

If only I could think of some way to let them know that they can trust me...That I am not trying to hurt them, but to help them. But how? Because any move he made tended to frighten them, confuse them. They just would not follow. They would not be led or shooed because they feared him.

"If only I could be a bird," he thought to himself, "and mingle with them and speak their language. Then I could tell them not to be afraid. Then I could show them the way to safe, the safe warm barn. But I would have to be one of them so they could see, and hear and understand."

At that moment the church bells began to ring. The sound reached his ears above the sounds of the wind. And he stood there listening to the bells pealing the glad tidings of Christmas. And he sank to his knees in the snow. “Now I understand. That is why You came.”

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

"In The Bleak Midwinter"

In The Bleak Midwinter
by Christina Rossetti

In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Long ago.

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him
Nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When He comes to reign:
In the bleak mid-winter
A stable-place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty,
Jesus Christ.

Enough for Him, whom cherubim
Worship night and day,
A breastful of milk
And a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels
Fall down before,
The ox and ass and camel
Which adore.

Angels and archangels
May have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim
Thronged the air,
But only His mother
In her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the Beloved
With a kiss.

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.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

We're getting closer to Bethlehem . . .

On this fourth Sunday of Advent we focus on Love. The love of God come down. The mystery of the incarnation. Emmanuel. God with us.

This morning at church the kids sang "Away in a Manger." They did such a good job, I am very proud of them. Watching young minds and hearts begin to understand the Bible and God's love is so beautiful. Christmas is such a good time to get them excited about worshiping our Lord, even if it's only a simple song about baby Jesus in a stable.

Yesterday afternoon, the women of our church got together for a Christmas brunch. Our speaker encouraged us to read the Christmas story with new eyes, to unpack the familiar words, and see the deeper meaning. It's not only about the Nativity--that one night in Bethlehem. The birth of Jesus is only the beginning. We are in the middle. The conclusion is still to come. But one day soon, it will come. May we have righteous faith like Mary and Joseph, the hopeful longing of the Shepherds, and expectant hearts like the Wise Men as we wait.

 Mary was not called blessed because she bore the Son of God, but because she accepted God's will with unhindered faith.  Not many of us can boast of such an attitude. Fear and a short-sightedness get in the way. But even as a poor, illiterate maiden in a rural town, Mary knew of God's promises to His people. She knew of His love and mercy and the hope of redemption.

Our speaker at the women's brunch spoke of this quiet a bit. She reminded us that as familiar as the Christmas story is, at the time, it was anything but expected. The appearance of angels was terrifying; the census, a chaotic challenge. The journey was long and tiring; the birth, messy, loud and stressful. But that is how God decided to send His son to Earth. The glory was not of wealth and royal halls, but sent from Heaven; the message, divine.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Break forth, O Beauteous Heavenly Light,

Break forth, O beauteous heavenly light,
And usher in the morning;
O shepherds, shrink not with afright,
But hear the angel’s warning.
This Child, now weak in infancy,
Our confidence and joy shall be,
The power of Satan breaking,
Our peace eternal making.
- Jo­hann Rist, 1641

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

"He Will Light the Way"

For some time now, I have wanted to begin writing my own Advent poetry, but have struggled to find something new to write about. How do I not step on the toes of all the poets who have come before me? Phrases and melodies are bound to be repeated as we seek to celebrate the birth of our Savior almost two thousand years ago, yet I still feel under-qualified and ill-equipped to pen a verse. But tonight, as I was walking home from small group, I was struck by the dreary fog juxtaposed with my neighbor’s brilliant Christmas lights. Here’s what happened.

 He Will Light the Way
A dim mist rolls steadily along the road
Shadows protrude
Darkness expands
This is no time for merriment or cheer.
What will light the way?

Tinseled strands nobly hung,
Reach limply as beacons ‘cross a distant sea;
A blissful din echoes from end to end.
Is this the way to spread good will?
Who will lead the way?

A woman slowly walks across the street
A man blindly stumbles through his door
Children, sleepily whimper from their beds
What of providence and mercy?

