Monday, December 24, 2007


The wind is persistent, steady like the passing of train, endlessly pouring from the horizon. It does not rest or gust, but it simply blows. Low clouds race across the sky with barely time to perceive their shape. They are in such a hurry I wonder if they know where they are going. And above it all the moon throws its pale blue to the earth below. It traces cloud, leaves no puddle without projection, and sets the rest into hard shadow. This is not moonlight that washes over everything, but some sort of heavenly street light in the midst of a cold, dark alley. Stories and tales of the darker things are born in a night like this, yet against this sinister canvas there is nothing looming, fearful, or wicked. The night is rare in its beauty, and rich in the senses. You do not breath of the air on a night like this, you drink it. It is standing in the awareness that the world is alive all around you and that something is driving it all, something big, something mysterious.

We really have very little to go on as to what kind of night it really was. We know that magi followed a star, but that is really about it. It may have been cold, the moon may or may not have been out in the night sky, it may have been cloudy, we just do not know. Yet when we think about Christmas Eve, we picture a night of endless stars, the moon beaming down through the cracks and the cold onto the birth of Christ, our Lord. We imagine because it is an event that is easily romanticized. I do not think this is a bad thing yet it is amazing how many assumptions we apply to an evening we really know very little about. In the scriptures we get only a few verses about that night, but there is one thing I am relatively certain about. In the culmination of the physical and emotion turmoil that was Mary’s teenage pregnancy, there must have been a tremendous sense of life and the world around them - something big, mysterious, and driving it all like a strong winter’s wind.

Imagine a world in which everyone lives with a sense of something bigger at hand, something more meaningful. When I picture this world, I picture a lot of happy people who seldom fret the woes of life. To engage all your senses is to experience the world with wonder, and to give yourself up to the inevitable is to live without care. I am convinced this is joy, living without regard to the petty things or even the dramatic, but rather with a healthy and gracious understanding of the bigger picture. When I imagine the Bethlehem sky and the couple in the manger, I have to believe they felt the same overwhelming peace and belonging, even in the midst of labor.

There are many focuses in the season of Advent. I have written about the prophecies and anticipation of Israel, and about peace, to no adequate effect, in some prior work. It is also common to hear sermons about hope, joy, the magi, and the shepherds, not to mention Mary and Joseph. I wanted to take the time to consider the weight and worth of this season, I wanted to change the way I looked at Christmas. But I quickly realized how incapable I am of truly capturing and considering everything there is to consider. The Old Testament alone tells of the hundreds upon hundreds of years of anticipation, then factor in all the players in the story and what makes them essential, and it is downright overwhelming. I do not want to over think Christmas.

Now I sit here in the dark in front of the Christmas tree at my parent’s house and I picture that moon, the wind, and the shadow. I listen to Andrew Peterson and picture the stable, what the sky must have looked like on that night Christ was born. I sink back into the couch and I rest in the knowledge of something big and mysterious, something driving it all. The ancient prophecy, the star-gazing magi, the dumbfounded shepherds, noble Joseph, and blessed Mary, it all fits together so well. The circumstances surrounding the birth of Christ were perfect in every way.

I originally planned to write something for every week of the Advent season, which I obviously did not do. This week was intended to be joy, but I am realizing that if joy is living gratefully in unconditional acceptance, then perhaps all these other aspects of the season fall right in. By living in joy, we experience peace and hope, and in these things we get a pretty good picture of Christ. But joy would not exist without love, and perhaps the most important thing I have been thinking about these last couple weeks is that the coming of the Christ was a tremendous act of love. Christ became man and squeezed into this world because He loved us enough to want us to be with Him.

As Christmas day is now upon us, it is my hope that we can all rest in the knowledge of God made man through the little baby boy born in a manger. Why God did such a thing is much bigger than us, yet it is a joy to be a part of it. I hope and I pray that this Christmas is filled with the knowledge of something big and mysterious made complete in that little boy. Behold the Lamb of God, never changing, never running astray, and upon him all the Glory of the world. Merry Christmas.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

What's So Peaceful About Peace?

I hear so much talk of peace this time of year, and I cannot help but wonder where people are hanging out. Where are the sheep? Where are the stars? Where is the sweet and cooing baby Jesus to command a little silence? As far as my Christmas experience is going there might as well have been a marching band practicing on the other half of the manger, and the oboes are out of tune. The two burning candles on the Advent wreath have fallen out of their stands and are setting the carpet on fire. I can safely say that I am not experiencing much peace at the moment and either a peaceful Christmas is an illusion or its on a fast track to pass me by.

