Previous month:
November 2006
Next month:
January 2007

December 2006

On the Seventh Day of Christmas

Snow_6. . . my true love gave to me, seven swans-a-swimming.  These alliterative swans are generally taken to symbolize the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit -- prophecy, ministry, teaching, exhortation, giving, leading and compassion (Rom 12:6-8; 1 Cor. 12:8-11).  But there are many sevens in Scripture, and the seven that are more meaningful to me today are the seven "I am" statements by Jesus in John's gospel.

According to Alister McGrath, "there is a direct similarity between the verbal form of these sayings and Exodus 3:14, in Which God reveals himself to Moses as 'I am who I am.'  There thus seems to be an implicit declaration of divinity on the part of Jesus within each of these sayings" (McGrath, in Incarnation).  This renders the almost consistent tendency of people to refer to Jesus as a "great man" (as musician Ben Folds did recently in an interview with Relevant magazine) or great moral teacher as absurd or plain ignorant.  People who go around telling other people that they are God are the butt of jokes or the subject of pity or, in a few cases, the object of fear, as most of them inhabit our mental institutions or are the petty dictators of third-world countries.  They are not great men in any commonly understood way.  While I knew of this gospel writer's concern to establish the divinity of Christ (as in "the Word was God), I had never equated these seven metaphors that  Jesus applied to himself with a claim to divinity.

The seven "I am" sayings are as follows:

6:35             The bread of life
8:12, 9:5    The light of the world
10:7, 9        The gate for the sheep
10:11           The good shepherd
11:25           The resurrection and the life
14:6              The way, the truth, and the life
15:1, 5         The true vine

All of these "I am" sayings point back at the Old Testament acts of God as well as to the acts of Jesus.  For example, when Jesus says he is the bread of life, he points back to the manna that was given the Israelites in the wilderness, the bread supplied by God which sustained them on the journey.  He's saying that when we feed on him, when we draw our life from him, we will never go hungry, that all our spiritual emptiness will be met.  As McGrath says, "We see here again one of the great themes of the New Testament: that God's gracious promises and gifts under the Old Covenant are continued and extended under the New."

I am, I am, I am.  These are powerful statements.  Jesus did not use the indirect simile, but the much more powerful metaphor, to state his identity.  He's saying "I'm your spiritual nourishment, I'm the source of enlightenment, I'm the only way to heaven, I'm the only one who can guide and protect and watch over you and keep you safe, I'm the only one who can give you life here and in eternity and raise you from the dead, I'm the one true path, the one truth, the only place you will be able to grow and be nourished.  People, I am God."  Understood rightly, we'd either worship him or lock him up. 

I can't think of a better seven things to remember here at the cusp of a new year than these seven.  These great "I am" sayings are powerful reminders that God is able to keep us, to preserve us, to remake us.  As I reminded my children today, he has made us a new creation, but He's not finished yet with them or certainly with me.  His recreative activity is constant, as He is remaking me in his image every day.  I'm not destined to repeat my failures of the past year.  Despite evidence to the contrary, people do grow and change.  I can lose 20 pounds, though I didn't last year.  I can grow in my love for my neighbor, though I failed many times at this last year.

If I just abide in Him, he will be my great I AM.  Tomorrow is a new year, a new day, and a new moment.  Take heart: there is hope for us all.  Happy New Year.

Top Ten 2006 CDs?

A friend recently asked me if I intended to list my Top 10 CDs of 2006.  I have problems with doing that!  To make such a list, the records would have to be such that they bear repeated listening, records that I will return to again and again over the years.  Otherwise, they may be enjoyable for a time, perhaps interesting, but certainly not enduring.  I have a lot of such CDs on my shelves.  But I have few that I return to for regular nourishment.

Nevertheless, I can think of ten releases that qualify from 2006.  Interestingly, most of them are neither new nor, at least, completely new.  It's presumptuous to call them the best.  Let's just call them my ten favorites.  Here they are, in no particular order:

Love_2Love - The Beatles     I was astounded by the sound quality and freshness of The Beatles on this CD produce by George Martin as a 90 minute soundscape for the Cirque de Soleil production.  What seemed like a bad idea turned into a glorious blend of classic tunes, all Beatles, almost like listening to a medley of their songs performed live in your home.  Innovative and yet completely respectful of what the boys originally laid down.  Pure ear candy.

Intersections_1Intersections: 1985-2005 - Bruce Hornsby     This is the best box set I have ever seen or heard.  Unlike most box sets which likely appeal only to collectors and serious fans, this is not a mix of hits and curios but every single song is a gem, showcasing great songwriting, playing, and performing.  The packaging is excellent, and the DVD of performance videos is a big plus.  It's well worth the price.

SongsforchristmasSongs for Christmas - Sufjan Stevens     It's rare that a Christmas CD would make my list, but this ones does because it's so unique.  A mix of original songs, carols, hymns, and instrumentals, I think I'll actually listen to it all year long, not just at Christmas.  This is one you should not download, as the songs come in a set of individual EPs, and one LP, and the package includes a songbook and stories.  That's why it gets an A+ on packaging as well.

PetsoundsPet Sounds (40 Anniversary CD and DVD) - The Beach Boys     Has it really been 40 years?  This is a beautiful CD, the Sgt. Pepper of its time, and a testament to Brian Wilson's talent and production capabilities at an early age.  I'm not ashamed to say I have bought this CD at least five times in its various reissues.  This version contains a DVD of special features and interviews and, yes, I like the fuzzy cover (sort of like the original Bee Gee's Odessa LP).

UnderthecoversUnder the Covers (Vol. 1) - Matthew Sweet & Susanna Hoffs     Power-pop greats Sweet and Hoffs (The Bangles) join forces for a great set of Sixties and early Seventies gems such as Neil Young's Cinnamon Girl or the Bee Gees' Run to Me.  I can't wait to hear Volume 2.  Their voices mesh seamlessly, and they make Sixties music sound better than it ever did.  Great digi-pak packaging as well.

GoodmonstersGood Monsters - Jars of Clay     This record surprised me by being so, so good!  I've always regarded Jars as a great band, even if I did not like all their records, but this record is one I'll listen to again and again, particularly their version of Julie Miller's All My Tears  or their own There Is a River.  It's consistently good.  It's a wonderful swansong for the band, as they exit their long-time label, Provident.

OtherpeopleslivesRay Davies - Other People's Lives     Even if I don't always agree with him, I've always appreciated Kink's frontman Davies' keen wit and stellar songwriting.  It's not a terribly commercial record (I can't sing a song off it to myself right now), but it is enjoyable taken as a whole, and unlike many of Davies' other albums, has an American context as it was written while he was living in New Orleans.

BlackcadillacRosanne Cash - Black Cadillac     Wow.  This is great songwriting, as Rosanne tries to publicly come to grips with the death of her father Johnny and mother Vivian, like blood on the tracks.  It makes for a great, if emotionally exhausting, record.  She is struggling to come to grips with the faith and assurance her father had., and not quite arriving.  Listen to it in small doses, and not when you are depressed!   

