A rerun originally published July 31, 2011
Noise. Grating, irritating, cacophonous, noise. The strings sounded awful—each one seeming to play a separate tune. The brass burped out the bass clef—15 individual bass clefs that is. The woodwinds must have been playing the melody, but no one could tell it by listening. The whole orchestra was an utter mess. In fact, if this was any indication, the concert would be unbearable.
And it would have been too, because each musician focused on her own sound: each one listening for his own errors or her own expertise. Not one in the group was concerned with how they sounded as a whole. It was all about individual performance.
But then the conductor mounted his stand. The musicians silenced themselves. Maestro raised the baton. The instruments snapped to attention. With a wave of his hand, the music began. Stringed instruments lifted notes into the air as percussionists tapped out the beat. Horns came in, announcing their arrival, as the woodwinds snuck in behind them. Music floated through the auditorium, sending waves of delight through the audience. Harmony. It’s a beautiful thing: even more beautiful than the dissonance was annoying.
Here’s the thing: when the musicians’ thoughts were on their own weaknesses or their own strengths, their whole community suffered. Sound familiar? Isn’t that what it is like in the body of Christ? When individuals, persons or congregations, begin to focus on what they can and can’t do, the world hears clanging gongs and crashing symbols. To those listening, the discordance is jarring.
Yet when we turn our eyes to the Conductor of our faith, when we release our concerns and our confidences and allow ourselves to be led by Jesus, what beautiful music we make. The peaceful tones we express draw others to us and thereby to Christ.
We are called to make a joyful noise. Let us set aside our differences and sing in harmony, “Hallelujah! Lord God Almighty!”
May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Romans 15:5-6 (NRSV)
Published originally February 2009
"In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.’ " Isaiah 6:1-3
“In the year King Uzziah died. . .” Remember the year? It was an awful year. For the people of Judea, it was the year King Uzziah died. King Uzziah had been such a great king. During his reign, they were prosperous and peace ruled in their land. But when he died—well it felt like all hope died with him.
What year was it for you?
“In the year the shuttle crashed. . .
“In the year of September 11. . .
“In the year of the Virginia Tech Tragedy. . .
Or is it more personal?
“In the year my mother/father/sister/brother died. . .”
“In the year of my divorce. . .”
“In the year my favorite teacher died. . .”
It’s the year hope dies. The year that what was, is no more. It’s the watershed moment: when everything before and after is defined by that moment. Everyone get’s it when you say it. They nod, knowingly, as if to say, “Oh, that year. Yeah. That was awful.”
“In the year that king Uzziah died I saw also the LORD sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple.”
I wonder what Isaiah was thinking when he went into the temple. Was he thinking, “I’m so great—righteous really—that I will lead the wretched ones out of their despair into God’s Glory. (amen)” That is, was he full of himself? Or. . .was he empty? Did he go to the temple thinking, “I’m not up for this. My hope is gone. How can I lead the people of God into his glory?”
We can’t know what he was feeling, but we know this: Isaiah went to the temple. Last Tuesday, I arrived at the divinity school to find out one of our professors, a man younger than I, had died. Soon after I learned of his death, I heard we would be having a chapel service in a few hours.
It was a terrible day. It was like the year the shuttle crashed. It was like September 11th. I felt shock, confusion, grief. It was that day. You know the one?
Like Isaiah went to the temple, I went to the chapel. By grace, I was not met by the fearsome vision that Isaiah beheld. But I did see God there. I saw God in the tear stained faces of my godly professors, struggling as we were to make sense of this tragedy. I saw God in the hunched forms of students, embraced by other students. I heard God in the stories, the testimonies, the music. God filled up that chapel last Tuesday.
In the year king Uzziah died, Isaiah went to the temple. And despite his despair, Isaiah saw God there. But Isaiah did not stop with that one visit to the temple. Isaiah kept going back. Sometimes, he surely felt the full presence of God’s glory. Sometimes, though, I bet he came away with little more than a meal plan for the upcoming week. Still, he kept going back to the temple, going back to worship. And somehow, I’d say miraculously, he found his way out of the darkness of grief; he found his way back to hope.
