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December 2009

The Sixth Day of Christmas

Snow_5"Six geese a-laying?"  Hmmm.  Six days of creation, apparently.  Scripture begins with an account of Creation that is incredibly brief and yet theologically rich.  The fact that God is Creator and First Imaginer is fundamental to all creative activity.  As creatures made in God's image, we image His creative nature.  We cannot help but create.  It is who we are.  The only question is for whom we create.  Will our imaginings honor and glorify God or honor ourselves?

A lot of ink has been spilled on the question of whether the six days of creation are 24-hour days or merely long periods of time.  Both are defensible positions.  However, the big story of these days is that God initiates and superintends the creative process.  It is not the product of random forces.

Creation's rootedness in the Trinity is also instructive for our own creative activity.  Creation occurred in community, a triune community of love -- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  To me that implies that our own imaging of this creative activity is not simply self-expression but arises out of community.  For Christians, this is the Body of Christ, the Church.  There is accountability.  We do not create in a void.  Creative activity should be encouraged by the Church; artists should be accountable to the Church.  There is mutuality.

Finally, God's creative activity builds on itself, like a good story.  It reminds me that He is not done yet, that His Kingdom is growing, that He is at work even now re-creating human beings to more reflect His original design for them, that one day his work will be done and He will truly, and finally, rest in what He has made and remade.


The Fifth Day of Christmas

Snow_4Doubtless there are many Christians who do not spend much time in the Old Testament, who regard it as full of obscure laws and a harsh and scary God who seems unlike the meek and gentle Jesus.  In fact, some would say we now live under grace, not law, and so all those laws have no place in our lives today.  That's a failure to appreciate and make distinctions among the various types of laws which we find in the Old Testament.

The five golden rings of the song are taken as symbolizing the first five books of the Old Testament, known as the Torah or Pentateuch.  And while these books certainly contain historical narrative, they are in fact full of laws -- ceremonial, civil, and moral laws.

The moral law is that which applies at all times and in all places.  Think Ten Commandments.  Murder is always wrong.  So is adultery.  These things don't become right even if a culture says they are right.  Furthermore, these laws are expressions of moral principles that carry in their penumbra more than just just the act proscribed.  Jesus so well expressed their far-reaching implications when, for example, he said that to hate someone is in fact to murder them.  The moral law applies to us all and indicts us all. This law is so embedded in the fabric of creation that many natural law theologians and philosophers can trace its outline in all cultures in all times.  Perhaps.

The civil law is the application of the timeless moral law to a particular cultural and historical context.  While these laws may not be appropriate to our context, they are instructive case law, showing how a particular people, the Israelites, applied a moral principle, and hopefully helping us see how to apply the principle in our own time and place.  Honoring our mother and father, for example, is rooted in the principle of submission to God-instituted authority, but how that might play out in a particular employer-employee relationship might be a matter of prudence, considering the specific context.

Finally, the ceremonial law, all those regulations regarding sacrifice, is truly abolished, now that the perfect sacrifice of the Lamb of God has been made.  These laws are still instructive in helping us better understand the sacrifice made by Jesus.  We don't offer sacrifices for sin anymore; Jesus died once for all sin.

Having said all this, I'm still aware that when I read the Old Testament it is a different experience than reading the New Testament.  God does exercise his justice more readily.  And yet throughout these books of law, I see God's grace, his restoration of his people.  It is, after all, one story told in one book.  Frankly, however, I long for the day when law is so written on our hearts that we need not even think of it.  It will be a part of who we are, as easy as breathing.  Soon.


The Fourth Day of Christmas

Snow_3Four calling birds.  Four Gospels.  Four testimonies to the same good news that God is reconciling the world to himself.  Four personalities.  Four perspectives.

We have a much "rounder" picture of Jesus with four writers than we would with one writer.  God uses the personalities and particular backgrounds and sensibilities of each of the four writers of the Gospels to present a picture of a royal-servant-shepherd-brother Jesus who defies caricaturization.  He is God.  He is human.

It's interesting just to examine how each writer chooses (under God's superintending grace) to begin.  Eschewing all recommendations on how to begin a book, Matthew begins with a genealogy of Jesus.  A list!  His aim, presumably, is to show that Jesus is the rightful heir to the throne of David, the Ruler of his people, the promised Messiah.  And yet there is Rahab the prostitute in the lineage, affirming the humanity of Jesus as well. 

