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Sunday, December 25, 2016

Looking Back So We Can Look Ahead

A year ago we welcomed 2016 as a bouncing baby boy, wearing nothing but a diaper, a top hat and a sash.  In these final days, we are watching 2016 shuffle off the stage beaten, bruised and battered, with shaggy hair and slumped shoulders, his sash tattered and torn.  It has been a rough year.

Along the way we said goodbye to celebrities who shaped our landscape: Florence Henderson, mother of the Brady Bunch; Leonard Cohen who taught us to sing “Hallelujah;” Merle Haggard, the “Okie from Muskogee” who died on his 79th birthday; Arnold Palmer, “The King” of golf; Gene Wilder, who took us on wild journeys through a Chocolate Factory, aboard the Silver Streak and Blazing Saddles. We said goodbye to Muhammad Ali who “floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee. ” We wished a final “God speed” to John Glenn, who inspired us with the “Right Stuff.” There are many others.

More importantly, we remember those whose names few others know. We remember those who, in quiet ways with little fanfare, inspired us with their courage, faith and love.  The Washington Post ran a collection of stories about such people this week, written by some of their best writers titled, “Grace Unwrapped, stories that prove kindness blossoms during the holidays.” 

Each of us have family and friends who left legacies of faith and courage.  I think of my father.  When he was diagnosed with multiple-myeloma in 1974 and volunteered for experimental drugs, knowing the risk. He died 2 years later at age 53 leaving a legacy of courage, faith and friendship.  He was a blue collar worker who was employed by Bell Telephone for 25 years. The day before he died he sent a get-well card to a friend on another floor of the hospital where he was fighting for his life. Hundreds attended his funeral. My mother lived as a widow for 35 years and, like my father, left a legacy of faith, courage and love.  The day before she died she visited with her grandchildren, prayed with them and blessed them.  She was 89.

 The Bible teaches us to look back and remember people who can inspire us.  Hebrews 11 gives a long list of those who left a legacy of faith: Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Jacob, Moses, Joshua, Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets. 

As we turn our eyes toward 2017, we can draw from those who have blessed our lives. We can face our challenges with courage and hope. As the Hebrews writer concludes, “Seeing we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith.” (Hebrews 12:1-2). 

Monday, December 19, 2016

Music For the Season and the Soul

Everywhere we turn we hear the sounds of Christmas. The little drummer boy drums; the nutcrackers crack; the babe sleeps in a manger in the little town of Bethlehem while the angels herald his coming. How could we celebrate Christmas without music?

The angels could not contain themselves. On a dark meadow outside Bethlehem the heavens were opened and the hills echoed with music human ear had never heard. The angels of heaven joined in a thunderous chorus praising God for His goodness and grace. They announced His mysterious gift in song: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” God is for us. He has extended his hand to us and touched us in the flesh with the flesh of His son. He has healed us and saved us from our sins.

The best acoustic theaters of Greece dim in comparison to the music that echoed on the hills outside Bethlehem. The most extravagant speaker systems of today cannot reproduce it. The greatest composers of history have stretched their talents to capture the emotions and the significance of that moment. They have found their highest inspiration when reflecting upon the birth of Christ.

On August 22, 1741 George Frideric Handel secluded himself in a room in London and started writing an oratorio to celebrate the birth of Christ. Twenty-four days later he emerged with the Messiah. At the end of his original manuscript he wrote the letters “SDG” – Soli Deo Gloria, “to God alone the glory.”

Music is an integral expression of faith. Most of the Psalms written by David were written as songs to be sung in worship. The Song of Solomon is a love song between the believer and God likened to a lover. Music is a gift God has given us to express our longings, our emotions and our faith. No other creature is endowed with this unique gift that surrounds the Christ event.

I expect that Mary and Joseph sang. Early in her pregnancy, Mary burst into song when she met her cousin, Elizabeth (Luke 1:46-55). I wonder what lullaby she must have sung to the infant in her arms? Music was part of Jesus’ life. The Bible says that after the last supper, Jesus sang with his disciples before going out. Imagine those twelve male voices singing in the upper room. The Apostle Paul wrote, “Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” (Col. 3:16).

During this Christmas season, may your spirit be renewed and lifted by music celebrating God’s unspeakable gift.