ThereisaseasonThere Is A Season - The Byrds     Probably for collectors only, this is a collection of the best, alternates versions, outtakes, and more from one of the paramount Sixties bands.  I love McGuinn's 12-string Rickenbacker sound, and I loved this band in all its many incarnations -- from Beatleseque pop to country to psychedelic rock to bluegrass to rock and roll. I have the previous box set, but I have to have this one as well.  That's the collector in me!

Cash American V: A Hundred Highways  - Johnny Cash    If it sounds like Johnny had one foot in the grave while recording this, it's because he did.  And yet Rick Rubin's last session with him was beautiful, a man still working, even with a faltering voice, and yet so authentic, so genuine, and so full of faith.  Try "God's Gonna Cut You Down."

And finally, one Honorable mention:

PuzzlesPuzzles Like You - Mojave 3     A decidedly more pop and hooky record from an otherwise folky British group that tended to get a bit monotonous on previous records.  I actually heard these guys in concert (along with maybe 50 other people), and they were quite good if unengaging.  My, how do they do it?

So there you have it: ten great records or box sets from 2006 that I know that I will listen to in 2007.  They may not be the best, but it'd be difficult to say that they are not among the best.

On the Sixth Day of Christmas

Snow_5Six days of creation.  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 Tapestry Project: An Update

Chapel As some of you know, my partner Kevin and I have been at work on an audio documentary of Francis and Edith Schaeffer and the ministry of L'Abri Fellowship, similar to what we have done on Ruth Bell Graham, a project released by Thomas Nelson and one you can buy here.  The project has its own blog, so I will not spend time updating you here.  I merely wanted to alert you that I have posted an update on the project blog here.  Please check it out if you are interested.

On 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.

On 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.

On 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 Book of Lost Things: A Review

Lost_thingsI initially considered buying John Connelly's The Book of Lost Things in an audio version, as I thought my children might enjoy it.  They might, but after reading it, I give it a PG-13 rating, given it's sometimes graphic description of evil and violence, the homosexuality of one of the supporting characters, and a reference to pedophilia.  There may be allusions to classic fairy tales, but these are not children's versions but twisted revisions, more disturbing than the originals.  With that caution, I can recommend the book as a worthy edition to the fantasy genre.

In essence, Connelly's book is about a boy's coming of age during a moment of family tragedy.  The main protagonist, 12 year old David, loses his mother to a debilitating illness against the English backdrop of World War II.  His father moves with his son outside of London, where he meets Rose, who he eventually marries and with whom he fathers a child.  Unsettled by his mother's death, David resents the competition for his father's time and affection presented by Rose and his infant stepbrother.  He sullenly retreats to his room, one lined with books.  One night the books begin to speak to him, urging him to the garden where, on one fateful evening, he disappears through a crack in the garden wall and into a world full of horrific peril.  Or does he?

Throughout the book, we are never quite sure whether the adventures had by David are merely the working out of the trauma of his mother's death in his imagination or a real struggle in some parallel universe, a sort of twisted Narnia.  David enters the garden because he heard his mother's voice calling him.  He continues to hear it throughout the adventure.  Along the way, he confronts evil, personified in many ways, from The Crooked Man, presumably representing Satan, a "trickster" who steals the innocence of children by having them betray their own families, to the Loups, ghoulish wolf-men created when girls (a la Little Red Riding Hood) entered the woods and mated with wolves) to Trolls and more.  Even Snow White and the Dwarfs show up in the story, though White is an obese and dictatorial matron and the Dwarfs are Communists going on about how they need to rise up against oppression.  (They provide the lightest note in an otherwise non-humorous and serious tale.)

However, the first person that David meets is a Christ-figure, The Woodsman, who protects David from the murderous Loups and becomes David's guide on his journey to find the King of the land, weakened though he be, and for answers regarding his mother.  David meets with repeated peril along the way, and faces the constant temptations of The Crooked man to deceive his family by naming his brother to him.  He learns to recognize evil and reject it, as well as to embrace love and his family, in a  a tale that, while dark, does not leave us in darkness.

This is, however, in the end not really a story for children.  It is too dark and too mature in its content.  However, both adults and teenagers will enjoy the story and, perhaps be encouraged in virtuous conduct -- loyalty, courage, and love --- especially for family, and in discerning the charms of evil -- the nursing of grudges, bitterness, and even hatred, especially against family.  But my hope is that instead of looking to the Book of Lost Things, a book which serves as a metaphor for the lost and incorrectly presumed innocence of childhood, readers might be prompted to look into the Book of Found Things -- the Bible -- and find faith, hope, and love there in the person of Jesus.  That, after all, is a tale not just imaginative, but real.

On 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 today and going on until January 6th.  And yet the culture around me provides no encouragement.  Tomorrow is a big shopping day -- sales and returns.  For most folks Christmas is over.  Even school begins for my children on January 3rd.  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.  The evidence for that is inconclusive.  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 today, the one who watches over us, sheltering us under his wings. (Lk. 13:34).  Merry Christmas.

Two Incarnations

Leland Ryken says that "[t]he incarnation of Jesus in human, earthly form affirms forever that human, earthly reality is worthy of study and love"  (The Liberated Imagination).  And yet while some Christian artists pay homage to this doctrine -- viewing their own works as little incarnations of meaning -- there's not often a consideration of the nature of that incarnation.

When Christ came, Scripture says he emptied himself, made himself nothing, took the nature of a servant, humbled himself, and died to self (Phil. 2:6-11).  It's not a model of self-expression but self-mortification, the purpose of which is to glorify God and love and serve others.  That doesn't mean that we always say nice things, that we write or sing not to offend.  But when we express ourselves, we empty the expression of any self-serving motivation.  Love is the highest virtue and trumps self-expression every time.

It also means serving the work itself.  I had an opportunity to explain this to my daughter recently.  She happened to read a portion of a story I am working on and told me that I had said a bad word in the story.  I told her that I did indeed write it but in this case felt I had to because the character who used the word would use that word.  In other words, I needed to serve the work and follow the character where she would go.  That happens as well.

We can be thankful for many reasons that God came enfleshed, that he lived a fully human life, and that he died a real death and rose again in a real and tangible body.  It means that the streets and fields and woods we tramp through, the buildings and cities we reside in, and the rivers, oceans, and continents and, perhaps, other worlds we roam mean a great deal to Him.  "For God so loved the world" scripture says.  That's cosmos.  Everything matters to Him.  That means whatever I create -- those little incarnations, imperfect though they are -- matters to Him.

Now that makes life worth living this Christmas.

The Nativity Story

Poster_1024 Tonight I went with my family to see The Nativity Story, a new movie about the Birth of Christ.  I found it faithful to the story and helpful as well in giving us a sense of the reality of the story.  Nevertheless, seeing this true story come to life on a screen where countless other fictional works have played, and all the while munching on popcorn and drinking soda, was a bit incongruous.  It almost had a leveling effect, putting the story on the same level as all the other stories that have played on these screens.  I don't know if I like this.  I much prefer a telling of the story (albeit later in Jesus's life) in prose, as in Anne Rice's Christ the Lord.  I feel less entertained and less marketed to.

Nevertheless, there is good in the film telling of the story.  We gain a sense of the perilous and difficult situation facing Mary, and even Joseph, as the child was born out of wedlock.  We have an appreciation for what it meant to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem, a long and difficult journey and yet one tersely covered in scripture by the words "So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David" (Lk. 2:4).  The film provides the possible back-story to this terse account, filling in the interstices of scripture.  That's helpful.