Mark begins with John the Baptist's baptizing of Jesus the man, ready to begin his public ministry, skipping genealogies and the birth account completely, focusing on the action, much like a journalistic account might.  Just that description of John the Baptist right up front in Chapter One is enough to pique the reader's interest, what with his eating locusts and wild honey and dressing in camel hair clothing with a leather belt.

Luke begins with an assertion that "I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning," with the goal of writing an "orderly account."  And it is.  But it's probably the account where we see the compassion of Christ most fully, a social concern.  It's the only one where we hear about Jesus the boy.  (For a fictional and yet not unbiblical account of Jesus the boy, I suggest reading Anne Rice's Christ the Lord.)

Finally, in John, storytelling wanes and doctrine gains ascendancy.  John begins with the well-known "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."  It's a statement of fundamental doctrine, of a Trinitarian view, right up front.  Jesus is God.  He is divine.  And yet he is human.  It is John who penned the shortest verse in the New Testament: "Jesus wept" (Jn. 11:35).  Jesus was "deeply moved in spirit and troubled" (Jn. 11:33).  And there is that intriguing ending: "Jesus did many other things as well.  If every one of them was written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written" (Jn. 21:25).  What an odd statement!  It makes you wonder what John left out.  And yet maybe the point is not to prompt us to useless speculation but to enter into and know Jesus ourselves, and in knowing him begin to experience a fuller and deeper knowledge of him than can be communicated in mere words on a page.

I'm thankful for four accounts of one story.  That they don't match up, that each emphasizes different things or contain different details, reminds me that this is a real story told by real people about a real Jesus, the Lord.


The Third Day of Christmas


Snow_2"On the third day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, three French hens. . . ."  It's unfortunate that the three could not have been more intelligent birds, as hens (I testify from experience) seem to be the dolts of bird-dom.  These three are said to signify the trilogy of theological virtues the Apostle Paul refers to in 1 Cor. 13:13 and elsewhere.  However, I much prefer commentator John Gill's description of them as the three theological "graces," signifying that they are imparted by God in his regeneration of us and not the product of our work.  Maybe it is a reminder that it is grace that we have three dumb and not intelligent birds to remind us of the three graces!

Having said so, I don't mean to imply that the graces are fully-realized.  As Gill says, "faith may droop and hang its wing, hope may not be lively, and love may wax cold, but neither of them can be lost."  Thank God for grace as I'm not much good at realizing the virtues on my own and left to myself would falter in faith, lose hope, and love only when it paid off for me (which is no love at all.)  Undoubtedly you've experienced what I have commonly recognized -- that my faith is impure, tainted by doubt; my hope ephemeral, and plagued now and then by doubts; and my love exercised with mixed motivations, always self-serving to some degree.  Thank God for his grace.

Paul also says that the greatest of the three is love.  Gill says that this is because love is more durable, that is, it will endure for eternity.  In essence, love was present in the Trinity prior to Creation and will continue throughout eternity.  God is love.  In addition, while faith and hope well serve us as individuals, through love we serve others -- so love is, as Gill perhaps unfortunately says, more "useful" -- unfortunate in that the word has a pragmatic emphasis.  Better to say that love is fundamentally other-centered and, so, more fruitful. So what happens to faith and hope in heaven?  Gills says that "in the other world, faith will be changed for vision, and hope for enjoyment, but love will abide, and be in its full perfection and constant exercise, to all eternity."

Today, be thankful for the three graces, and spend them wisely.


The Second Day of Christmas

Snow_1"On the second day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, two turtle doves. . ."  As the lone partridge represents Jesus Christ, who is at the center of Christmas, the two turtle doves are said to represent the Old and New Testaments, the two books of the Bible which together represent God's self-revelation in space and time.  It seems to me that there are two things to note here.

First, there is the obvious and yet not so widely accepted view that the two testaments are in fact God's revelation and not simply the creation of men who took disparate records of legend and fact and concocted a story to their liking.  Orthodox believers hold that the words of scripture were superintended by God, that is, not dictated and transcribed but filtered through the personalities and perspectives of the various authors and yet in such a way that the end result is objectively true and without error in its original form (and without any significant or meaningful error) in their translations.    This time of year, as at Easter, there are always a few documentaries on television and books on the shelves which seek to shed light on the "historical Jesus."  They all generally begin from an assumption that supernatural events cannot occur.  That being the case, they end up, not surprisingly, where they began, by concluding that the Incarnation was really just a normal human birth, after all.  To the contrary, Christians believe that God can act in history in a supernatural way and, thus, the evidence (and there is evidence) leads to the conclusion that Jesus was God enfleshed, the one to whom the testaments testify.  There are innumerable books to read on this, but I might suggest Alistar McGrath's Incarnation which, though not a full apologetic for the Incarnation, sheds light on its meaning for us -- in prose and poetry, and accompanied by fine art.  The Incarnation has never been disproven, just disbelieved.