Now I must admit that I am being dramatic, but I must consider the circumstances. First there are the petty things, like how every morning I stick out my elbows and push my way onto Interstate 65 amidst dozens of people acting like they are driving their imaginary pregnant passenger to the hospital in a bumper car. This is probably the case all year long, but I have started a new job in the holiday build-up, and it is a rude awakening after the stillness of a breaking morning. I then sit at my desk and respond to a hundred or so emails and calls from edgy customers wondering where their Christmas gifts are. I once wrote a scathing letter to a manufacturer of a guitar I own because of a defect in the instrument, hoping that my words would sizzle on the page and in turn score me some kind of hand out. I was young and foolish, but it would appear what goes around comes around. We are in the throws of materialism and nothing shows the selfishness of man like people spending money. I am stressed out by the way people are spending money.

There is simply too much to do to make Christmas logistically happen. This is the busiest time of my year on every possible level. I work every day, have an engagement every night, and while this is a time for fellowship and celebration, I find myself looking for reasons to bug out. This is a time to give God glory for the intersection of mankind and the divine, yet we have so many obstacles in the way of getting there.

And then there are all the difficult things, the things that are outside of our control. This week was a week of unwelcome news, and a week of difficult lessons. I caught a glimpse of the depth of my selfishness and it hurt. At the same time our nation is fighting a war on two fronts, a war against an enemy that will never cease to exist. Democracy is failing in allied nations, civil war occurs the entire world over. Then there is the genocide in Sudan, children forced to be soldiers in Uganda, and the fact that 6,500 Africans die every day from a preventable disease. The truth of the matter is that this a world in which we have no peace, and a world that never will.

Israel, as I wrote previously, was a nation that never experienced a lasting peace. Isaiah speaks of the Messiah as the Prince of Peace, and we embrace this idea. After all, angels appeared to the shepherds below, saying, "Glory to God in the highest! Peace on Earth and good will towards men!" Our nativity scenes depict the most perfect of circumstances, carols invoke the calm, and even the high and peerless beacon of the night sky invokes a tremendous sense of purity and bliss. This picture of the birth of Christ is bursting with peaceful images and I wonder, how do I find the peace in this season?

A few nights ago I sat and watched a remarkable song cycle called “Behold the Lamb of God”. A local singer-songwriter named Andrew Peterson, along with a number of his friends, performed this telling of the birth of Christ, starting in the beginning of the Old Testament. The defining moment of the entire production is a song called “Labor of Love”, a song that is possibly the best lyrical telling of the birth of Christ I have ever heard. The song starts with the lyric, “It was not a silent night, there was blood on the ground.” And it continues:
You could hear a woman cry
In the alleyways that night
On the streets of David's town

And the stable was not clean
And the cobblestones were cold
And little Mary full of grace
With the tears upon her face
Had no mother's hand to hold

It was a labor of pain
It was a cold sky above
But for the girl on the ground in the dark
With every beat of her beautiful heart
It was a labor of love

Noble Joseph at her side
Callused hands and weary eyes
There were no midwives to be found
In the streets of David's town
In the middle of the night

So he held her and he prayed
Shafts of moonlight on his face
But the baby in her womb
He was the maker of the moon
He was the Author of the faith
That could make the mountains move

It was a labor of pain
It was a cold sky above
But for the girl on the ground in the dark
With every beat of her beautiful heart
It was a labor of love
For little Mary full of grace
With the tears upon her face
It was a labor of love

A “labor of pain” is far from a peaceful thought, yet the child of Mary was in fact the Prince of Peace. Even God made man was born in the pains of labor, not to mention the abject squalor of a filthy manger.

In this second week of the Advent, I consider the Prince of Peace and the obstacles placed between us and a peaceful Christmas. In a world where violence, disease, and suffering is inevitable, it is the Christ child that embodies peace. Life is not peaceful, but the presence of God is peaceful, and one day this world will experience the lasting peace the Israelites longed for, and not just for those who believe, but for the entire Earth. Wars will end, the environment will be put into balance, and selfishness will cease to exist. In the birth of Jesus and the celebration of Christmas, we are intended to experience peace, if only for a moment. As I sit here and desperately try to slow down my thoughts, I do not wish for the sweetness of this season to pass me by. I long for the Prince of Peace, and it is my sincere hope that all the weight and noise imposed upon us during the Christmas season fade away, until all we are left with is the cries of a child, and a sky full of stars.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

The Advent: Anticipation

Oh Israel, you stubborn people! You are a nation of intermittent obedience, though you are no stranger to discipline. You are easily swayed by idols though you have dwelled under the mountain of the living God. How easy it is to forget the road you walk, even though it is led by cloud and fire. How easy it is to forget the provisions you receive, even as manna and quail appear from the sky. And in the very presence of God, how easy it is to long for Egypt and your days of slavery.