The bottom line, though, is that I have to keep reminding myself that this is reality.  This wild tale of supernatural beings appearing to humble human beings, of God Himself taking on human form through a miraculous birth to a virgin, happened.  It really happened.  It can't simply be dismissed as a beautiful legend.  And that's why I can't quite abide seeing it on the screen.

I recommend the movie.  Find out more about it here.  But I recommend reading the account of Scripture even more.

Loving Things (And Letting Go of Mathoms)

PossessionsI've been urging myself and my children to do a bit of cleaning in anticipation of the given fact that some new items, things that take up space and attention, will be entering our home this Christmas.  I look around and realize that there are many unused items here in our home, and yet those that were gifts are difficult to give away.  There is some guilt associated with that.  We have a relative who we believe has actually given us back a gift we gave to her several years ago.  That's the concern about regifting -- who actually gave us this thing we have no need for?

As writer Jill Carratini reminds us, there's a name J.R.R. Tolkien coined for such items in his story, The Hobbit.  "Anything that Hobbits had no immediate use for, but were unwilling to throw away, they called a mathom," writes Tolkien. "Their dwellings were apt to become rather crowded with mathoms, and many of the presents that passed from hand to hand were of that sort."  A couple of years ago we had a house fire that conveniently took out our attic, dispossessing us of many, many mathoms in the process.  I would not recommend that method.

With all the buying going on this time of year, it's useful to consider why we buy things and, thus, why we end up with so much mathom.  It's probably not too much to say that when we cannot let go of things it is a form of idolatry.  Somehow these items make us feel important and become a part of our identity.  When I look up and see the CDs or books lining my shelves, I realize that part of why I keep them is that they have become a part of who I am, and to lose them might be to lose a part of myself.  If that sounds silly, try giving away some things.  You may be free of this propensity.  Perhaps it's not a problem for you just the way it's not a problem for my daughter.  She has very few possessions and little attachment to the ones she does have.  I could clean her room out, taking every toy, book, and article of clothing, and it would barely faze her.  But in my sons room piles of books are stacked up around the room, electronic equipment is everywhere, old toys, tools,, clothing, games, and more.  It's quite a contrast.

But then there's good side to every tendency.  Books are a part of who I am.  There are stories that have deeply effected me and continue to nourish me -- not like Scripture, of course, but in significant ways nonetheless.  And music.  Well, music is like blood to me. To hear some songs is to conjure up feelings, time periods, places, and people that are all a part of who I am.  We don't exist in some free-floating way.  We are embedded, rooted, tethered to the soil, to place, to our habits, hobbies, families, and friends.  This is where we live.  Love it, but don't worship it.

Yes, I need to give some mathoms away, but  need to keep things that matter.  I love them. They are part of me.  I need to treasure them, but not store up treasures on earth.  (God did say He loved the world (a/k/a cosmos, didn't He?  And so should I.)  But let someone else love the mathom.

On Idlewood

House_1The house in which I lived until about the age of four was a 1950s style single story frame "cottage", with a front screen door that went flap-flap-flap when you dropped it and a wooden front door that had a small triangular window set in it.  It wasn't quite like the picture, but these houses remind me of the cookie-cutter design of the houses in that neighborhood.  Of course, I could not have said that to you then, given my young age, all my memories now filtered through my middle-age lens.

The people next door to us, at least on one side, were Greek, with a son named Georgie with whom I played.  Their Greekness was evident and in descriptions of them to others they were always referred to as "the Greek people."  I threw a rock through their front living room window, but they were forgiving.  My Dad fixed the window.

Idlewood was a so Fifties name for my street, denoting suburban tranquility.  Maybe it was, and perhaps it wasn't.  That's difficult to speak of when you are four.  Besides, the world is small at four; the world I could walk on extended just a bit beyond Georgie's yard, perhaps as far as my sister's friend's house about five houses up, where she took me one time.  The backyard sloped down to a fence just beyond our playhouse, from where nose pressed through chain link I could overlook a swimming pool supply company, one with sample pools out back.  And that's about it for my world.

Revisiting this place in my mind is like looking at a photo album where most of the pictures have been lost.  My bedroom: lost.  The kitchen -- eating homemade french fries, sitting on the counters the night the rat got in the house.  The dining room: the monster that lived in the window fan.  The living room: shag carpet under my feet as I walk out one morning to see my Mom talking with an unidentified lady.  The front yard: My Mom coming home from the hospital with my little sister, the same place where I took the brake off the stroller and let her roll down the hill some time later.  (She survived, faring better than me.) 

Why these memories?  Why do I remember these things and not others?  I have no idea, but I trust that God has given these memories for some purpose and shielded me from others for my protection.  We have the promise that all things work together for the good of those who love Him, so I can be confident that even these memories left me work together for my good.

Just a tattered old photo album.  Now, if I could just find the rest of those photos.

Good Prayers: God Be In My Head

Pray_personSome prayers are simply good and well-trod paths that we can use as the scaffold for our own prayers.  Used properly, they do not inhibit real conversation with God just as the well-known learned and taught patterns of conversation do not inhibit free and spontaneous discussion.  It's all in how you use these forms, making them your own by conscious attention on their object, or a rigid and lifeless form to simply get through. 

This is one prayer I like for its encouragement to love God with all your heart, soul, and mind:

God Be In My Head

God be in my head and in my understanding.
God be in my eyes and in my looking.
God be in my mouth and in my speaking.
God be in my heart and in my thinking.
God be at my end and my departing.

(Reprinted in Peter Kreeft's Prayer: The Great Conversation)

A Good Christmas Appeal

LettersEvery year in December, I receive innumerable letters from Christian organizations appealing for funds.  Most are summaries of their important activities, informative yet not always very provocative reading in and of themselves.  Others pull at emotional heartstrings or hot-button social/moral issues, and these are particularly demeaning in their approach; they are there to elicit knee-jerk responses, not thoughtful considerations of where to give scarce funds.

However, one letter which I receive I read in its entirety and regard as a gift to me.  Ken Myers, of Mars Hills Audio, writes a fund-raising letter the way it should be written.  There is no appeal to sentiment or emotion but, rather, a mini-essay on what it means to be faithful culturally, as in how to live and behave as a Christian in all realms of life.  In so doing, Ken indirectly tells us about Mars Hill Audio, because that's essentially what they do through their monthly program of commentary and interview.  Only at the end does he plainly and honestly ask us to consider giving, and by then our minds are stirred and we are almost ready to send a gift just as a thank you for the wonderfully encouraging letter we just read.  Well, that's how to appeal for funds.  He's got me.  And yet he'd be the first to tell me to prayerfully and thoughtfully consider when and to whom to give, all as a matter of faithfulness.