Second, the relation between the two testaments is not a matter to be too dogmatic on.  Orthodox Christians differ in the degree of continuity and discontinuity that they see between the two testaments.  There are the severest Dispensationalists, who insist that practically everything in the Old Testament is now dispensed with by the New Covenant, the law of love, and is a mere shadow of what we now enjoy.  Then there are Reformed Christians who see much more continuity between the Testaments, distinguishing between the moral law (which continues), the civil law (which is instructive in its application of moral law to a particular cultural context and so suggestive to our applications in our cultural context), and the ceremonial law (which is abolished but remains instructive in its shadowing of Christ).  It's a difficult subject, and one worth studying. 

For me, the best thing to remember is that this is ultimately one story which unfolds in two books, the main character always present and yet shadowed in the one, and then center stage in the latter.  God created.  Man turned from God.  God  redeemed.  God restores.  The grand themes are ever present in both testaments.  Two turtle doves, one partridge, one song.


The First Day of Christmas


SnowIt's probably the case that most evangelical Christians do not know that the "twelve days of Christmas" actually begin with Christmas and end on Epiphany, January 6th, the day Eastern Orthodox Christians and some others celebrate the coming of the wise men.  If asked, most would likely say the twelve days begin 12 days before Christmas.

Contrarian that I am, I like to think of my Christmas celebration beginning with Christmas and going on until January 6th - the twelfth day.  And yet the culture around me provides no encouragement.  Today is a big shopping day -- all sales and returns.  For most folks Christmas is over.  Even school begins for my children on January 5th.  I'm swimming upstream.

But I can do one thing.  I can continue to think on His coming in the flesh, on the meaning of His incarnation for my life in a new year.  One helpful tool is the song, "The Twelve Days of Christmas."  Some say this historic and mirthful song, seemingly secular, is a catechism of faith in secret code used by persecuted Catholics during the 16th century religious wars in England.  AS has been pointed out here, that's doubtful.  Nevertheless, it's a useful mnemonic device and one you can make use of during these twelve days.  I intend to do so.

You can read more about the twelve days of Christmas, and the song here.  The partridge in the pear tree?  Well, that symbolizes Jesus, the one we celebrate , the one who watches over us, sheltering us under his wings. (Lk. 13:34).  In these somewhat lazy after-Christmas days when, exhausted form the festivities and shopping, you might rest, just a little, think on Him outside the clutter of Christmas culture, when you can better hear His voice.

Merry Christmas.


The Christmas Gift: A Story

Angel "Have you been by Momma's lately?"

"No, I told you I don't go by there anymore.  She died 12 years ago, Velma."

Velma looked shocked, and then embarrassed, perhaps, as the memory came to her.  She looked down at her plate, at a half eaten slab of turkey, and then up again.

"Can I go home now?"

"Velma, you are home.  This is your home.  And all these people here, they've all come to see you."

Velma looked around at children, spouses and grandchildren, all laughing and chattering about the weather, work, Christmas, and so on.  They were strangers to her, she thought, as if someone had picked her up and plopped her right down in the midst of another family, not her own.  She leaned over to her sister, Bernice, as if to whisper. . .

"I got to get away from these people I'm runnin' with.  They're gonna kill me."

"Stop talkin' like that.  They'll do no such thing."

"When Charlie gets here, he won't have no part of it.  He'll show 'em the door.  They're eatin' up all the food, drinking all the milk and Coke, and makin' a mess of the house.  I just cleaned today, just today, and now look at it."  She waved her arm at the room.

When Velma became agitated, her hands began shaking.  She'd try to hold them in her lap, try to keep them still, but even there they shook.  Her eyes darted back and forth, as if she was fearful.  It was a bad dream is what she was thinking, and if she could just wake up these people would be gone, and she'd be home, and Charlie would be there, and they'd go see Momma, maybe cook her dinner, add coal to and stoke her fire, and sit a spell in the family room.