Oh Israel, if you only knew what your disobedience would bring! If you only knew how joyless your law would make you, waiting every day, year after year, for the law to save you. It is not the laws you break, for the law can be fulfilled by no man, but the spirit in which you break them. The arrogance of Israel says that a time comes in which the law no longer suffices, that a man must lead Israel, that some “god” of their neighbors will come to their aid, and I cannot help but wonder if every time Israel fell back into slavery, they mourned their words: Wouldn’t it be better to be back in Egypt? (Numbers 14:3). Israel longs for something lasting, and all the while their spirit crumbles.

Permanent is a word the children of Jacob must have often thought and seldom spoken. And who can blame them? They were nomadic herdsmen, ever moving towards a land they had been promised hundreds of years before. Once in the land, they lived in peace for a time, only to be assailed and divided, eventually destroyed. It seemed their progress culminated in the building of the Temple, a reward for the guidance of Godly leaders, and a beacon of Israel’s unity. Later kings would turn wicked and greedy, the nation would divide, and the Temple would crumble to the ground. Israel would find themselves in bondage again and they would long for redemption.

The voices in the wilderness are echoed in their leaders as Isaiah, like David before him, speaks of a coming redemption. Israel’s battle with the law has left their nation divided and weak, full of corruption and bitterness. Jacob’s children are primed for deliverance, and in the words of Isaiah they hear how the Lord will bring Israel back together. A king will rise who will throw down their enemies and gather all of the scattered back to the folds. Israel has seen kings come and go, but this is different, this seems permanent.

There are many prophecies in the Bible concerning the Messiah, and I possess not the knowledge or the words to convey their significance. Even still I am overcome with the burden that Christmas is so much more than the birth of Israel’s Messiah. Or maybe it is that Christmas is not an adequate means of expressing the coming of a savior. Christmas is a season, and though there are many great things about it, it is just a season. I find it interesting that people consider this time of year to be a time of reconciliation and restoration. Loners find their way home, families speak their peace, and the turmoil of life seems to suspend for a few moments. This event brings hope to people who do not subscribe to the spiritual, and even suspends the fields of war.

For Israel, the coming of the Christ was anything but a season, but rather a constant awareness and longing for deliverance. The writings of the Old Testament are full of this longing and the birth of the Messiah was a long time coming. When it finally did come it seems that no one was looking except for some star-gazers and some shepherds. I am saddened that Jacob’s children missed this, almost enraged at how a nation could be so lost in trying to save themselves that they would miss the birth of Christ, but I think I get it.

I once heard someone speak about the Pharisees, those pious punching bags we in kind look at down our noses. He posed the question, “Did you ever wonder why the Pharisees were the way they were?” I always just thought they were joyless for their pride, and ignorant to the way of everyday life for all their knowledge. Who does not like someone that has no redeeming qualities? After all, it makes us feel powerful and righteous, though we could not be further from truth. This man goes on to say that the Pharisees, as the leaders of the Jews, felt a responsibility to protect Israel. For hundreds of years Israel believed they suffered as the result of their sin, and in this time of Roman occupation, it made perfect sense that deliverance could only come when Israel lived righteously. The Pharisees would then feel that by living in extreme compliance with the law, the Messiah would come in triumph and forever remove the occupying forces of pagan nations. This is logical to me, and in this light the Pharisees do not appear prideful, but rather tragic.

As I consider the advent, I dwell on the season with various thoughts of Christmas, but this year I am burdened. I have been reading about the Law, and about Israel’s battle to keep it. I have read about the ways they atoned for their sin, and the way they even groveled for mercy. And when I consider the condition of the Israelites, I realize that the anticipation of a Messiah was not a season on the calendar, but a fact of life for many hundreds of years. I am burdened by the fact that I too live like an Israelite, burdened by a law I cannot keep, a law that has caused me immeasurable grief.

This year as Advent begins, I pray for the remembrance of Israel’s and my own condition, and the anticipation of the great Liberator, the King of Kings. May Christians everywhere not be lost in the chaos of this commercial time, but celebrate the coming Messiah. For all the beauty and peace found in that manger, may we anticipate our Lord like Israel did, and as we look forward to Christ’s next coming, it is my hope that we like the magi be found watching the sky and not buried in our books.