This month's letter takes issue with those Christians and Christian ministries who urge us to strategically target the influential as a way to change society, or to make the gospel attractive as way to gain the world's admiration.  Quoting Eugene Peterson, he notes that the practice of targeting influential leaders is not a practice backed by biblical precedent.  As Myers says:

"Faithfulness to the Lord of all Creation is cultural faithfulness; it is faithfulness in every realm of human experience, from science to sports, from making movies to making babies, from how we build relationships to how we relate to buildings.  Following Christ is a matter first of inner transformation, and then of living faithfully in accord with the order of Creation as he made and is redeeming it, in all of our cultural convictions and practices concerning a host of abstractions and concrete realities: food, sex, time, music, history, language, technology, family, justice, beauty, agriculture, and community."

Along the way, I become acquainted with a sonnet, "Annunciation," by John Donne, am treated to a summary of pithy comments by Eugene Peterson, a very good writer and thinker, read a quote from J. Gresham Machen from a 1912 Princeton address on "Christianity and Culture," and am prompted to find and listen to an unknown and not likely widely known fifteenth-century English carol entitled "I Sing of a Maiden."  Well, it's like a full meal in a four-page letter.

Perhaps I exaggerate the degree to which I am impacted by the letter, but forgive me as I'm "in the moment."  I can't, however, exaggerate the effect steady listening to the Mars Hill Audio Mha_logo programs has done for me.  I recommend them.  Read the letter here.  Sign up for a trial CD or MP3 program here.  You'll have a more thoughtful 2007.

Woman In Line at the Grocery Store

Woman In Line At the Grocery Store

"I have become like a bird alone
on the roof." 
(Ps. 102:7b)

WomanShe said she was fine,
but she was not.
Her mouth was a tight
crease, her eyes painted but
vacant, her carefully combed
hair undercut by one stray
fiber, gray and lying on her

She is not fine.  On the
counter lies a frozen dinner,
bottle of wine, french bread: she
drops them carelessly, and
she waits.

She waits, but she is not fine.
Memories well in her mind as her
hands wrap and unwrap the strap
of her Vuitton purse clutched in
hand, a hand that doesn't know
where to rest, what to do, here
among the ruins, a bird alone.

No, she is not fine, but
blighted and withered like
grass, with no one to carry
her burden, in line like
everyone else but without
hope, with nothing but the finely-
manicured shell of her life. 

She is not fine, but
there is

The Happy-Sad in Christmas

SadI know that I have a penchant for the bittersweet.  Riding in the car tonight with my family, I was playing a CD containing a selection of Christmas songs.  On came John Lennon's "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" and my son, who hates any sad song, said what kind of Christmas song is that, when Lennon delivers that first line in that weary voice "And so this is Christmas, and what have we done. . .," what kind of song is that anyway?  Christmas is supposed to be a happy occasion, right?

Well, it is, and it isn't.  And as I tell him, it's not about happiness, anyway, an enjoyable yet ephemeral state, but but about something deeper.  That something would be joy, and sorrow is so often intertwines with joy.  Jesus comes, and yet looking forward, we see that he has come to die.  We experience the absolute joy of freedom from the curse of sin, and yet we know it was bought at a price.  Out on a walk in the woods, we know the beauty of creation, and yet we know that death and decay are all around us, that things are winding down.  We rejoice in the hope of resurrection and the restoration of all things once and for ever and ever, and yet we know that much sorrow and hardship will occur before that time.

Almost 15 years ago, now, my wife and I were riding around the small town of Lebanon, Oregon, with fog and rain, away from home at Christmas and among strangers, feeling so lonely and dispossessed.  There was song on the car CD player, Bob Bennett's "Here on Bright Avenue," with the lines "If those who sow in tears/ will reap in joy somehow/ then surely I am watering/ my fields of future now."  In his sadness, Bennett is musing on the promise of Psalm 126:5, that "those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy."  And it reminded me then, and now, that hope hides in darkness, that deep and true joy is bound up with sorrow.  Because of this, I can't dismiss sad Christmas songs, provided the sadness ultimately points to something deeper, something that God will do.

For some people, Christmas is just blue, and all they can do is preoccupy their minds with the  distractions of buying, partying, and fleeting holiday cheer.  But for Christians, the deep sadness we know and perhaps feel points beyond itself to something deeper.  Joy --- to, and for, the world.

Why Don't We Throw It In the Road? (or What I Found On I-40 One Night)

GeneratorThis evening my family and I had a close brush with a serious accident.  We had visited family in Greensboro, North Carolina, and had just gotten back onto I-40 East, heading towards Winston-Salem.  Going about 60 mph, a large object suddenly appeared in the road.  I could do nothing to avoid and, in hindsight, I am glad I did not try.  There were cars on both sides of me.  I hit it, and it apparently lodged under the front of the car.  I drug it for about a quarter mile, sparks flying, until I could get off the side of the road.  After pulling over on a soft shoulder, we felt the object go under us.  We came to a stop.  I was thankful the gas tank wasn't perforated or, worse, blow up, and that we did not throw the object into the path of another vehicle.

When I got out of the car, I found the object about 10 feet behind us.  It appeared to be a Honda generator, certainly some type of motor, at least two to two and one-half feet tall.  Wow.  I looked under the car and couldn't see any leakage, or any smoke.  The largely plastic front molding was torn quite a bit.  We got in the car and drove about a mile to an exit where we pulled over at a convenience store.  We took a better look under the car, as the car, though drivable, was making an odd noise.  We noticed that a cross-beam in the undercarriage was seriously dented in, and I felt there could be other damage I could not see.

Based on this, I decided not to drive it any more.  I called AAA and had it towed 4 miles to a Ford dealership.  Thankfully, I had family in town.  I called my stepfather and had him pick me up and take me to the airport about 3 miles away where I rented a car, drove back to the damaged car where my wife and son were waiting.  The tow truck came about 1 hour 20 minutes after my call.  All in all this set us back about 3 hours, but I am thankful that I was not in my Mini Cooper, that no one was hurt, and that we removed the dangerous object from the highway.

Now, I call the insurance company.  Oh boy.

I don't know where the offending object came from.  I did not see it fall off a truck.  When I pulled over, I notice a pickup truck pulled to the side of the road with a man and a woman standing looking back a the road.  I pointed out the generator to him, but he said he didn't drop it but was just stopped because he thought he saw something in the road.  He left abruptly, driving away.  It's possible he dropped it.

I occasionally complain about my wife driving a gas guzzling SUV, but tonight I was thankful for it.  My experience makes me think twice about taking a small car on the highway.  It's dangerous out there!

Dylan at Christmas?

Dylan Can you imagine Bob Dylan singing a Christmas carol?  Goodness.  As much as I admire him, I'd rather not hear that.  And yet, there are a few Dylan songs that seem appropriate at Christmas.   Probably any of them from his so-called Christian period woud be good, like "When He Returns," or "Property of Jesus," but I like this one, one preceding that period.  Dylan wrote the songs on his 1970 album, New Morning, after a long period out of thre public eye, after a serious motorcycle accident.  Given some of the titles on that album, (like "I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine"), one would have to conclude that some spiritual searching was occurring during this time.  Maybe.

Father of night, Father of day,
Father, who taketh the darkness away,
Father, who teacheth the bird to fly,
Builder of rainbows up in the sky,
Father of loneliness and pain,
Father of love and Father of rain.

Father of day, Father of night,
Father of black, Father of white,
Father, who build the mountain so high,
Who shapeth the cloud up in the sky,
Father of time, Father of dreams,
Father, who turneth the rivers and streams.

