Sunday, December 27, 2009

Christmas Experiences

The gentle sound and comfortable warmth of the fire.

The quiet music of Christmas on the hi-fi.

The dog contentedly snoring while curled up in front of the fireplace.

My wife leaning against me as we watch a classic Cary Grant movie.

The twinkle in the eyes of my sons as we eat pizza and play a competitive game of Life.

Waking up to the spicy aroma of fresh-brewed Christmas blend coffee at 6:30 in the morning.

Sunrise on a crisp winter morning reading from the prophet Joel.

A walk in the warm sunshine at the foot of the snow-covered San Gabriel mountains.

Worshipping God with brothers and sisters.

Hearing the Good News about Jesus Christ who was born to save us from our sins.

Receiving the body and blood of Jesus to forgive my sins, strengthen my faith and give me life and salvation.

Singing well-known-but-still-fresh Christmas carols, giving praise to God for His gifts of grace, mercy and forgiveness.

Spending more time with my wife and sons during Christmas break, eating special food, watching classic movies.

Proclaiming the 2000-year-old Gospel of Jesus to both life-long Christians and those looking for meaning and purpose for, and peace and fulfillment in, their lives.

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Sunday, December 20, 2009

Your Pastor’s Christmas Present

When a church members loses her job, she almost naturally turns for help – or at least words of comfort and prayer – to her pastor.

When another member gets a diagnosis of cancer he, too, turns to the pastor for prayer and comfort.

There is the mother whose daughter is caught in the grip of illegal drugs emails her pastor to seek guidance and prayer and to just vent a little.

Then there is the young man who is finding that he may not be able to fulfill a dream texts his pastor for advice on what to do now.

This is almost a daily occurrence in the life of a pastor.

Add to this the parishioner who is upset because a cause they are deeply committed to seems to be on the backburner for others in the church and fires off an email to the pastor to complain. Or another member who has been ill and feels the weight of the world on their shoulders, vents in a multi-page letter and then shares that letter with other members in the community. Or the ministry group in the church who feel that their needs are not being met with the full attention of the pastor that they think should be. Or the concerns of the leadership that the downturn in the economy is effecting attendance and giving.

And on top of all this, the pastor has to deal with a spouse who feels a little neglected because he’s always at the church office or having to attend a meeting. And the pastor has to deal with the stress of one of his children who has a mysterious illness and another child who is not doing well in school.

Oh, and let’s just stir the pot a little bit more and put all of this in the month of December with Christmas services coming up. The pastor feel the added stress of knowing that on Christmas Eve he will have perhaps the one and only chance to connect with a hurting and lost soul with the Gospel of Jesus.

What does that pastor do?

These are not beyond the experience of any pastor, or any disciple of Jesus Christ. What may be beyond the experience is the pastor calling out for help.

The called and ordained servant of Christ carries a very large burden – as indicated by the stole they wear over their church robes on the weekends . But many times, that very same man who provides comfort and guidance to others fails to understand and realize that this burden Jesus has placed on them with His Call “is easy, and … light" (Matthew 11:30). Part of reason Jesus says this is because it is a yoke and burden that is not meant to be carried alone. Yet, not a few number of pastors fail to take this to heart. Instead, they take everyone’s burden on themselves and share none of their own with others.

Church members – give your pastor the greatest Christmas present he’ll probably ever receive! Pray for him and his family. Step up and help out. Start a visitation ministry or join an existing one. Help fund the mission of the church, even in tough economic times. Join a Bible class or start a new one. Smile in church! Find out how you and your spouse can mentor newly married couples. Go to church! Bring someone with you. Don’t just send a Christmas card to your pastor and his family – attend worship this Christmas Eve or Christmas Day! Ask your pastor if there is anything you can do to help out at church – and mean it – and if he says yes and points something out, do it!