It was January 13, 2009 and I was on my way to the college when my cell phone rang.
"Where are you?" my GWU friend asked.
"On the way. What's up?"
"Uhhh, nothin', just wanted to see if you wanted to meet Gary and me for coffee."
"You're out of class?" I asked. It was only 8:30 and they had Dr. Cal Robertson. Doc Cal never ends class early. Never. "I thought you had Robertson."
"We do. . . we just . . . well . . . we're at the coffee shop."
"Is something wrong with Robertson? Is he sick?" There was something she wasn't telling me, but she said he was fine. "Robertson is NOT fine if he let you out of class early."
"No, really. Robertson is fine."
I'm slow on the uptake at 8:30 in the morning. I didn't hear the shock in her voice, the utter disbelief. I didn't hurry. When I got to GWU, my friends met me, not at the coffee shop, but in the yard outside the divinity school.
"Aileen. Dr. Goodman died this morning," Donna told me.
"It's true Aileen," Gary said, "He collapsed in the shower. We don't know any more details right now."
"Dr. Goodman?" I couldn't believe what I was hearing. "Are you sure?" (We ask stupid questions like that when we are in shock.) They nodded, even while still disbelieving the news themselves.
"We're having chapel today, but they changed the planned service. Now the focus will be Dr. Goodman." In a few hours, we all went to church. Here's what I wrote about that service.
“Hold on to the railing,” our guide said as we wound down the stairs of the Church of the Nativity to the Grotto. “These steps are centuries old and very tricky.”
The church, built under the direction of Saint Helena, has been used continuously since 333 AD. St. Helena, using her influence as the mother of Constantine, Emperor of Rome, had this sanctuary built over the site where she believed Jesus had been born.
So, beneath this ancient church, is a cave—a cave that, back in first century Jerusalem, looked like any other inner-city cave. As the city grew up around it, the cave found a job—you know, made itself useful. Situated next to an inn, it offered its services to the innkeeper as a stable for sheltering his animals. The cave would have been a quiet, peaceful place, a place where guests often stayed when the inn reached capacity.
Today, a silver star on the floor of that cave marks the spot where St. Helena believed Mary gave birth. Another niche is considered to be the place where Mary laid Jesus in the manger.
True? Hard to say.
To me, whether the Grotto of the Nativity is the real, exact place where Jesus was born is not the point. I don’t really care much about such particulars. This I know: for more than 19 centuries, believers have come to this place to celebrate the birth of Jesus. They have come from far, far away, and from right next door, on donkey-back, on camel-back and on Amtrak. They have come: speaking Aramaic, Latin, Greek, Spanish, Swahili, Russian, even English. They have come in a steady stream of expectation, watching their step and holding onto the railing, to worship in this place. It's like an Advent Devotion come to life!
So as I stepped carefully on those tricky centuries-old stairs, my spirit reached out to the great crowd of witnesses there in that grotto with me. I turned to face the silver star and, joining my voice with theirs, I prayed, “Glory to God in the highest. And on earth, peace, good will to all people.”
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
(Originally published in my 2008 Christmas letter.)
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”
Luke 2:13-15 (NRSV)
An Advent message from the prophet Zephaniah
"Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! . . .At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the Lord."
Zep 3:14, 20 NRSV
"Happy Birthday to you! Happy Birthday to you!"
Twenty voices sang to the little guest of honor enthroned in her high chair. Anna Kate, celebrating her second birthday, celebrated her first in a very different place. Back then, she lay in a Russian orphanage awaiting her turn for nourishment and a little nurture as well.
"Happy Birthday Anna Kay-ate! Happy Birthday to you!"
Anna Kate beamed, looking around at all the people gathered just for her. A look of wonder filled her eyes as she said just one word, "Happy."