Father of grain, Father of wheat,
Father of cold and Father of heat,
Father of air and Father of trees,
Who dwells in our hearts and our memories,
Father of minutes, Father of days,
Father of whom we most solemnly praise.

("Father of Night, from New Morning, released in 1970)

Mom, She . . . [Fill in the Blank]

ThinkingI sometime decry revisionist historians or, more commonly, those who seem to have a selective or simply inaccurate memory of events that transpired some time ago.  Such things are not uncommon or, rather, are common; we are flawed rememberers, continually recasting events in a way favorable to us.  As a lawyer, I see this all the time.  People see things from different perspectives.  We seek the objective truth, what really happened, but so often it's like trying to describe an elephant to someone when all you can see of it is the trunk.  It's not necessarily inaccurate, it's just not fully accurate.  And then maybe your own prejudices or sinful tendencies color your perception.  I can offer personal examples.

When I was about four years of age, my sister pushed me off my tricycle.  I fell on the asphalt and scraped my chin and had to have stitches.  This is one of the few things about being four that I remember.  I instinctively blamed her, as in "Mom, she pushed me!"  Only thing is, she says she didn't do it.  Did she?  Or in my childish mind did I simply blame her for my own carelessness?  Well, I've carried that belief for all these years, only it may not be true, and we certainly won't know if it's true in this life and likely won't care if it is true in the one to come.  That's sin and perspective:  Big sister pushes little brother.  That's what older siblings do, right?

In the grand scheme of things, it won't matter much whether I simply fell or my big sister pushed me.  We've gotten over that a long time ago.  (We, did, didn't we sis?)  But the fact is, not remembering, or remembering only what we want to remember, can be fatal for nations and individuals.  Take the Hebrews on exodus.  After weeks of manna (and there's only so many ways you can serve manna), they were remembering Egypt in a somewhat idealistic light,as in "There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted. . .," never mind that they would have been dead Hebrews had they stayed in Egypt.  Memory is selective.  That and the golden calf ended with several thousand folks getting put to the sword.

This is one reason the church is important.  Remembering is a communal task.  Left to ourselves, there is no one to challenge us, no one to question our accounts of God's dealing with us, no one to help us remember the foolish things we have done (so we don't repeat them) or encourage us by the right things we have done (so we can see God's working in our lives).  And if we fail at corporate remembrance, God will likely send a prophet to us -- a burr in our saddle, a pain in the neck, a disagreeable kind of person who says all the most unpleasant things to us.  It's a good incentive to remember His providential care, the ends of foolishness and egotism, and the promise of contentment and peace if we follow Him.

Can you help me remember?  If I blame someone else for my troubles, can you help me check the facts?  And if I'm discouraged, can you help me remember His covenant promises?  As I told a friend a few days ago, thank God I can't have my way all the time, that he has saved me from myself.  Thank God He has saved me from my selective skewed memories as well and has provided a remembering community for me to be a part of.  We'll never get His story completely right, but we can try.

Is Christmas For Everyone?

Universalism is the doctrine that all men will eventually be saved.  It is a doctrine which is repudiated by orthodox Christians in all times and in all places, as it does not seem to square with the teaching of Scripture.  Both Arminians and Calvinists believe some will go to Heaven and some to Hell, some to eternal life in a glorified state, some to eternal damnation.  And yet there are well-known Christians who appear to have gone askew on this point -- a man like George MacDonald, for example, or a woman like Hannah Hunnard.    It appears the reason they have come to this position is because they could not square the eternal damnation of a person, particularly one who had never heard the Gospel, with the love of God.  There is an appearance of logic in their argument, one I have been rehearsing in my mind of late.

Consider these things we know from Scripture: 

  • First, God is sovereign in all matters and certainly in matters of salvation.  He could regenerate all and save all, but He does not; he could justly consign all to eternal damnation, but He does not.  He saves some but not others.  Why?  For his own pleasure.  For His own reasons.  His reasons are inscrutable.
  • Second, God is just and may not act unjustly.  Though sovereign in all things, God may not act against his character.  He is just and, thus, may not act unjustly.  He is loving and, thus, may not act unlovingly.
  • In saving some, He has acted both lovingly and justly.  His love compelled Him to save; His justice compelled Him to provide a propitiation for sin in Christ.

Given these things we know, would God be acting unlovingly if he declines to save some who justly deserve eternal damnation?  The universalist would answer in the affirmative.  They would then proceed to interpret Scripture so as to preserve a loving God: God is loving.  God can save all and so will save all.  Of course, I'm not sure how they get around so much of Scripture which seems to say that God is love and yet that some will not be saved.

I can't reconcile these things -- the love of God and his choice not to save those he could save.  Can you?  But, I'm not worried about it either, just like I'm not worried about explaining how three can be one (the Trinity) or how Jesus can be fully God and fully man or how free will reconciles with God's sovereignity.  Finite beings must live with paradox.

If you want to see how "Christian" universalists reason, take a look at Tentmaker Ministries here.  For me, I'll keep believing that God is good, that Christ came for all, yet saved only some, that Christmas is for all, and yet not for all in the same way.

I know, it's confusing.  But I only have so much brain.

Chesterton, Again

Chesterton1smallG.K. Chesterton has to be one of the most quotable people that every existed.  You can almost put your finger down at any place in any of his many books, essays, and other writings and come up with a pithy, witty, meaningful quip.  So I was pleased to discover that not only are there many sites devoted to Chesterton, but there is an entire site of just his quotes here.

His quotes range from the simply witty ("Misers get up early in the morning; and burglars, I am informed, get up the night before") to the profound ("Women are the only realists; their whole object in life is to pit their realism against the extravagant, excessive, and occasionally drunken idealism of men") to thoughtful truisms ( "The riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man.")  In fact, I admit it: I like to quote Chesterton more than I like to read him, as I find him tedious going sometimes.  In fact, he's tedious tonight, so I'll just leave you here with a quote that urban planners should heed:  "Some people leave money for the improvement of public buildings. I can leave dynamite for the improvement of public buildings."  Given that, I'm sure he'd have something to say about the faddishness of the roundabout in traffic planning.  In fact, he's probably already said it!

Sensible Fairy Tales

Grimms"I left the fairy tales lying on the floor of the nursery, and I have not found any books so sensible yet."  (G.K. Chesterton, in Orthodoxy)

As a child one of my favorite books was Grimm's Fairy Tales.  The bookcase in our den had a large green hardback version with a magical sort of figure etched into the cover.  It was well-used, as when I started reading it at about seven or eight, the binding was already in poor shape.  I treasured it, carrying it to my room where I lay on the floor by the window and pored over its short stories.  I almost believed them.  Well, maybe sometimes I did believe them, or at least I believed that they could have been true.  Wolves might have talked, but don't.  There could be dwarves, but aren't (at least not the seven dwarves kind).  Stories that struck me as utterly believable then, as quite sensible, now seem preposterous seen from an adult perspective.  And yet, like Chesterton, next to the one outrageous and preposterous Story that we Christians hold to, they seem very, very sensible.