Don’t think you have to stop going to the pastor for prayer and guidance. That isn’t the point of all this. You must certainly continue to do this – that’s why he’s your pastor! But please understand that he’s a man who also needs a little prayer, guidance, and comfort. You and he are in this thing we call the mission of God together!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The On-Going Noel

It’s a Saturday night and we’re supposed to head to Chicago in one week for our 14th Annual Chicago Christmas.

But I’m sitting here praying, listening to Christmas music, and waiting to hear from my wife about our middle son, Kurt. He had another seizure tonight. They seem to be coming every 6-8 months now. They are at the emergency room and my other two sons and I are in the living room waiting. They are snoozing and I’m trying to keep my mind focused on Christ and His love for me and Kurt and all of us.

The song that just came on is probably my favorite this season – the First Noel performed by W.G. “Snuffy” Walden on the guitar.

The First Noel the angels did say. But Noel continues on and we say it now. The angels first announced the coming of our savior but every since then, the proclamation on the message has been left up to us.

The shepherds who heard the angels’ Noel took up the message and shared it. And Christians are called to share the Noel now.

“Go into all the world,” Jesus said.

We do this in a lot of different ways. I do it nearly every week through sermons preached and blogs and devotions written. But I also proclaim “Noel” through my life, through my speech, my love, my parenting, and everything I do – sometimes frightfully inadequately.

Today, I need to be reminded of that more powerfully. That’s why I typed up and printed out the phrase from John 12:21, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” I printed it out twice. I taped one on my laptop so I see it every time I use the computer. I taped the other one on the steering wheel of my car. I also two I taped a couple of months ago on my monitor at work and on the pulpit in my church.

Showing people Jesus through our lives is how we say “Noel” to the world. At this time of year, “Noel” is exactly what they – and I – need to hear. Christ entered our world. He became a human being while still being fully God for the purpose of living the perfect life (that we couldn’t live) and then also taking our sins on Himself and dying on a cross as well as being damned by God. He lived so that we would not die eternally. He took on flesh and blood so He could give up that flesh on the cross and spill that blood to obtain our forgiveness.

This world needs this message. In the midst of seizures and other sicknesses. In the face of death and other tragedies. When we are fearful of foreclosure and other despair, we need to hear that Christ is born and that God loves us.

The first noel the angels did say, but we say it now and need to hear it now.

Noel, Noel. Born is the King of Israel – and all of us.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Away in a Manger

No one is quite sure where this beloved Christmas Carol comes from. And perhaps that for the best – as its message is able to speak loud and clear of a savior born to save us from our sins!

It was first published – although with a different tune – in the Lutheran Little Children’s Book: For School and Families. No author was cited but the evidence we have points to it being written in America sometime in the years leading up to the Civil War.

The legend is that Martin Luther wrote it and sang it as a bed time lullaby to his children. But there is no record of this at all, and seems to have been made up by Murray. Why? Probably because he didn’t know the origins of the tune and wanted to give such a popular tune a little “weight” to its history.

Whoever the songwriter was, they probably didn’t live to see the song reach children the world over with its poignant message. Yet while the mystery of origination remains, the song’s message, depicting the precious moment when a Savior came to earth bringing peace, joy, and hope, is so strong and profound that it leaped from a single night, from a single household, to become one of the world’s most beautiful Christmas messages in song. The picture that story paints is even more profound and riveting than that of Luther singing “Away in a Manger” in Deutsch to his children.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

O Little Town of Bethlehem

It is Christmas Eve, 1865. The nation had just emerged from the most devastating conflict in its history – past, present, and possibly future. The Civil War had ended eight months earlier, bringing an end to four years that saw more American casualties than in all of the other wars the United States fought combined!

Pastor Phillips Brooks of Holy Trinity Church in Philadelphia led a flock that had scores of widows and parents who had husbands or sons killed or wounded. In April, he had been called upon to preach the sermon at the funeral of Abraham Lincoln. Exhausted and soul-weary, he took a sabbatical to the holy land, hoping to find a spiritual rebirth.

