December 22, 2011

I Have Seen the Light!

As I mentioned a few posts back, I have been listening to Christmas music since Halloween because I need a couple of months to hear everything I want to hear..and I want to hear everything more than once.

Last week I realized I had not yet heard one of my favorites, I Have Seen the Light. One of the things I love about this song is that it's written for men's voices. So often it seems that men at church don't like to sing so I like the encouragement men's voices lend to the guys in the congregation. That and it has a beat a girl could dance to, and listening to it makes me smile.

I found a wonderful version on YouTube. I tried to find one from a Living Christmas Tree because my church had one for years and if you've never seen one, it's a sight to behold. There were several of those, but my favorite version didn't have a tree - it's just fabulous voices from Hunter Street Baptist Church in Hoover, Alabama. (If you look at the background, you'll even see that Baptist choir swaying to the music.) Enjoy!

Have a wonderful Christmas!

Until next time,

I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” ~ John 8:12 (NIV)


December 20, 2011

Expecting the Unexpected

God doesn't color inside the lines. You know how I know that? Because He chose to use a girl to bring his plan to save the world to fruition. There was nothing about Mary's station in life to qualify her for such a position. She wasn't just a girl, she was a teenager for crying out loud. She was poor. She was betrothed, but not yet married. Her family had no influence.

Mary was the last person anyone would have expected God to use in such a miraculous fashion, yet she was an integral part of His plan. Religious leaders of the day certainly weren't looking for an unwed teenage mother to deliver the Child through whom the entire world could find deliverance. Despite the prophecies, they weren't looking for an infant in Bethlehem. Their preconceptions about who God could use led them to miss the Messiah.

There were exceptions, of course. The shepherds who were out minding their own business were easy converts when an angel showed up with a story to tell, soon accompanied by a heavenly host praising God. There were also devoted servants of God who understood the prophecies and who immediately recognized Jesus for who He was when He was just a few weeks old.

From Luke 2:25-38:

Source: Microsoft Clip Art

Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying:

Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.”

The child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

There was also a prophet, Anna, the daughter of Penuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem. (NIV)

Simeon and Anna recognized God's handiwork, even when He colored outside the lines. They understood that it's not our job to tell God who He can use, or how He can act. They understood that when God says that something will happen, it will happen, even if His methods don't make sense. They understood that when it comes to God, you have to expect the unexpected...especially if He's already told you exactly what He's going to do.

Until next time,

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel (God with us). ~ Isaiah 7:14

December 17, 2011

In the Eye of the Beholder

I have a confession. I adore Christmas sweaters.

I know, I know. Popular opinion has deemed them ugly, tacky even. I blame the GenXers and Millennials who put them in the same category as mom jeans. They'll never know how fun it was to dress as gaudy as you pleased for 3 weeks out of the year without looking like a hooker. What's next? Are they going to tell me that Santa's not real?

I'll concede that a lot of Christmas sweaters are quite ugly. As for tacky, well, I'll give you that one, too. That's precisely their appeal.

Maybe it's the same reason I'm drawn to pink flamingos (I don't own any, mind you) and pink tinsel Christmas trees. (It's just possible that I have a small pink tinsel tree. Just ignore the picture on the right.)

Until the War on Christmas Sweaters was launched, I never had a problem wearing a Christmas sweater in public. I didn't feel as bad if I hadn't put my tree up (the regular green variety) if I could personally be bedecked and bedazzled. Now if I wear a Christmas sweater, I'm afraid I look like the eccentric old aunt that no one wants to claim. Sigh.

Savannah Guthrie did a story on ugly Christmas sweaters this week and I actually own one of the sweaters she featured during a trip to a thrift store. (It's the green one that Savannah deems "pretty" in the video. I suspect that means her crazy old aunt has the same sweater.)

I particularly liked the one Matt Damon put on, although viewers voted it the ugliest of all in a poll, which I would like to stress was non-scientific. It was cuter on Savannah when she wore it to deliver fruitcake to Brian Williams but it really wasn't the best look for Matt. (The striped tie is the crowning touch.) Despite its ranking in the poll, I think it would make an adorable Christmas pillow. It would look so cute with the pink tinsel tree that I may or may not own.

Since I will no longer embarrass my family by wearing them, my Christmas sweaters are all in a corner of my closet, waiting for a Tacky Christmas Sweater Party excuse to come out and see the light of day. And since everything comes back sooner or later, their day will surely come again. If not, I'll eventually become old enough and eccentric enough that my nieces and nephews will just have to deal with having an aunt who wants to look like a bloomin' Christmas tree. ;-)

Until next time,

“The LORD does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” ~ I Samuel 16:7

December 14, 2011

Hope: To Expect With Confidence

"Hope is some extraordinary spiritual grace that God gives us to control our fears, not to oust them." ~ Vincent McNabb

Sometimes I wonder if our collective memories are all shot. We seem to have forgotten much of our (relatively) recent history.