What Chesterton observes is that in contrast to the modern world's scientific fatalism -- the sense that "everything is as it must always have been" -- fairy tales reminded him that the "facts" of existence are really miraculous and willful, things that could have been different but are not, occurrences like sunsets that repeat themselves perhaps not because of some impersonal and deterministic dynamic but because a Being willed it, because a Being even enjoyed it.  This Being could have things be this way or that, repeat or not repeat.  And so things are as they are -- grass is green and sky is blue -- by choice.  In this sense, fairy tales remind us of the wild possibilities for the world.  Things could have been different; that they are as they are is a miracle and a delight.

The Gospel is the fairy tale of all fairy tales.  It is a story that no materialist can believe.  When people come back from the dead, the scientist or materialist chalks it up to fantasy.  And it is. . . fantastic that is.  But like C.S. Lewis said, the Gospel is the true myth.  And we might just as well say it's the true fairy tale.

At Christmas, I like to think I'm living inside a beautiful dream or an unfolding drama or a grand fairy tale that's true.  It's miraculous.  A transcendent Being, the one who dreamed it all up, wrote himself into the human drama, taking the modest form of a baby, spending most of his life making furniture and helping build houses for folks and then getting himself killed and coming back from the dead to walk around and eat and talk like a normal person.  That's a fairy tale.  It didn't have to happen that way.  Only it did -- by choice.

God's Fairy Tale.  If I didn't own the book already, I'd buy it.

A Skyline for the Soul: The Music of Jane Kelly Williams

Janeonwater2The first time I heard Jane Kelly Williams was at a convention of the North American Folk Music and Dance Association in approximately 1998 in Cincinnati, Ohio.  I was familiar with Jane's first national U.S. release on Mercury Records, Tapping the Wheel, and I invited her to come to this convention to showcase her music and to get to know us, at that time I was running a folk music label called Silent Planet Records.  I did not know many Christian singer-songwriters in the general (non contemporary music) market, so I gravitated to any of them that were there -- folks like Pierce Pettis, Jason Harrod, Jan Krist, and Brooks Williams.  I knew her music, as I had listened to Tapping the Wheel, and I was captivated by it's understated beauty, well-crafted songs both lyrically and musically, and her voice.  But I had not heard her in person.

Jane doesn't remember that 30 minute showcase as one of her best performances, but I would never have known.  The particular room where the showcase was happened to be a small hotel suite with room for about 30-40 people.  Artists cycled in and out, some only drawing a handful of people.  When Jane's time came, the room filled, particularly with other artists who came just to hear her.  When Jane played, there was a hush over the room.  She sang quietly, so folks leaned forward, straining to hear every word.  It was enchanting.  There's just not a hint of the egotistical artist in Jane, and the purity and honesty of the music is a rarity.

Jane didn't ultimately sign with Silent Planet Records, for a host of reasons, but she and her musician husband Jane did become good friends with my family.  We've continued to enjoy her music over the years.  After taking some time to raise her twp-year old daughter, Willa, Jane is eager to return to playing music in front of folks, and to recording new material, much of which is more overtly Christian than her mainstream albums.  (She has, after all, been leading worship in churches for the past several years.)

I'd like you to know Jane too.  That's why I have invited her to do a house concert in my home in Raleigh on Epiphany, January 6, 2006, at 7:30 p.m.  I encourage you to come.  There is no admission cost, but Jane will sell her CDs and we will accept donations to cover her expenses and provide some income for her.  Please come.

You will find a full bio of Jane here, and you can visit her website here.  Room for the concert is limited.  If you are coming, please email me and let me know.  If you'd like to sample her music, visit her website, or check out a song here:

Another Poem for Advent

Advent, Union Station


He remembered her voice, that of a woman now, saying
come, come before Christmas, before the snow.  Tom
fingered a dog-eared photograph now, a smiling reminder of
her mother, before he returned it to his vest pocket, sighing.

His hand shook.   Where it rested on his blue jeans, he was
aware of its restlessness.  Looking down at his boots, he smiled
inside; he was no cowboy, but he liked to think he had a cowboy's
soul, that he had a soul.   He reckoned he could do this, though

he wondered if she would know his weathered face, what
memories she might have.  He had wandered far from the plains of
Oklahoma.  Looking up, he noticed that the somnolent man across
from him had dropped his newspaper.  The partially visible headline read

"Come home."  He could not see who it bid.


9:02.  Rosa watched the second hand on the big clock in the
station, ticking away the seconds.  The children slept, their legs
and arms splayed over the chairs and bags.  She watched their
eyelids flutter, sometimes, and she envied their dreams.

This time Juan could not come.  He worked, even now.  But
she was glad for the work.  When he kissed her after dinner,
after he dropped her at the station, he said "Felice Navidad,
Rosa," and placed a small box in her hand as he held her.

Opening it now, she  pulled back the tissue paper to see a
cross, silver, with turquoise studs at each end, on a silver chain.
She carefully took it out and clasped it in place around her neck,
holding it in her hand.  Just then, the intercom sputtered, saying

"Train 402, Track 12, Tijuana.  Now boarding."


The clock is ticking.  The trains are leaving.  The people are
waiting.  The music is playing.


She figured she could paint her nails as she waited.  She chose red,
no, blue.  She thought what did it matter.  Who cared.  What in God's
name, pardon her French, was she doing here anyway?  He had said
to meet him here, that he would be here at 7:30, that they would be

alone, finally, together.  He was delayed, that's it.  The traffic on the
405, on Sepulveda had been terrible.  So he must be out there, stuck,
waiting.  Jenny looked around at the pitiful mass of humanity around
her, the whole wretched lot of them.  She should have flown.  But he

insisted on the train, the novelty of the experience, the romance of
an overnight rendezvous, the deserts and plains sweeping past
them, the clickety-clack of the track, wine and cheese in their private
sleeper, watching the sunrise together, finally.  She had said her

goodbyes.  It was over.  He was coming, wasn't he?


In the corner,  an old woman, back bent to hard work, mopped the
floor.  Rhythmically, she swept the mop back and forth, like a dance.
Her hair had grayed over her black skin, and she did not look up often,
though if you listened carefully, you could hear the soft singing.  Like a

living psalter the woman was filled with hymns and carols, little
snatches of them filtering under the hub-bub of the station, the cacophony
of announcements, crying babies, chattering children, and here and
there the snores of too-long-waiters, those who had given up consciousness.

Tom smiled as he walked by her, hearing the familiar but almost forgotten
sound of "Jesus is calling, come home."  Jenny too looked up, hearing "Away
in a Manger," a tear escaping her eye.  Rosa hummed her own harmony,
as the woman sang "Holy, Holy, Holy," clutching her turquoise cross, all


Waiting.  All going home.  All longing for God to come.

Union_station_1[Union Station in Los Angeles is called the last of the great train stations.  Built in 1939, it serves 26,000 people a day on Amtrak and Metroliner.  When I visited there last Summer, I was appreciative of seeing something somewhat old in Los Angeles, a city which thrives on the new.  I read that Union Station's exterior combines Moorish and Spanish architecture, though I would not have known.  Inside, marble floors and arched windows are capped by a ceiling that is over fifty feet from the floor.  It's not the biggest or most beautiful train station, but it does have a uniquely Southern California feel to it.  And it's located across from Olvera Street, the oldest part of the city.  I didn't write this the day I was there, but only today, as I thought about how people spend a great deal of time waiting in terminals around Christmas, and how each one carries a story with major and minor themes, and how we all carry stories, and we all wait for His Advent.]