He wrote in his journal:

Before dark we rode out of town to the field where they say the shepherds saw the star. It is a fenced piece of ground with a cave in it, in which, strangely enough, they put the shepherds…. Somewhere in those fields we rode through, the shepherds must have been. As we passed, the shepherds were still keeping watch over their flocks.

[Later] I was standing in the old church in Bethlehem, close to the spot where Jesus was born, when the whole church was ringing hour after hour with the splendid hymns of praise to God, how again and again it seemed as if I could hear voices I know well, telling each other of the Savior’s birth.

He tried to convey what he felt, write in poetry what he experienced. But he was frustrated. He returned to America and to his church. He felt a “singing in his soul” but he just couldn’t share with his congregation what he felt. He struggled and fought to find the right words but none came.

Three years later, as Christmas 1868 approached, he again thought of his ride into Bethlehem at dusk and the church service that had followed. This time, he didn’t force the words out; he simply relived the experience and jotted down the lines that seemed to float into his head. His thoughts soon took the form of a poem. When he finished, he immediately and excitedly shared his poem with his friend – and musician – Lewis Redner.

Lewis Redner was the organist of Pastor Brooks church and, reading the poem, finally understood the power of what Brooks had experienced in the Holy Land three years early. He wanted to write music that would perfectly convey the experience and struggled and struggled. Exhausted on Christmas Eve he went to bed without having found the music.

In the time between waking and sleep, the music came to Redner. As if blessed by God Himself, on Christmas morning, Redner was able to write the music and “O Little Town of Bethlehem” was complete.

I think most Christians have an “aha” moment. Sometimes called a “mountain top experience” or a “wilderness experience” where the salvation that God brings to us in Jesus Christ “clicks” and we experience the majesty, the awe, the fullness of the love that God has for us.

But it is sharing that experience that can frustrate us. Like Phillips Brooks or Lewis Redner, we can become frustrated as we struggle to tell someone else what we have experienced.

And we want to tell others. It is part of our salvation. God sent Jesus to live, die and rise again to save us from our sins. Indeed, the most wonderful Good News! And then Jesus tells us to go into all the world and tell this Good News to everyone. To share the Good News of our salvation is in our Christian “DNA” so to speak.

But we’re not all poets. We’re not all musicians. We’re not all authors. We’re not all cinematographers. Not all of us have the gifts and skills that we would want to use to tell this Good News in the most effective way possible.

The story of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” is a lesson in “letting go” of what we would like to bring to the table of telling the Good News and just letting God flow through us. Brooks struggled for years. Redner struggled. But when they finally gave up the struggle and were in a Psalm 46:10 moment (“Be still and know that I am God”) the Good News came pouring out of them in an awesome way.

Their Good News is the same as our Good News. Jesus Christ was born in a little town called Bethlehem. He fulfilled ancient prophecy. He was the culmination of the plan of salvation that God had implemented in Genesis 3:15.

And the best way to tell this Good News is to be still and let God speak through our lives.

Phillips Brooks lived through a horrific time, pastoring a Philadelphia flock through the Civil War, culminating by preaching at the funeral of Abraham Lincoln. And God used that in Brooks life to bring to our Christmas celebration one of the most beloved of all Christmas hymns. God can bring His Good News to the world through you as well.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

O Holy Night

I used Ace Collins’ book Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas, Zondervan Publishing, 2001, for the story behind O Holy Night.

Christmas is, still today, a mostly Christian holiday. I know that seems that is become less and less with each passing year – just last week I read an article about a school in Waterbury, Conn. that has reportedly banned all religious festivities and many decorations from their classrooms.

It’s even in the name – Christmas! That being the case, it is a bit surprising that one of the most beautiful songs of the Christmas season – O Holy Night – was written by a wine commissioner in France known for not attending church and composed by a man of Jewish descent who did not believe in Jesus Christ as the Son of God.

In 1847, the parish priest of the town where Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure was wine commissioner asked him to write a poem that would be read at the Christmas mass. Knowing this, he knew it would have to be religious, focus on Christmas, and be based on Scripture. Using Luke 2 and Matthew 2 has his guide, he imagined himself present at the birth of Jesus. Traveling from his small town to Paris, he completed the poem by the time he reached the big city.