"I'm gonna wheel you into the living room, Velma.  We're opening presents, you know.  It's Christmas."

Velma nodded.  She figured she'd play along with Bernice and humor the people until she could get out of here.

"Merry Christmas, Grandma Tanner."  A child with a round, pink face stared up at Velma. "You know what I want for Christmas?  An IPod.  That's it.  Just an IPod."

"That's good, I guess," said Velma, patting the boy on the head.  Cute boy, whoever he was.

Pandemonium had descended on the room, with holiday-dressed children ripping paper off packages and gasping at toy trucks and trains and more, before tossing them aside and reaching for the next present.

"Here's one for you, Momma."  A pretty woman in a red blouse with a snowman broach handed her a small package wrapped with paper that had santas all over it, the words "ho ho ho" repeating themselves as you turned the package from side to side.

"It's not my birthday."

"No, Grandma Tanner, it's Jesus's birthday."

"I heard 'a him, I think. How old is he, anyway?"

The woman just laughed and shook her head.  Velma clutched the package as she watched the chaos, turning it over and over in her hands.

"Bernice, Bernice?"

"I'm right here, Velma."

"Who are these people?"

"Well, that little blond-headed boy over there," she said, pointing across the room, "that's Joe and Margaret's son, your grandson.  And that woman over there," she said, pointing to a woman in a blue jean skirt in a brown recliner, "that's Jessica, your son Michael's latest girlfriend."

"Ummph."  That was all Velma could say, shaking her head. 

"You better open your present, see what Santa Claus brought you."

Velma began tearing paper off the box, a little at a time, as if she weren't careful it might explode or something.  It'd been a long time since she'd had a present, she thought.  Finally tossing the paper aside, she lifted the top off the box, pulled back tissue paper, and stopped, staring in the box.

"Oh my."

Extending one finger, she touched an angel ornament that had lost most of it's paint, tracing its lines, before picking it up and holding it in her hand.  She clutched it to her chest and closed he eyes, letting her head rest on Bernice.

"Oh, goodness.  I can't believe it."

She remembered laying under her Momma's Christmas tree, looking up at the ornaments and lights, touching the angel ornaments like this one.  She remembered the fresh smell of the cut tree, the heat from the lights, and the smells of the kitchen.  She opened her eyes and gasped.

"Velma, are you alright?"  Bernice was clutching her arm, looking in her eyes.

"I know them all, Bernice, all of them."  She looked around and recognized her family --- Joe, who lost his job last year; Margaret, who couldn't cook but could sing better than anyone she'd heard; Brian and Brent, the twins.  She knew them all.  She looked around and recognized her home, the floral print wallpaper of the living room, the stained carpet that needed replacing, the poinsettia on the coffee table.  And Bernice, her dear sweet sister who moved in to care for her.

"I'm home, Bernice.  I'm home."

"Of course you are, Velma.  Of course."


The Weather of Advent

Index Either I'm just irritable or there's something the matter when you cannot find a quiet place to work.  I'm in a hotel, en route to visit out of town relatives, and I can barely think for the noise.  My room is not quiet.  The TV is set to The Food Network and my kids are enraptured by its savvy host, and I'm conscious of the banter of the chef, the sizzling of food, the litany of ingredients.  I go to the lobby, and the TV is set to The Weather Channel.  I do not need to know the weather.  I can see it outside the window.  That someone can market a 24/7 channel that focuses on nothing but weather is a testament to our collective boredom and the banality of most other programming.  I move to the pool room, and it's hushed and humid, but there is, inexplicably, nowhere to sit except in the pool, and I'm not dressed for that.  In this entire hotel, there is no place available to me that is relatively quiet.

So, "join the weather channel for a guaranteed white Christmas," as the commentator says, as the "local on the 8s" screens by to the strains of "joyful, joyful, we adore thee" overlaid by a male voiceover of "tonight, cloudy, low of 43."

"Two foot snowfall for some parts of New York City," he says. I can't get it out of my head.  "Jim Cantore. . .  Carl. . .  How is it out there? . . . when you start getting the compacted stuff, keep the back as straight as you can. . . if we get rain, it'll make things more difficult" and so on, and so on.

It's all so important. Oh to be a Weather Channel personality.  Where do you go from there?  There is a career in banter.  And we watch this stuff!