Exhibit A:  Readers of Men's Health magazine recently voted Jennifer Aniston  "The Hottest Woman of All Time". All time??? OK, it turns out that they only included women who had been photographed, but still, it seems that Jen beat out a lot of other women from decades past. I will confess that I found a certain satisfaction on Jennifer's behalf when I saw that she had garnered the Number 1 spot while Angelina Jolie came in at Number 10. Then I realized that Madonna came in at Number 5, further evidence that I have no earthly idea what men find appealing. It's not that I begrudge Jennifer Aniston's placement at the top of the poll but I wonder if it's a sign that the men who voted have frightfully short memories...or maybe they are all just very young.

I see evidence of our short memories everywhere. I see it in the endless political polls. I see it in fashion. (Five inch heels will mess up your feet in ways you've never imagined, they're bad for your knees, and we've known these things about five inch heels for a long, long time.)

People seem to be particularly downcast these days and as the effects of the recession linger on, many seem to think things are the worst they've ever been. Christmas is just a few days away, and it seems that far too many people are filled with despair. It's more than the economy. It's the sense that we don't quite know what our place is in a rapidly changing world. There is fear for the future. There are people who are convinced that things have never been this bad when the truth is that there have been times that were far worse, and yet people got through them largely because they never quit dreaming of a brighter future. They never gave up hope.

I wonder how my paternal grandparents dealt with the worst period of their lives. Beginning shortly after Pearl Harbor, they watched as all of their sons and some sons-in-law left home to fight in World War II. They faced Christmas of 1944 with the realization that their oldest son would never come home and undoubtedly feared for the safety of their remaining sons. It was the most painful loss that any parent can experience and I'm sure they felt the full depth of that pain with every breath. If hope was gone for them that Christmas, it would return as their faith played a significant role in leading them to find hope and healing.

Source: Google Images
All four of my grandparents struggled to raise their families during the Great Depression. They went through year after year of lean times. Any gifts were modest, and each Christmas the stockings were filled with fruit and a few pecans. They felt blessed, never giving up hope that things would get better.

Their own grandparents had lived through what were truly the darkest days of our nation's history, a time when we were at war against ourselves. As I write this post, there is a Victorian loveseat just a few feet away from me that was in my great-great-grandparents' living room parlor during the Civil War. I wonder what their feelings were as they sat on that loveseat...were they filled with hope, or did they feel despair? Did they turn to God for comfort, or were they consumed by fear?

The journal of poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow makes it clear that he was filled with despair during those years. Shortly after the war began, Henry lost his wife when her dress caught fire and she was soon consumed by the flames. That Christmas he wrote in his journal, "How inexpressibly sad are all holidays." The next Christmas, in 1862, he wrote, "'A merry Christmas' say the children, but that is no more for me."  There was no entry for Christmas of 1863. Not long before that Christmas, Longfellow had received the news that his eldest son had been injured in the war. Perhaps it was because Lt. Charles Longfellow survived his injuries, but by Christmas of 1864, Henry was evidently feeling more optimistic. That was they year that Longfellow wrote a poem that has become a favorite for many, Christmas Bells.  In 1872, John Baptiste Calkin set the poem to music, deleting verses specific to the Civil War. Today, we know the poem as I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.

This is the poem with all seven of the original verses. It echoes the ups and downs of Longfellow's life and his reflections on the war, ending with that glorious verse brimming over with hope.

Christmas Bells
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till, ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

"There is no peace on earth," I said;
"For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men!

The last verse is one of my favorite verses of any hymn. "Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: 'God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!'" May those words encourage anyone who looks to the future with trepidation to remember that God is in control, and that with Him there is always hope for the future.

Until next time,

Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified...for the LORD your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. ~ Deuteronomy 31:6

For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” ~ Jeremiah 29:11

December 7, 2011

It's Not the Name That Matters

Once upon a time, and not all that long ago, "the holidays" referred to the period from Thanksgiving to New Year's. It was the stuff of which movies and songs were made. We looked forward to watching "Holiday Inn" on TV and we listened to Steve and Edie sing, "Happy Holidays". We openly wished our friends, "Happy Holidays!" as often as we said, "Merry Christmas!" and we didn't feel a need to apologize for either greeting.

We all understood that for many of us, the most important holiday in the aforementioned period was Christmas but we didn't feel a need to make it an issue because we also understood that everyone was not a Christian. Then something happened. Someone decided that the word "holiday" was an assault on Christianity and they found lots of people who agreed, that yes, that's what it assault on Christianity.

Last year the debate over the use of the H-word brought national attention to my hometown. It all started when one of our US Senators decided he would not ride his horse in what was formerly known as the Christmas Parade of Lights but had been renamed (a year earlier, a point he evidently failed to notice) the Holiday Parade of Lights.

The controversy that followed did not escape Jon Stewart's attention. As Stewart pointed out, Christianity survived the Roman Empire, and it will surely survive the renaming of Tulsa's parade. But goodness me. When Jon Stewart makes fun of the hullabaloo over your parade, you know things have gotten out of hand.

There was a mixed reaction to the parade controversy. There were Christians who sided with the senator, saying they were glad someone was "taking a stand". Other Christians felt that the fact there was a controversy at all over the H-word was an embarrassment.