And in that moment, I beheld joy in the shape of a little girl. I got a snapshot, just a glimpse, of what it must have been like to see the face of Christ.
Christ had a second birthday too, you know. When Jesus was two years old and toddling about, do you think humanity realized the treasure in its midst? Of course Mary did, and Joseph. And surely other family members recognized that this baby was indeed extraordinary. But there must have been those who missed their chance to cradle joy incarnate in their arms. There must've been.
This advent season, we are called to embrace the coming of Christ. Don't miss your chance. Celebrate the joy of Christ today.
"Jesus, let us glimpse this day, joy incarnate. In the midst of our 21st century frenzy, slow us down that we might recognize your face, thereby experiencing the wonder of Advent."
Anna Kate and her family, 2014
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.’
Luke 1:78-79 NRSV
Back in the 1970’s, when $250,000 was an exorbitant amount to spend on an advertisement, Coca Cola Bottling Company assembled a cast and crew on a mountain in Italy to film what would become one of the most popular TV commercials of all time. In the ad, young people who appear to be from every tribe and nation, join in singing a song that even now, almost fifty years later, many people can recall.
I'd like to teach the world to sing
In perfect harmony.
I'd like to buy the world a Coke
And keep it company.
That's the real thing.
Back in the day, if you watched that commercial and did not shed a tear, you were in the minority. When you saw those youthful faces bright with hope, it was nearly undeniable: if everyone could just have a nice cold Coca-Cola, the world would most certainly be at peace.
In the above text, we read about what the world truly does need, and it’s not a soft drink. Old Zechariah, still glowing from the unexpected miracle of his newborn son, explains, “Through the heartfelt mercies of our God, God’s Sunrise will break in upon us, shining on those in the darkness, those sitting in the shadow of death, then showing us the way, one foot at a time, down the path of peace.” (Luke 1:78-79 The Message)
(an Advent Devotion I wrote originally for Asheville's First Presbyterian Church's Advent Devotional booklet in 1999)
I always got the back seat. The very back seat. The one in our 1972 Chrysler Station Wagon that faced oncoming traffic. My older sister and younger brother sat in the middle seat, behind Mama on the passenger side and Daddy in the driver's seat. The windows, fogged from the cold, made fresh drawing slates for us to sketch Christmas trees decorated with thumb prints and lined with fingernail garlands. Eight-track tapes sang Feliz Navidad, Drummer Boy, and Silent Night. Finally! We were on our way to Christmas.
It was a tradition, that trip. Almost every year, the five of us traveled great distances to be with my Mother's family for Christmas. I got my big Raggedy Ann doll in Atlanta, my dollhouse in Tulsa, and Redhead, my very favorite doll, at home in Wilson, North Carolina. The trip was just part of Christmas.
I liked the trip. I liked my hideaway in the wayback. With Redhead and a paper sack full of books I could ride for hours reading and napping and reading some more. I liked the car games we played as a family. (I can still spot an X or a Z on a billboard a mile away!) I liked having Daddy (a Baptist pastor by trade) to ourselves with no one to minister to but us. I liked that Mother was free from her at-home responsibilities. In that station wagon we found hours of forced respite, hours of what would now be called quality time.
We would arrive at our destination, spill out of our car, and race to the bathroom or the fridge, whichever need was greatest. Tins of homemade goodies beckoned us to just taste one. Packages, their bows crushed from the journey, fought for a place under the tree. Hugs and laughter, "You're it!" "Come See!" Refreshed from hours of unhurried family and private time, we were ready to celebrate!
And so it is with advent, our journey to Christmas. My prayer is that this year, I will take time to prepare my heart for the celebration of Christ. This year, I want to spend the Advent season resting in Christ so that, when the time comes, I can fully celebrate Jesus' birth.
May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.