Christmas Miscellany

  • Candycane Sufjan Stevens has a very nice animated Christmas music video posted on YouTube here.  Give it a look.
  • Though I did not think I would enjoy it, I am in fact enjoying the new Christmas album by Clannad singer and elder sister of Enya, Moya Brennan, entitled (what else) An Irish Christmas.  I was surprised because I find most Irish music on the dark side, and some of the Irish Christmas albums I have heard are not of good cheer.  This one is.
  • Another Christmas record I have enjoyed is Wintersong, by Sarah McLachlan.  It's a mixed bag of seasonal tunes and a couple originals and one not so Christmasy song by Joni Mitchell ("River"), but it's quite good.  And there's that ubiquitous and one and only John Lennon Christmas song, "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)," that shows up just about everywhere.  I prefer the original.
  • I'm enjoying reading a bit of WinterSong, an older book by Luci Shaw and Madeleine L'Engle.  It's a collection of meditations and poems on Advent.  It's a welcome contrast to the Advent collection entitled Watch for the Light, much of which was not very helpful.  I like the personal feel of this collection, and its consistency.



Unmade.  Unformed.  Superlative mystery which
cannot be unwound.  Yet there is love, ringed by
joy, there is unity in one sound, and we are

          Moving here, outside, unbound.  Then
          there is the child, puncturing time, our
          spirit into flesh, flesh feeling time, an
          earthy reality, a new world found.

Sorrow mixed with joy.  We did in agony, yet,
to be reborn.  Architecture of mercy,
painted promise in blood red, and we are

          Moving here, outside, unbound.  Then
          there is the man, parting time, our body
          knowing passion, passion born of love, an
          earthy reality, now word-bound.

Created, then reformed.  Souls dance as they're
reborn.  Little incarnations, divinely conceived,
flung into history to humanly live, and we are

          Moving here, between two worlds,
          like the child, puncturing time,
          like the man, knowing pain, yet,
          reborn in love in a new world come.

[This poem is dated November 17, 1994.  I don't recall writing it, and it pains me a bit to read it.  There are metaphors that don't work well, or are confusing.  And yet I do like the idea of relating our incarnation to the Incarnation.  What the Council of Chalcedon affirmed in AD 451 is, as J.I. Packer says so well, that "all the qualities and powers that are in us, as well as all the qualities and powers that are in God, were, are, and ever will be really and indistinguishably present in the one person of the man from Galilee."  Packer calls the Incarnation "this mysterious miracle at the heart of historic Christianity."  It is, and the human, who we are, is no less a miracle, that we should be little incarnations, made in the image of God.  Think about that for long and my head hurts.]

The Overshadow: A Poem

The Overshadow

". . . the power of the Most High will
overshadow you. . ." --- Gospel of Luke

When we think of God, and
angels, and the Angel,
we suppose ineffable light.

So there is a surprise in the air
when we see him bring to Mary,
in her lit room, a gift of darkness.

What is happening under that
huge wing of shade?  In that mystery
what in-breaking wildness fills her?

She is astonished and afraid; even in
that secret twilight she bends her head,
hiding her face behind the curtain

of her hair; she knows that
the rest of her life will mirror
this blaze, this sudden midnight.

(Luci Shaw, from WinterSong)

In Praise of Prepositions

[This clever poem reminded me of Will Strunk's and E.B. White's The Elements of Style, a classic guide to proper grammar and syntax.  Strunk had an obvious love for language, something that poets have to have as well.  The poet here has that love -- for prepositions of all things.  Usually I dislike the self-consciousness of writers writing about writing and prefer them merely to write something and not tell me about it.  This poem is a pleasure though, not tiresome like some such poems about words.]

Praise Prepositions

After against among, around. How I admire
prepositions, small as they are,
like safety pins, their lives given to
connecting. They are the paid help,
maids in black uniforms who pass
hors d'oeuvres, and they're
the forbidden joy that leaps between us
when we get to know them. Without
connection what can survive? Because
the lawn waits for sun to wake it from
its winter nap, we say sunlight
lies on the grass. Even the simplest jar
connects—jar under moonlight, on
counter, jar in water. It was prepositions
in the Valley of Dry Bones that stitched
the femur to the heel, heel to the foot bone.
And afterwards, they got up to dance.
Between, beside, within may yet keep
the precarious chins and breasts
from tumbling off Picasso's women.
I would make prepositions the stars of grammar
like the star that traveled the navy sky
the night sweet Jesus lay in his cradle,
pulling those kings toward Bethlehem,
and us behind them, trekking
from the rim of history toward Him.

(Jeanne Murray Walker, from Books and Culture, Nov/Dec 2006)

"Omit needless words!" said Will Strunk.  Indeed.  I've said too much already.  But maybe tomorrow you'll have a better appreciation for prepositions, the great connectors of our shared language.

Christmas Snow

BikeThe last time I saw snow on Christmas was a Christmas morning in 1966 or 1967 in Greensboro, North Carolina.  Underneath the tree that morning was a purple bike with a banana seat and high handlebars.  As soon as the presents were opened, I took it outside in the cold, pedaling down the asphalt, past my friend Bobby's house, wondering for a moment what he had that morning under his tree.  I felt the first snowflakes, my father watching me cruise down the street on that deliciously cool Spyder 5-speed bike from Sears.  It was a perfect Christmas.  I haven't felt snow on Christmas in the nearly 40 years since then.  And I've never had a bike quite like that bike.

I realize now what tumultuous times those must have been for my parents.  It was a time of draft dodgers, hippies, and race riots, and we had our fair share of all those in our city.  Coming home from Wednesday night prayer meeting at church, a regular of churches then, we were stopped at a checkpoint by the police.  A curfew had been imposed at 9:00 because of rioting near A&T University.  I had little understanding of that then.  Shutting down the city at 9:00 was a drastic thing even then before the advent of 24-7 shopping and eating, even before people really did much shopping at all after 6:00.  People were home for the evening.  Shops were closed.  And here the police were on the streets and people were told to go home and stay off the streets.  On TV we heard sober reports of crowds throwing bottles and rocks, angry men shouting, and I'm sure my parents wondered what the world was coming to.  Really, I was clueless, my world limited to the a small orbit around my parents, my neighborhood, and my school.

We took my sister and her friend to school one morning, junior high school, and I remember she was bragging about her go-go boots, white Nancy Sinatra boots ("these boots are made for walking,/ and that's just what they'll do,/ One of these days these boots are gonna/ walk right over you.")  My sisters were weird and often spiteful and mostly useless to me then.  I was an only boy.  On account of that, I most often did as I pleased and was allowed to.  It's a wonder I survived childhood and teenage years.

But back to Christmas. . . I remember lying awake then, hearing my parents talk around black coffee at the kitchen table just outside my room, those comforting murmurs and small laughs.  I was willing myself awake, trying to wait and see if I heard reindeer on the roof, watching the patterns of car headlights on the walls as cars passed on the street outside.  Later, much later I thought, I heard noises in the basement, things being moved about.  One Christmas I even thought I heard the hooves of reindeer on the roof.  I was too afraid to go and look, afraid it wouldn't be real.