But he realized that this was more than just a poem, it was a song in need of a tune. So he asked his friend, a well-known (at the time) opera composer – Adolphe Charles Adams – to compose a tune. Reading the words, he realized that this poem was about a holiday he didn’t celebrate and a man he did not view as the Son of God. But moved by friendship, he went to work and completed the tune in a short time.

The result is a song that went on to have an interesting history. At first it was embraced by the French people and the French Church. But later, it was discovered that Adophe Charles Adams was a Jew and an atheist to boot. The heads of the French Catholic Church at that time deemed the song as unfit for church serves – citing that it lacked musical taste and a total absence of the spirit of religion! Even though officially banned by the Church, the people continued to sing it.

It was about this time that the song traveled to America – bitterly divided between North and South and quickly heading to Civil War. A Unitarian minister – of all people (The Unitarian Church does not believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ) – was given a copy of the French carol, translated it and published it. He was drawn to its message of freedom – especially in the lines, “Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother, and in his name all oppression shall cease.” This minister – John Sullivan Dwight – was an ardent abolitionist and knew that the message of Christ coming to free all men was one of the most important messages that the people of the United States needed to hear at this pivotal time in our history.

There are two more interesting items of this songs history that show the impact it has on people. Back in France, in the 1870’s during their war with Prussia, a story began to circulate that on Christmas Eve in 1871, a soldier suddenly jumped out of his muddy trench and, with both sides look at this crazed man, he boldly stood with no weapon and began to see at the top of his lungs, “O Holy Night.” In response, a German soldier jumped out of his trench and began to sing “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come.” The story went on to say that the fighting stopped for the next 24 hours while the men on both sides observed a temporary peace in honor of Christmas day.

The other story takes place in 1906. It was the early dawn of radio and Reginald Fessenden – a former chief chemist for Thomas Edison – using a new type of generator spoke into a microphone and for the first time in history, a human voice was broadcast over wireless radio. He began by reading the Christmas story from Luke 2 and then he picked up a violin and played “O Holy Night.” Thus, this song became the first music heard over radio in the history of the world.

This song and its story illustrate the truth that the message it gives is not to be kept to one’s self. It is to be shared with all the world. And even though Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, he came for all people – as the visit of the Magi illustrates. The salvation that Jesus brings is for all people held in the slavery of sin. Jesus frees us from our bonds and gives us life through His life, death, and resurrection. That Holy Night long ago is to be celebrated and shared with all the world!

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Music of Christmas

What brings Christmas to life for me is music, most of all.

For the most part, Christmas music is very unique. Yes, there are some who make Christmas music sound like everyday music with different words, but the truly meaningful songs of the Advent and Christmas season are unique.

There are songs that are more “secular” in nature – White Christmas, Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire, I’ll be home for Christmas. And there’s nothing wrong with these songs, they are some of my favorite Christmas songs!

But for a song to be a true Christmas carol it has to have at least one major theme – the birth of Jesus Christ.

Christmas is about the incarnation of the Son of God, which is another way of saying “the birth of Jesus.”

C.S. Lewis called Christmas “the grand miracle.” What about Easter? Without Christmas, Easter wouldn’t be possible!Jesus cannot rise from the dead, he cannot die, unless he first becomes a living human being!

All this is to say that Christmas is important. Not everything about Christmas is, of course. Here I mean what I’ve been noticing more and more on TV and radio – the emphasis on the buying and spending and the “commercialization” of Christmas. Which, of course, is nothing new.

This year, I’ll try to get back to the real meaning of Christmas and the best way I know how is through its music.

The stories of how some of the great Christmas Carols came to be are taken from Ace Collins’ book Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas, Zondervan Publishing, 2001. The songs I’ll explore this week are: O Holy Night, O Little Town of Bethlehem, Away in a Manger, and Silent Night.