Published originally November 2015
To hear retailers tell it, the Christmas season started just before Halloween. From CVS to Sears, stores have been festooned in red and green for weeks. The virtual world is no better. Before we even had a chance to design our holiday cards on shutterfly.com, social media got in the holiday spirit by making a cacophonous noise about the Red Cup of Starbucks. Indeed, the world seems to define the holiday season by what will sell best, whether it’s novelty socks or news articles.
But the church defines the season in a different way. The Christian church celebrates the season of Advent for the four weeks preceding Christmas Day. But what is Advent? Too many Christians don't have any idea. So, in an effort to help remedy this, I thought I’d offer this somewhat academic post about the Advent season. Here you go: your very own Advent Primer.
History & Tradition
The name, “Advent,” comes from the Latin, adventus, meaning “coming.” During Advent, Christians focus on the incarnation of Jesus Christ and on Christ’s eventual return, thereby highlighting both the humanity and the divinity of Christ. Advent is a celebration of the mystery of the trinity, made manifest in Jesus Christ who was fully human and simultaneously fully God.
Interestingly, the church has not always recognized this season leading up to Christmas. By the fifth century, the church had begun toying with the idea of a time of preparation prior to the celebration of Christ’s birth. Modeled on the Lenten season (40 days of fasting prior to Easter), Advent was observed in the West long before the Eastern church adopted the idea. By the 11th century CE, most countries had set aside approximately four weeks before Christmas for focused liturgy, abstinence, and fasting. Today, both Catholic and protestant congregations observe Advent as a time of reflection and contemplation.
A part of Advent worship is the lighting of the Advent wreath. Traditionally, the wreath, circular in design and made of evergreen branches includes five candles: four around the wreath and a center Christ candle. The candles are lit in successive weeks, adding one each week until Christmas Eve when the Christ candle is lit along with the four candles encircling the wreath.
The Christ candle is white. The candles for weeks one, two, and four are either blue or purple, depending on the church’s preference or tradition. The candle for the third Sunday is pink or rose in color. Themes for Advent are hope, peace, joy, and love.
Hope, the First Sunday of Advent
The candle lit on this day is blue or purple and is called the Prophecy Candle. On the first Sunday of Advent, the church reflects on the coming Kingdom of Christ. Texts for this Sunday are eschatological in nature. According to www.webster.com, eschatology is “a branch of theology concerned with the final events in the history of the world or of humankind.” But, the focus of this day is hope, not fear or anxiety. You see, we can get glimpses of God’s kingdom every day. Celtic Christians call these glimpses “thin places,” places where heaven seems to touch earth. On this Sunday of Hope, we can rest in the knowledge that in Christ, the Kingdom of God will certainly come in the future; let us also anticipate encounters with these thin places in which we experience the Kingdom of God in the here and now.
Peace, the Second Sunday of Advent
On the Second Sunday, we light the blue or purple Bethlehem Candle and the church remembers the Hebrew Prophets. It may seem confusing that today’s candle is called the Bethlehem Candle and we’re talking about Hebrew Prophets, when last week’s candle was named Prophecy. The confusion arises from our misunderstanding of the work of Hebrew prophets. Often, modern people think of the verb “prophesy” as a synonym for “predict.” But an Old Testament prophet was not a kind of ancient soothsayer who predicted future events with eerie accuracy. Instead, they were truth-tellers, delivering divine words of warning and of redemption to the people of God. Today, we look to Bethlehem, where Redemption was born.
Joy, the Third Sunday of Advent
On the third Sunday of Advent, the pink Shepherd’s Candle is lit, the. The candle is pink in commemoration of an ancient tradition in the church. In the early days of the church, the seven-week term of Lent was the only recognized liturgical season. On the third Sunday of Lent, the church took a brief break from fasting to celebrate the joy that was forthcoming in Easter. On this day, the Pope gave a pink rose to a congregant. Churches today use the pink candle in tribute to this custom from the church’s earliest days and as a reminder of the coming season of Lent.