I am incredibly annoyed that I have to live with such intrusions.  I can't turn off the lobby TV because someone somewhere has determined that in the marketing of the hotel it is important to have that sound, to give a sense that something is alive, something happening here, in this hotel.  And if we turn off the TV, there will be background music playing, also carefully chosen, aimed at some target demographic, to make them feel a certain way.

"Today, sun, along with patchy clouds."  It's the "Local on the 8s" again, back around for another assault on me, another reminder that there is nothing new, just sun, storms, earthquakes, tornados, more sun, floods, hurricanes, and tsunamis --- a cycle of blessing and curse.  It's all terribly exciting and so important, so immediate.  Above all, make it immediate.

It's Sunday morning.  I'm trying to think about the advent of something really important.  Not immediate. Not noisy.  Not compelling.  Not exciting.  At least not in any sense that we now understand those words.  I want to think about the Incarnation, the entry of God into the world in human form, a story that has become so familiar to me that I have difficulty recognizing its nature as "news," how the weather of life on earth changed with that advent.

"Of course you want to stay right here with us on The Weather Channel."  Do I?  I don't think so.  I'm rebelling.  I grab the remote, power off the TV.  Amazing.  Not a thing happened.  It's quiet.  I think I'll just sit here and see what happens.  Maybe Jesus will walk right in.  Maybe I'll wait right here for the News, the Good News.

"Today, partly cloudy, and quiet, very quiet.  We here at The Weather Channel will observe a day of silence, a day to reflect on the meaning of the Incarnation, about the weather of His birth, the climate of his coming, and the global warming of His love.  Stay with us, will you?"

Sure.  That kind of weather I need.  Quiet is good weather for Advent.


A Blessed Longing: Advent

Medium.20.100381 "When once again Christmas comes and we hear the familiar carols and sing the Christmas hymns, something happens to us, and a special kind of warmth slowly encircles us.  The hardest heart is softened.  We recall our own childhood.  We feel again how we then felt, especially if we were separated from a mother.  A kind of homesickness comes over us for past times, distant places, and yes, a blessed longing for a world without violence or hardness of heart.  But there is something more --- a longing for the safe lodging of the everlasting Father."

(Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in an Advent sermon, Dec. 2, 1928)

Eighty-one years after he spoke the words from a pulpit in Barcelona, German pastor and theologian Bonhoeffer's words still echo, across decades of war, oppression, and injustice, across the boundaries of race, ethnicity, and nation, across generations and gender.  Still, he captures a sense we may all have as we approach Christmas, as we know the tension between what is and what is not.

In 1928 Bonhoeffer was 22 years old, appointed Assistant Pastor to a German-speaking congregation in Spain.  His text was Revelation 3:20, the familiar "I stand at the door and knock."  His first words were "Celebrating Advent means learning how to wait."  And yet, at 22, what did he know about waiting?  And how could he speak any words that might offer spiritual comfort or challenge when even he was not yet a believer?  After all, he himself did not become a Christian, by his own account, until 1931, when he said he "discovered the Bible." And yet God can speak, even across time, through young, unregenerate pastors.  He may not have understood the ramifications of what he said, but God still used him.

As you grow older Advent becomes more and more about waiting, and there is an increasing sense of longing --- even blessed longing --- that what is to come will be what is, that wrong will be righted, that all all things will be set right, that the groaning of creation Paul writes about in Romans 8:22 will resolve in the rejoicing in the Heavens of Revelation 19.  Our homelessness becomes more poignant, our pilgrimage more urgent, our strangeness and alienation from the world more intense.  We wait.  "Celebrating Advent means learning how to wait," he says.

In the Summer of 1991 my wife and I traveled to Prague, in the Czech Republic, for two weeks for a mission trip devoted to street evangelism.  I have never been more homesick as an adult.  Very few people in newly liberated Prague spoke English.  Signs and menus were in Czech, a consonant-rich language full of hazard for those like us who have to guess at the meaning of words.  The disposition of the people could only be described as melancholy.  They had plenty of time to talk, but if you were looking for affirmation by smile or word you would likely not receive it.  We walked the Charles Bridge, Wenceslas Square, and Hus Square and, but for each other, felt deeply alone, aliens and strangers in their world.  Despite what we were there to do --- meet people and engage them in conversations about spiritual things --- we longed for home.  We actively waited for the day we could return to the familiar.  And when we did return we felt, even in the cosmopolitan air of the Atlanta airport, that we were home, really home.