I loved that snow the best, though.  A purple Spyder five speed banana seat high handlebar bike in the snow.  That's hard to beat for a ten year old.

Christmas Music

TrebleChristmas time poses some difficulty for me musically, in that I find so few Christmas albums that I like.  Most records are uninspiring rehashes of the same carols, hymns, and other Christmas songs.  Some artists have managed to take the familiar carols and add a depressing note to them, and I'm not in favor of that.  I may find one or two songs I like, but on the whole albums tend to be inconsistent affairs.  Instrumental albums fare about the same.  If I hear one more Windham Hill Celtic Christmas record. . . well, I've had enough of those for a while.  Really, what I cherish is music that is Christocentric, authentic, and original (meaning fresh and timeless arrangement of familiar songs or new songs).

I've tried to consider what my ten favorite Christmas albums are, the criteria being whether I listen to them every year.  In fact, one mark of a good Christmas album is that you want to listen to it all year, not just at Christmas.  Here's my ten:

  • 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 out of print, but new and used copies can be found on ebay or amazon.  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 get tired of.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Songs for Christmas -- Sufjan Stevens -- This is a new favorite released this year, 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.
  • 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."
  • Noel -- Various Artists -- This 1995 Via Records release (now long out of print, and Via long gone) was a Steve Hindalong and Derri Daugherty project.  In addition to them, the cool current or former CCM artists on this record include Buddy and Julie Miller, Riki Michele, Kevin Smith, Brent Bourgeois, and Carolyn Arends.  One original, 10 classics.  Beautiful.
  • 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.
  • The Best of Amy Grant: The Christmas Collection -- Amy Grant takes the prize for the most Christmas albums by a CCM musician, a total of three.  I like the first, Tennessee Christmas, the best, but it's hard to find.  This album collects the best. 
  • Light of the Stable: Emmylou Harris -- 1975?  This one's getting some age, but if you don't mind the country-twang, this album is enjoyable.  I like it because country songs remind me of home, of growing up, and that's a big part of Christmas.

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.

Yesterday's Pain

Yesterday's Pain

Some of us walk into Advent
     tethered to our unresolved yesterdaysHelp
           the pain still stabbing
           the hurt still throbbing.
It's not that we don't know better;
     it's just that we can't stand up anymore by ourselves.
On the way to Bethlehem,
     will you give us a hand?

(Ann Weems, from Kneeling in Bethlehem)

At this time of year, I'm aware that some people must feel as did the Psalmist, when he wrote so achingly, "I am like a desert owl,/ like an owl among the ruins./ I lie awake; I have become/ like a bird alone on a roof" (Ps. 102: 6-7).  Single pigeons.  Blackbirds singing in the dead of night.  Like Eleanor Rigby and all the lonely people.  I guess Paul McCartney knew something of what it might be to be lonely, even surrounded as he was by people.

This calls for compassion I don't always have, sensitivity that lies beneath my superficiality, awareness of others in the midst of distraction.  Cheeriness and holiday spirit for such folk are like poison.  You can't fix them.  You can be with them and extend a hand, maybe, while God chips away at their darkness.  That's Advent, for some.

To Tell the Truth

The rhetorical question that Pilate put to Jesus is an age-old question: What is truth?  You can almost hear the world-weary sigh in that question, the cynicism, the curl of the lip, the shrug of who-can-possibly-know-truth in his words.  The question is a common one these days, whether it lurks behind the perfect smile of newscasters or is read between the lines of newspaper articles or is implied in the conversation-stopping "well that's your truth, not mine, your experience, not mine."  (Viewed in this way, the last statement forecloses discussion, as what is "true" is purely subjective and has no ultimate objectivity.)

When Jesus said "I came into the world, to testify to the truth," (Jn. 18:37), he was speaking about the truth that deep down we all know about: the really real, that which corresponds to reality, or as Francis Schaeffer would coin, true Truth.  Truth is real and objective, and it matters deeply.

None of this means that truth is always easy to discover or discern.  We wake up in the morning and know for an objective fact that it is light outside and not dark.  This seems easy.  And yet if we visit the local mental institution there are folks there who may say otherwise, and they're not making it up.  They believe it.  They are not lying, because they have no intention of telling an untruth.  And yet, we know that they are not telling the truth because most of the world believes it is light and can scientifically demonstrate this.  None of this will persuade them.  They will keep on believing it is dark because of a mental disease or defect which impairs their judgment.  Similarly, those who have been hurt, even if it is only a perceived hurt, will believe things that have no objective basis in reality.  They are not lying.  They do tell untruths, because their spirit is so wounded or warped by bitterness or sorrow that they have a skewed perception of facts.  We have all met people like this.  I happen to have met a lot of them, as I have been an attorney for over twenty years and as an attorney have dealt with the mentally ill, the bitter, and the wounded.  I have investigated facts, and even when facts align against a litigant, because of their bitterness they cannot see the truth.  This is a sad, sad truth.

None of this means that the truth we seek is always easy to discern.  A blue sky is one thing; God's existence, another.  And yet, we look for evidence of both before we believe.  The evidence may not be conclusive, or (as is most often the case) is not completely without countervailing evidence, but to say "I believe in God because I want to" is insufficient, and unconvincing.  The question is, "Is He real?"  Regardless of what most people say, I suspect they want more than a personal experience.  They want to know what is really real.  They want to know True Truth.  They may somply not know how to talk about it any longer.

Consider this: We take for granted that Abraham Lincoln was President in 1861 and was assassinated before serving his complete term.  And yet, there is not one live witness to his Presidency or to his death.  No one can tell me firsthand what they saw.  No movie.  No recording of his voice.  For proof of his existence, we rely on documentary evidence, evidence that might be unconvincing to some.  And yet to deny his existence would be like denying the Holocaust (which of course, some people do.)

So where am I going with this?  Just three thoughts:  (1) Truth is objective, that is, it corresponds to reality;  (2) truth can be difficult to discern and often is discerned imperfectly; and (3) one person's experience can never be the bellwether of truth but, rather, we must consider the person's credibility, whether his or her statements can be corroborated, and whether there is conflicting evidence.  Fact-finders rightly look to the weight of the evidence to draw conclusions.

Well, one final thought: Truth must be spoken to family and brothers and sisters in faith in love.  And sometimes love bids us not speak.  I sometimes tell my kids this with an example:  That woman is, by any objective standard, fat.  That is true.  Maybe her doctor needs to say it to her, or  maybe a good friend.  They can better say it with care and concern.  But you don't know her and so that is a truth you, for the sake of love and kindness, should not speak.

As I say this, I realize that we do not live in this kind of world anymore.  If something can be said, it is in fact said.  It need not even be true.  It's your experience, after all, and that folks ends the discussion.  Next we'll hear the bogeyman of censorship raised.  And the voices get shriller and real conversation ends.

"What is truth?"  It's a good question to ask.  I only know that I want to know what is really true.  I don't want to settle for less.  And even though I know there will always be some mystery to that truth, it doesn't keep me from pursuing it.  I don't think it will stop in Heaven, either.