On this Sunday, the church recalls the ministry of John the Baptist. John connects the prophets of old who spoke of righteousness, to Jesus Christ who embodied it. John the Baptist resembled an Old Testament prophet, yet as contemporary with Jesus, his message carried a unique sense of urgency. The biblical account the birth of Christ places the shepherds on the scene at the time of the nativity. Their rush to the manger resulted from their understanding of the magnitude of the moment. There is only one more Sunday of Advent. Time is drawing nigh! On the first Christmas, the Shepherds understood the immediacy of the moment; and during his ministry, John the Baptist did too.
Love, the Fourth Sunday of Advent
The last Sunday before Christmas the church lights the remaining blue or purple candle, the Angel Candle. Texts focus on Mary, the mother of Jesus. As we await the coming of Christ, we recall the joyous proclamation of the angels and Mary’s faithful obedience to God. When the angel Gabriel delivered his message to her—that she, a virgin betrothed to be married, was pregnant with the son of God—Mary gave herself fully and completely to God’s plan for her life. On this fourth Sunday of Advent, we look to Mary’s example for guidance on how we might also fulfill God’s purpose for our lives.
Advent. It’s intentional and slow, not harried and fast. The world shouts, “Hurry up! You’re so far behind!” The church whispers, “Be still. Listen.” The world says, “You’re not doing enough! You’re running out of time.” The church says, “This is the moment. Be fully present in it.”
This Christmas, let’s stroll through Advent, enjoying the sights and sounds of the season and with hearts full of hope, peace, joy, and love, let us listen for the whispers of the Holy Spirit.
(Check Wikipedia for this year's Advent dates.)
Originally posted in March 2013
We always draw the attention of strangers as we—nearly 20 of us—claim our spot on the beach. It’s impossible for our cumbersome crew to go unnoticed: a half-dozen pale-skinned adults slick with sunscreen, eight bathing-suit-clad Caucasian cousins ages 9 to 18, and one African preschooler whose skin tone matches the color of rich, dark chocolate. So even on South Carolina beaches where almost anything goes, we are the exception.
It all started when my cousin lost her ever-loving mind. I found out from my mother, who called me to give me the news.
“You are not going to believe what your cousin Kathi is doing. You are. Not. Going. To. BeLIEVE it.”
Kathi is about ten years older than I am. Despite a life laced with heartbreak and disappointment, Kathi has done well for herself. She’s always been employed: factories in the early years, grocery stores for most of the last twenty. She owns her own home and has developed a network of faithful friends and beloved family. Her two sons, who she raised without the help of her ex-husband, their dad, grew into responsible, hard-working, family men.
“Kathi is taking in a 3-year old African child,” Mother said.
“Come again?” I figured I’d misheard.
“Your 50+ year old cousin is taking in a toddler from another country.” Mother proceeded to tell me the rest of the story. (For the sake of privacy and protection, I’ll refer to the child as Little One.)
Little One’s mother, a friend of a friend of a friend, was incarcerated and needed someone to keep her child for just two weeks. Kathi didn’t know the mother and neither did the woman who called her. To sane folk, the whole thing sounded like a legal disaster. We cautioned Kathi. We advised her. We insisted she procure some official statement of custody. She listened, but as I said, she’d lost her mind right about the time she learned of this child in need. (It might also be possible that Kathi’s mind was right where it was supposed to be, being transformed.)
Little One moved in and soon everyone who loved Kathi loved the child. Two weeks came and went ten times and after five months the mother saw fit to reclaim her child. By then, the bond between my cousin and Little One was strong enough to last.
So for the last three summers, Little One has been with us on the beach: playing in the surf, building sand castles, looking for shells, never out of sight of this new family-in-love. And at some point, salty and sleepy, Little One seeks out Kathi and climbs into her lap.
“It’s not that big of a deal,” Kathi says in response to our praise of her selfless actions. She enfolds the sandy brown hand resting on her knee into her own; the child leans back, snuggled against the shoulder that has proven so reliable. “Little One needed a place to stay. God told me to offer my home. So I did.”