If I slow down and reflect, if I slip out of this season of buying, partying, and doing all that I am supposed to do --- if I just become still and listen, then I can know what Advent is about.  It is not about happiness.  Reflect on the world outside and inside, about the depth and breadth of sin in the world and in ourselves, and the feeling you have is a troubling one, a sense of wanting to return to a idyllic time of innocence in the past, perhaps, but more than that, to a future time of blessedness, a time when there are no tears, no pain, and no death, when lions lay down with lambs, when we wait no more.

"The celebration of Advent is possible only to those who are troubled in soul, who know themselves to be poor and imperfect, who look forward to something greater to come.  For these, it is enough to wait in humble fear until the Holy One himself comes down to us, God in the child in the manger.  God comes.  The Lord Jesus comes.  Christmas comes.  Christians rejoice!"

So slow down, I tell myself.  Reflect on what is.  Listen and hear a voice across the years that resonates with our own experience, our own troubled souls, our own blessed longing for home.  God, Bonhoeffer said, is the one knocking at the door of our heart.  "The cries of the marketplace and of those who sell shoddy goods are all too loud.  But the knocking goes on and, despite the noise, we hear it at last."  What shall we do?  As Bonhoeffer points out, when we open the door, we will be troubled, afraid because we are sinners, afraid because we have let in the Judge, and yet "[i]t is only by facing up to the fearfulness of the event that we begin to understand the incomparable blessing.  God comes into the midst of evil and death, to judge the evil in the world --- and in us.  And while he judges us, he loves us, he purifies us, he saves us, and he comes to us with gifts of grace and love."

"Celebrating Advent means learning how to wait."  So, may we wait well.

[All quotes are from Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Christmas Sermons, as edited and translated by Edwin Robertson.  I recommend the book.]


Wide Angle Radio (Episode Nine): God With Us

Web_street map_discog When we're writing it seems like it's the questions or self-criticisms or things that might be troubling that come to the surface and sort of have an urgency to be expressed, but then God is always the answer to all of these questions, and so there's a hope that we feel in any situation." 

(Karen Peris, of The Innocence Mission)

Late Fall afternoons, particularly Sunday afternoons, are ripe with melancholy.  Outside my window the last Fall leaves, already brown, cling to trees. The backyard, with all the leaves scattered about and branches down from storms, has a settled disarray about it.  The air is still, the birds silent, the neighbors settled in and turned inward.

It's a good time for the music of The Innocence Mission, the featured artists on this edition of Wide Angle Radio.  Looking at the date on the recording master (July 2000), I realize that its been almost a decade since this recording was made by partner Kevin Auman and myself, and that too fills me with a warm sadness that so many years have passed since these voices spoke, so many days since these songs were recorded.  And yet the title of one of the Innocence Missions' early albums, Glow, really describes the joy that underlies these mellow, hushed songs.  They are completely at rest in a world full of noise, and listening further you realize that the sense of peace that permeates the music is rooted in Christian faith, in a belief that "God is always the answer to all of the questions."  It gives audible reminders of the truth of the season, that God is with us, that Emmanuel has come.

In this edition the narrator, writer and Christian music veteran John Fischer, explores doubt, questions, and ambiguity in the context of faith.  In the last ten years it's become fashionable for Christians to write books and songs about such things, but it was not always so.  In fact, writing about such things might mean you were not welcome in the contemporary Christian music industry.  That's why most of the artists featured on this edition of Wide Angle Radio were outsiders, people of faith who were offered no place in the Christian music subculture.  I gravitated to them because their music seemed genuine and authentic.  We called it "the best music you've never heard," and the honest truth is that much of it is still just that: good music left unheard. Listen to the latest EP by The Innocence Mission, Street Map, and you'll chuckle just imagining this delicate music being played on Christian radio or any radio these days.  It is from somewhere else, from somewhere too good for the airwaves, like sonic poetry full of as much space as sound.

Slowly, oh so slowly, I am posting the audio files of these radio shows, some 35 of them that extended over a period of three years nearly ten years ago.  All of the artists you hear on this recording are still making music, still telling the truth, after all these years.  Listen well.  Tell me it isn't the best music you've never heard.

To hear Episode Nine of Wide Angle Radio (as well as the previous eight episodes, click here and navigate down the page to Episode Nine. Enjoy!


