December 2012


And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord,
in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great
to the ends of the earth.

And he shall be the one of peace- Micah 5:4-5a

I’ll never forget the first and only time I was referred to as a “fine young chap.” I was sitting up in the balcony with a few friends at Barlow United Methodist Church during a cluster revival meeting of the UMCs of Ballard County, Kentucky. The visiting preacher had this very distinguished British accent with an inviting tone and compelling stories that drew his audience (or at least me) in to try to capture the vivid details and concepts he was portraying. The visiting preacher’s name was Dr. Reginald Mallett and he was from England. Unlike most ministers with the prescript “Dr.”, Dr. Mallett was a medical physician, not a doctorate by means of a Ph.D.

The late Rev. Dr. Reginald Mallett was both a minister and a physician.

The late Rev. Dr. Reginald Mallett was both a minister and a physician. Dr. Mallett passed away on September 8, 2010. You can read more about his ministry in a lovely article written in the wake of his death. See http://www.lakejunaluska.com/reginald-mallett/

After the service was over, I went down to shake his hand upon my departure, and he said, “Oh, you were one of the attentive fine young chaps in the balcony today! I hope you will come to some more services during the week.” That is what I just did. I took in every message and found myself compelled and confirmed in my recent direction to answer the call to ministry I had been perceiving. I found his sermon delivery very appealing as he would repeat the same Scriptural text or line from a hymn to serve as transitions throughout his sermons. This is a practice I have employed as well, though at times I perceive I have much growing to do in making the transitional phrases flow much smoother.

For those of us who cherished Dr. Mallett’s sermons, we are grateful that he set several of them to print. Last year, I checked out a copy of a book with a collection of his sermons delivered at Lake Junaluska. One of the sermons in that collection was about shepherds and when I read the Scripture from Micah, at the top of this post, in preparation for this Sunday’s sermon, I remembered an anecdote he relayed to his readers…

Edward Rogers told us how on this particular Sunday as he and the family were just about to begin lunch there was a loud knocking at the front door. It was one of the farmer’s neighbors. “Quick,” the neighbor cried, “Your sheep are in the wire.” It was obvious that this was a fairly common emergency to which the family was accustomed. As if on cue they all immediately rose from the table and rushed out to rescue the sheep. Edward Rogers confessed that, wearing a clerical collar, he could not sit idly by so he reluctantly offered his services. He was assigned one part of the field and as he went amongst this high grass, searching for sheep he said dryly, “I was unlucky, I found one!” He struggled to extricate it from the barbed wire as the terrified animal wrestled with him. Eventually, he finished up with the sheep in his arms, although he confessed that he was not sure whether he was carrying the sheep or the sheep was carrying him. Just then, the farmer arrived on the scene. “Here, let me have that sheep Mr. Rogers,” he said. Rogers then told us how the farmer, a big, strong man, his sleeves rolled up, arms lacerated and bleeding from encounters with barbed wire, took hold of the front paws of the sheep in one big fist and the rear paws in the other. He then slung the sheep on his back like a sack of coal and carried it to safety. The preacher concluded, “Now when I think about the good shepherd, I see that strong man, his arms torn and bleeding, carrying that stupid, struggling, frightened creature from danger to safety.

Something about that story communicated to me the significance of the promise of a coming ruler who would reign more like a humble shepherd who was willing to put his life at risk to save and take to safety an entangled sheep than a domineering sovereign who would overpower his unruly subjects.

Advent is for the tangled and torn sheep like you and me, unable to break free from the barbed wire that holds us in bondage. And we’re promised here by Micah that our promised rescuer will administer peace, that is, bring reconciliation and wholeness, not from political power, economic coercion, nor military might, but from a small village that is home to the likes of disreputable shepherds…one who would make and give peace, “not as the world gives” but “through the blood of his cross, reconciling all things to himself.”

Tangled and torn? The shepherd who is the prince of peace is on the way!

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Yesterday I took the kids to go visit my Granny, since she’s not able to get out as much. I’ll have to tell you more about her soon, but I went to visit her yesterday because it was her husband (my Papaw’s) birthday. He would have been 89. As we were walking toward the door, I saw the sign next to the house that has been up for years, which inspired me to post the picture below of it on facebook. The word ‘friendship’ is under-rated. There’s something irreplaceable about having friends in our world, and this thought brought to my mind a hymn by Charles Wesley…

The sign outside my Papaw & Granny's house. Having known the gift of the surrounding community who helped in my family's time of need, Papaw and Granny know the invaluable gift of friendship.

The sign outside my Papaw & Granny’s house. Having received generous aid by the surrounding community who helped in my family’s time of need, Papaw and Granny came to know the invaluable gift of friendship.

Among the thousands of hymns and sacred poems that Charles Wesley penned in his lifetime is a collection of 18 “Hymns for the Nativity of Our Lord”. The lyrics of the hymns in this collection beautifully portray the mystery of the Incarnation pointing out that it was not just the death of Christ that brings salvation but that the entirety of the life of God becoming human (conception, birth, childhood and development, teaching, miracle-working, suffering, dying, being raised again, ascending, and his impending return) that reconciles the world to God and one another. One hymn in the collection that has continued to resound in my remembrance of the Advent of our Lord is the fourth hymn, the first verse of which says this:

Glory be to God on high,
And Peace on Earth descend;
God comes down: He bows the sky:
He shews himself our Friend!
God the Invisible appears,
God the Blest, the Great I AM
Sojourns in this Vale of Tears,
And Jesus is his Name.