I leaned towards the latter. I thought the Christian community looked like a petulant 2-year-old who has a toy they don't want to share. There are two problems with that. One is that Jesus does not "belong" to His followers. We belong to Him. The second problem is that we are called to tell others about Christ, and I believe that Christmas is a time when some are more open to the message of a light shining in the darkness of their lives. That message is often drowned out by Christians who are busy screaming, "Mine!" every December. There are Christians who bristle at the inclusiveness of the word "holiday" but if we're called to share Christ, doesn't He demand inclusiveness?

Source: Microsoft Clip Art
It's been 15 years or more since I've been to the parade, but I have no memory of baby Jesus being the star of the show. There were always a few church floats, business floats, school floats and bands, local TV anchors, and of course, the main attraction, Santa. But despite the parade's name and the presence of some churches, the parade was never about Jesus. The change from a daytime parade to a "Parade of Lights" came about not as a way to allow Christ's light to shine, but because the main sponsor was the local electric company. I have to think Jesus is totally cool with not being featured in a parade that's primary purpose is well, commercial.

Indeed, I think there are times when Christ would probably just as soon we left His name out of things that don't really honor Him, at all. As much as our economy is driven by consumerism, and knowing that businesses rely on Christmas shopping to make a profit, I don't think Christ feels particularly honored when we use the celebration of His birth as an excuse for extravagant giving in order to impress others. I don't think He feels glorified by Christmas parties that have nothing to do with God's love for us. I don't think He is impressed when we "stand up for Him" in a way that builds walls that prevent others from coming to Him. (While I hesitate to say how Jesus would respond to those of us who profess to follow Him but who build walls to keep others away, I suspect it would start with the phrase, "Woe to you...")

Which brings me back to the parade. This year, there will be competing parades, held on the same night and at the same time. The Holiday Parade of Lights will be held downtown, as it always has been.

There will also be a "Christmas parade", which will be held at a local shopping center. Supporters of the Christmas parade say they will attend because the parade has honored Christ in its name. However, according to the Tulsa Beacon, the location was selected "because there are almost no retail shops downtown." Really? I didn't realize retail shops were required in order to honor Christ. An organizer - who happens to be running for office - went on to say, "Our center is becoming the more frequent first choice for shoppers. We have chosen this location for our first (hopefully of many) annual Christmas parade." Is it me, or does this parade seem to be about retail businesses? There's nothing wrong with a parade being centered around shopping, that's how our downtown parade began back when most stores were located downtown. But don't pretend it's something spiritual when clearly, it's not.

As He prayed at Gethsemane in His final hours, Christ prayed for future believers who would  come to Him through the message of those who already believed. He prayed for us in those early morning hours as He waited for the soldiers who would lead him to the Cross. Christ prayed that we would hear His message and come to know the grace of God. Now it's our turn to spread the message, and that message is one of love and grace. Is that the message we're sending?

May you experience the love of Christ throughout this holiday season.

Until next time,

My prayers is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one -- I in them and you in me -- so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. 
~ John 17:20-23

December 5, 2011

Angels and Men Rejoice!

My maternal grandparents were extremely legalistic about the Christmas season. It lasted exactly one week. They never put the tree up before Christmas Eve and it absolutely had to come down on New Year's Eve. I always wondered if they had any idea how much joy they missed by limiting Christmas to such a narrow window of time.

Maybe that's why I start listening to Christmas music around Halloween, something for which I refuse to apologize. What baffles me is why it disturbs so many people. A couple of weeks ago I heard someone at the mall complaining about the Christmas music. "It's too soon," she said. "I'm already sick of it." Sick of Christmas music? In my mind, that just doesn't compute.

It seems to me that despite all of the options available, most of us tend to listen to one or two specific genres of music. Our preferences might be country, jazz, songs from our youth, or current hits, but we still listen to basically the same songs over and over and over again throughout the year. But there are a lot of people who want to restrict Christmas carols to a period of about four weeks. They have no idea how many different songs I want to hear more than can't be done in four weeks.

I'm not talking about Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer here. Heavens, no. If I hear that once a season, it's one time too many. I'm talking about songs that herald the joy of Christmas.

It can be Bing Crosby and Davie Bowie singing Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy or a choir singing Joy to the World. It can be a contemporary artist or it can be Rosemary Clooney. It can be be secular...I love John Lennon's Happy Christmas (War is Over) and the hope it represents. It can be the ancient sound of O Come, O Come Emmanuel, the familiar strains of For Unto Us a Child is Born, or the more recent Breath of Heaven. All of these songs remind me of a season that represents the full depth of God's love for us, that He would send His only Son to live among us and to be a living sacrifice for us.

When you think how long the world waited for the Messiah, is it really too much to spend a couple of months a year anticipating His arrival all over again through music? Is it ever wrong to rejoice over the reality of Emmanuel...God with us? Is it ever too soon to sing, "O come, let us adore Him?"

One of my favorite Christmas songs is a newer song, All Is Well, by Wayne Kirkpatrick with music by Michael W. Smith. I love the music, and I love the words. You can listen to it on YouTube.

How early do you start listening to Christmas music? What are your favorite Christmas songs?

Until next time,

For unto us a child is born, to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Isaiah 9:6