And to Kathi, it really was—is—that simple.
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. Romans 12:2
The church of my childhood met in this space back in the 70's. It's where all my friends were and I loved it.
“When I was a kid,” my octogenarian friend told me, “I went to church every time the doors were open. But I didn’t necessarily go to learn about Jesus; I went because that’s where my friends were.”
I could relate; truly, the church was the hub of my social life until I went to college. Vacation Bible School, church camp and ice cream socials were highlights of my summer. All year long, I attended Sunday school, Training Union and any special event scheduled at the church. That’s where all my friends were. Why wouldn’t I want to go?
Of course, to be fair, in those days, there wasn’t much else to do on Sunday.
I grew up in the 1970s and back then, blue laws kept most stores in my part of the country closed on Sunday. Movie theaters didn’t open either, except for a few drive-ins which opened for the late movie (which was at 8, not 10). No way could you find a bowling alley open on Sundays, though, if memory serves, I did play a game or two of mini-golf after Sunday night church on occasion. The skating rink might open for a church party on Sunday if you prearranged it, and most public swimming pools opened on Sundays (but only from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. so as not to conflict with services). Thus, when I was a kid, and certainly in the 1940s and ’50s when my senior friend grew up, church was just about the most fun you could have on Sundays without breaking a law.
The same applied to Wednesday nights when most Protestant churches (which back then were the only ones that counted anyway) had Bible study and family activities. I am certain I never had homework on a Wednesday night until late into high school — and that was likely because I had procrastinated and was playing catch-up. My brother’s little league sports never scheduled events — games or practices — on Wednesdays. The same was true for any civic or community activity. Whether it was Boy Scouts or dance lessons, Wednesday scheduling was out of the question. You might as well go to church. You didn’t have any valid excuse for missing.
Not true today.
In 2017, we can visit any number of fine restaurants and enjoy a leisurely Sunday brunch before catching a matinee at a nearby cinema. We can then follow that up with any activity we like: craft brewery anyone? Exception: if our kids play travel ball of any sort, they probably have games on Sundays, games that are out of town and require us to go on Saturday and spend the night.
On Wednesdays, kids have just as much homework as they do any other day (which is way too much, in my opinion, but that’s another column). Performances, practices and lessons happen just as frequently on Wednesdays as they do on other days. Wednesdays, once protected by societal norms from conflicting activities, are now fair game.
I hear lots of complaints about this perceived disregard for church culture. “Back in my day,” I’ve heard, “no business would dare open on Sunday. Little League ball games on Sunday? Not a chance.”
The thing is, though, businesses don’t open if they don’t make money. And they can only profit if they have customers. Same goes for kids’ ball games. You know why games are held on Sundays? Because children and their fee-paying parents participate on Sundays, that’s why. Plain and simple.
Parents tell me, “You would not believe how much homework little Johnny has on Wednesday nights. He couldn’t come to church tonight because he had too much work for school.” That sounds exactly like parents have no choice, doesn’t it? I mean, the kid has to do their homework, right? OK, but just to be clear, when we had essentially no other choice, we went to church; now, when we have a conflict, church is absentmindedly kicked to the curb.
Me, I think it is good that now we have to make a choice. It is harder, yes, but that’s not a bad thing. In fact, usually the more difficult a task or decision, the more valuable it is or will become. Gone are the days when we can just follow the masses to church without ever actually following God’s Son, Jesus Christ. But isn’t that good? Isn’t it better that we must choose how to spend our time and energy now? Isn’t it better that we make conscious choices to turn towards Jesus and away from other distractions?
So how about this: how about we stop wringing our hands about the things of the past that we can’t bring forward to our present day? Why don’t we step up to the challenge and choose church, choose Christ? If we do, I’m pretty sure that’s one choice we’ll never regret.
Originally published at baptistnews.com. Baptist News Global is one of my favorite sources of news and information related to faith. Really. You should check it out. Societal norms no longer bow to church. So what? – Baptist News Global