Monday, December 12, 2016

A Connecticut Christmas

There was a time when “a Connecticut Christmas” would have conjured up Christmas card images: flocked evergreens, multicolored lights glistening on snow-covered streets, children sledding in the park, smoke curling from chimneys where families gather around the warm glow of the fireplace. But, four years ago this week, that image was shattered. On Dec. 14, 2012, a deranged 20 year-old walked into the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut and killed 20 children between 6 and 7 years old along with 6 faculty who tried to protect them.

When the news broke on that awful day, I found myself not wanting to be disturbed by the painful images and stories. Four years later, I still find myself watching little children singing Christmas carols at church on Sunday and thinking about those who died in Newtown. I think about the families with empty space under Christmas trees where presents no longer wait for their children. 

While the rest of the world has moved on from that tragic day, I suspect there are mothers and fathers whose pain is still too deep for words. I find myself wishing that this kind of evil were not present in the world, wishing that the innocent did not suffer, that injustice and violence did not exist. I found myself asking how God could let something like this happen, especially on the cusp of the Christmas season.

As I think about these things I am reminded that we have made Christmas into an escape filled with fantastic fairy tales with elves and flying reindeer. We have created a nativity filled with serenity and peace.  But the actual birth of Jesus was anything but serene and peaceful. Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem to pay taxes, thrown into unfamiliar surroundings with no place to stay. The stable was a last resort. And evil was already stalking the baby that Mary bore. What we are feeling in the wake of Connecticut and similar tragedies is not far removed from Bethlehem.

The Magi who came seeking the newborn King unwittingly tipped Herod off to his birth.  After they refused to report his birth, Herod sent his death squad to kill him. Matthew wrote,When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.  Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: ‘A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.’” (Matthew 2:16-18). 

Being warned in a dream that the child Jesus was in danger, Joseph fled with his Mary and the baby and went into hiding as refugees in Egypt.  

The power of that first Christmas is found in the fact that God embraced the confusing cruelty of our world. It was in the midst of evil, pain and suffering that Jesus was born. It was precisely because of the senseless evil in this world that God sent His Son.  He came to give His own innocent life as a ransom for our sins.  He conquered death by His resurrection and one day He will remove the evil from this world by His return.  

Sunday, December 4, 2016

That Special Time of Year!

The first strings of light have been stretched across rooftops, lawns and windows. They punctuate the otherwise dark neighborhoods with brilliant flashes of red, blue and green.

Boxes packed away a year ago reappear from the attic where they have waited patiently for this magical time of year.  Candles, candy canes and crocheted snowmen take their places, surrendering center stage to the nativity. Limbs on the tree that stands proudly in the window bow with the weight of memories: cardboard stars created by chubby little hands, the artists’ names printed with an occasional backward letter; souvenir ornaments reminding us of vacations where we laughed and played; ceramic candy canes, wreathes, rocking horses and angels.  Stockings hang on the fireplace mantle, annual symbols of expectation.

Tiny Tim, Bob Cratchit and Scrooge take the stage to remind us once again that life is more than money. Christmas carols play in the shopping malls. Choirs and orchestras surrounded by poinsettias and greenery assemble to perform the Nutcracker, the Little Drummer Boy and Handel’s Messiah. The world is alive with the music of hope and celebration.

A large part of Christmas is preparation, expectation and anticipation. It feels right to me. The decorations and songs remind us that this is a special time of year, a time when something extraordinary happened.  Something that changed everything about the way we see ourselves and our world.

God sent his Son after centuries of preparation, expectation and anticipation. It was a special time of year, the most extraordinary moment in human history.

The prophets foretold His coming centuries before. From Genesis to Revelation, the Scripture points to Him. Isaiah said, “Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel.” (Isaiah 7:14). “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.” (Isaiah 9:6).

When Jesus was born, Joseph and Mary took the child to Jerusalem where they met some remarkable people who had been waiting a long time for this moment. They met an old man named Simeon who had been looking for God’s promised Messiah. The Spirit of God had revealed to him that he would not die until he saw the Lord’s Christ. When he saw the child, Jesus, he took the baby in his arms and blessed God saying, “My eyes have seen your salvation which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light of revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.” (Luke 2:25-35).

Mary and Joseph had hardly recovered from Simeon’s amazing declaration before they met Anna. She had been a widow for 84 years and spent her time fasting and praying in the Temple, waiting for the Messiah. “At that very moment she came up and began giving thanks to God, and continued to speak of Him to all those who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.” (Luke 2:36-38)

I guess that is why I like this time of year with all the decorations, music and drama. It reminds me of God’s preparation and God’s promise. It reminds me of the One who is worth waiting for!