And then
A voice cries out through the night:

“The people who walked in darkness
   have seen a great light!” He shouts.
“Those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
   on them has light shined!”

Light? Here? And Now?

“For to us a child is born,
 to us a son is given," he continues
"The government shall be upon his shoulder,
 and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor,
Mighty God,
Everlasting Father,
Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace
 there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
 to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
 from this time forth and forevermore.”

Someone reaches out His hands.
Strength is restored
Depression, eased
Fear, released

Come misty moans and shaded stupor
He will light the way.
 [Scripture taken from Isaiah 9:2-7]

On a side note, if you’ve never listened to Handel’s Messiah, you are missing out. Here’s a link for a great version of the oratorio:

Monday, December 12, 2011

Giant Nativity Coloring Project

If you have kids, this is a super fun project. Find a big roll of paper (I used some plain wrapping paper), draw out the nativity story with a black sharpie and then have the kids color it in like a giant coloring book. At church next Sunday, the kids are going to hang this along the wall and sing Away in the Manger. I'm excited.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

"The Ransomed Shall Return"

The third Sunday of Advent is about Joy. Isaiah writes about this joy in his 35th chapter:
The Ransomed Shall Return
 1 The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad;
    the desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus;
2it shall blossom abundantly
   and rejoice with joy and singing.
The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,
   the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.
They shall see the glory of the LORD,
   the majesty of our God.
 3 Strengthen the weak hands,
   and make firm the feeble knees.
4Say to those who have an anxious heart,
   "Be strong; fear not!
Behold, your God
   will come with vengeance,
with the recompense of God.
   He will come and save you."
 5 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
   and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
6 then shall the lame man leap like a deer,
   and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.
For waters break forth in the wilderness,
   and streams in the desert;
7 the burning sand shall become a pool,
   and the thirsty ground springs of water;
in the haunt of jackals, where they lie down,
   the grass shall become reeds and rushes.
 8 And a highway shall be there,
   and it shall be called the Way of Holiness;
the unclean shall not pass over it.
   It shall belong to those who walk on the way;
   even if they are fools, they shall not go astray.
9No lion shall be there,
   nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it;
they shall not be found there,
   but the redeemed shall walk there.
10 And the ransomed of the LORD shall return
   and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
   they shall obtain gladness and joy,
   and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Two Lesser-Known Christmas Hymns

This evening, a throng of carolers knocked on our door. They sung two beautiful Christmas hymns. It a joyful surprise. And it got me thinking about the hymns so tied to this season that we don't normally sing. Here are two for you. Reflect on their words, then do a quick search on YouTube to hear their tune. 

Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus

Come, Thou long expected Jesus
Born to set Thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us,
Let us find our rest in Thee.
Israel's Strength and Consolation,
Hope of all the earth Thou art;
Dear Desire of every nation,
Joy of every longing heart.
Born Thy people to deliver,
Born a child and yet a King,
Born to reign in us forever,
Now Thy gracious kingdom bring.
By Thine own eternal Spirit
Rule in all our hearts alone;
By Thine all sufficient merit,
Raise us to Thy glorious throne.

(Charles Wesley 1707-1788)

 Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence

Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
And with fear and trembling stand;
Ponder nothing earthly minded,
For with blessing in His hand,
Christ our God to earth descendeth,
Our full homage to demand.
King of kings, yet born of Mary,
As of old on earth He stood,
Lord of lords, in human vesture,
In the body and the blood;
He will give to all the faithful
His own self for heavenly food.
Rank on rank the host of heaven
Spreads its vanguard on the way,
As the Light of light descendeth
From the realms of endless day,
That the powers of hell may vanish
As the darkness clears away.
At His feet the six wing├Ęd seraph,
Cherubim with sleepless eye,
Veil their faces to the presence,
As with ceaseless voice they cry:
Alleluia, Alleluia
Alleluia, Lord Most High! 

(Edward Bairstow (1874 - 1946))