For Christmas Listening

Moody Whenever Christmas comes around each year, I dust off the old CDs with a mixture of resignation and anticipation.  I really want to like Christmas music, but the fact is that many of the albums I have bought for Christmas go unplayed.  Very few albums hold up to the test of time.  Rather, I find myself making my own playlist, selecting songs from here and there.  Time allowing, I'll post my own playlist of favorite Christmas songs, but for now, I'll simply provide a list of CDs that I most listen to around the Christmas season.

This list is actually the same one I posted last year. I have listened to many of the new Christmas albums released this year, and yet not a single one will make this list.  So this list is actually the same one posted last year, with my occasional 2009 comments in italics.  I hope you enjoy some of these.  Click on the titles for most and you'll be taken to a site (usually Amazon) where you can listen to samples.  Enjoy!

  • The Animals Christmas -- Art Garfunkel, Amy Grant, and Jimmy Webb -- The voices of Amy Grant and Art Garfunkel, the writing, arranging, and production of Jimmy Webb, and the background vocals of the Kings College Choir bring alive a beautiful legend focused on the animal's perspective surrounding the birth of Christ.  This is back in print after being out of print for some time, the rights purchased by Art Garfunkel.  It's consistently good, and not like anything else I have ever heard.
  • One Wintry Night -- Jerry and Lisa Smith -- Instrumental versions of classic Christmas carols and three original compositions inspired by Ruth Bell Graham's Christmas story of the same name.  Jerry plays hammered dulcimer, Lisa flute.  It was produced by Jeff Johnson, who also adds keyboards and various Celtic instruments.  The title cut is one of those songs that I never ever ever get tired of.  If you are ever in Black Mountain, NC, visit Jerry's music shop, Song of the Wood.
  • Winterfall -- Lee Spears and Donna Michaels -- Once again, instrumental, hammered dulcimer and piano, but this is, like One Wintry Night, not standard fare for such records.  Both Spears and Michaels live in NC and, while they had one release of original music after this record, nothing matches the originality of this recording.
  • Come Rejoice -- Judy Collins -- Mostly traditional songs sung in a traditional way, but she pulls it off with a great voice.  The addition of "Song for Sarajevo," though it adds a blue note, is a plus. It's a beautiful song. The focus of that song on Kosovo dates it a bit!
  • Songs for Christmas -- Sufjan Stevens -- This is a huge favorite released in 2007 by this popular indie songwriter, and one that grows on me in its lo-fi authenticity and campfire like singalong style.  It's moving.  And it's Christ-centered.  And I think I'll listen to it every year. And I have.  It has an enduring simplicity.  Just when you think no one can bring a fresh take to a carol or hymn, along comes this record.  I find "Holy, Holy, Holy," moving and worshipful, and I don't know why his version of it is so arresting. For this one, buy the box, as the packaging is half the fun. 
  • Christmas -- Bruce Cockburn -- Canadian singer-songwriter Cockburn brings some original arrangements to Christmas carols, some little sung jewels, and one original.  My favorite: "Mary Had a Baby."
  • December -- The Moody Blues -- Call them prog-rock or orchestral rock, but these guys have been around.  They bring classic vocals and harmonies to classic songs, and a couple originals.  It's playable beyond Christmas, so it generally extends throughout the winter. 
  • O Holy Night -- Sara Groves -- New last year, Groves gives original carols some new twists and pens a number of great original Christmas songs.  She's a refreshing alternative to the usual CCM fare. Just a plug --- her just released record, "Fireflies and Songs," is excellent.
  • Come Darkness, Come Light: Twelve Songs of Christmas --  Mary Chapin Carpenter -- This country-folk staple sings mostly original songs, so if you're looking for recognizable Christmas favorites, this is not it.  But I like the new songs and tire of the same carols at times.
  • Christmas -- Alathea -- This female duo, with its Appalachian-infused melodies, have become local favorites around here.  This record, released last year, has some great takes on carols and some original tunes as well.  Think of the pop side of Allison Krauss.  Add humor. 

Well, I'm not saying these are the best, but they are what I'm finding myself listening to. . . this Christmas, and for many of the past Christmases.  My kids like Trans-Siberian Orchestra.  All I can think of when I hear them is big guitars and big hair.  It's over the top, with no subtlety.  I'll stick to the quieter things for the season and save the big guitars for the New Year. 

Oh, I should mention that one of my favorite artists, Sandra McCracken, has a new Christmas song out for free, a rough mix of a cut of her new (and very eagerly anticipated) hymns project.  You can get it below.