The first time I was exposed to this hymn was in 2003, when I took a class in seminary taught by Lester Ruth. He admitted his favor of this hymn over the others in the collection and drew our attention especially to the middle of this verse: “God comes down; he bows the Sky: He shews himself our Friend!” The end of the verse elaborates on this identity when Jesus is proclaimed to walk with us “in this vale of tears.” This is precisely why these lyrics fit squarely in Advent and is appropriate in light of events that bring us to tears, because in this thought, Charles was addressing Jesus’ identifying with our suffering, sojourning with us as we ache for the fulfillment of the creation’s redemption.

What is the Incarnation if it is not God empathizing with us? A friend is one who knows how to empathize with others in pain. The second verse of “What a Friend we have in Jesus” assists here: “Can we find a friend so faithful who will all our sorrows share? Jesus knows our every weakness…”

Abraham was called a friend of God (James 2:23). Moses was said to have spoken face to face with God “as a man speaks to his Friend” (Exodus 33:11). Proverbs remarkably claims, “Faithful are the wounds of a Friend” (27:6).

And of course we have these words of Jesus spoken on the night he was betrayed:

“Greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you” (John 15:13-15).

Laying down his life for friends…How does one reconcile that with Paul’s words in Romans 5 which declares that God demonstrates his love for us in that “while we were still sinners (can we substitute ‘enemies’?), Christ died for us.” Does God, in Christ, befriend the enemy? Is that how to bring these together? It seems so.

Friends, in this sense, are those who don’t turn their back when the ones they loves turn away, but pursue them in merciful love, seeking reconciliation anyway. Before he died for a world which had set itself at enmity with God, Jesus learned to walk in the vale of tears that were poured out in grief over the slaughtering of infants and children, the loss of life when a tower fell, by a widow who lost her only son, by two siblings who lost their loving brother… In this way, he “shews himself our Friend.” His befriending of the world began in Bethlehem. And when we become turn to receive his friendship, he invites us to join the mission of God in befriending our neighbors and enemies, indeed, the whole world.

For several years now, I’ve been drawn mostly to Charles Wesley’s hymn ‘Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus’ during Advent. I’ve tried to suggest that it’s the best hymn of Advent, but Jerry Walls, my philosophy professor from seminary, has rebutted that while Charles’ lyrics are rich in theology, it does not carry quite nearly the narrative richness nor the robust pathos as his favorite, ‘O come, O come, Emmanuel.’ And I’m beginning to be convinced that he might be right.

I was so looking forward to preaching this Gaudete Sunday. The third Sunday in Advent, whose candle is typically pink, or rose colored, contains the theme of joy, and usually sparks a little more of an upbeat than the other themes. After all, joy is a hallmark of the season that focuses on happiness: it brings a smile to our faces as we share beloved memories with our faith and biological families, as we say ‘CHEESE!’ for family photos, and receive more mail (i.e., Christmas cards) during any other time of the year. (Who doesn’t love getting good mail like that?)

Joy filled the air with the evangel message brought by a host of angels to a group of lowly shepherds, saying, “I bring you good tidings of great JOY, which shall be for all the people…”

This Sunday, I was ready to burst out singing ‘Joy to the world, the Lord is come’ at such a volume that would’ve put to shame Clark W. Griswold’s prelude to his first failed attempt at turning on the lights on his house.

My heart and mind were tuned to the songs of joy, the notes were lined up, the outline was all typed out. I was ready to preach by mid-week. Then…Connecticut…

How am I supposed to talk about joy in a world, in a time, like this? It would come out rather hollow, it seems. And if I had talked about joy the way we tend to think about it, then yes it would have.

But then I realized that the joy that we discover in Advent is not a happy-go-lucky type of joy that ignores evil and darkness that exist in our world. Nor does this joy focus on us “holding on” long enough until God takes us out of this seemingly crappy world so that we can enjoy heaven on the other side. For as I read the pages of Scripture I find that the curse (Genesis 3 and thereafter) is not the beginning; that something joyful existed before then; that the world wasn’t originally crappy, but good, “very good” in fact; that the Advent of Christ’s Incarnation has begun the work of undoing that curse

I realized that ‘Joy to the World, the Lord is come’ are not the only lyrics of the hymn, but that it also proclaims that Christ “comes to make his blessings known far as the curse is found“…and might I add, “and even farther”? Isaac Watts, in penning these lyrics, knew that the curse was hanging around. And so do we. And it hangs around by paralyzing and captivating its victims with fear.

In the final stanza (3:14-20) of his book, Zephaniah gave us a melody of hope, and it found itself in the image of God singing over God’s people with joy, removing disaster from them (note: NOT removing them from disaster). But this final stanza is really the only bit of good news that Zephaniah offered the people. The rest was just bad news upon impending judgment upon bad news upon…well, you get the picture. Upon hearing all this, it would seem to be rather easy to be held captive by a fear that they (or we) wouldn’t be able to make it. But even this final stanza still wasn’t the fulfillment of that joy…just an invitation to believe that disaster would not ultimately be victorious over them but would be removed one day.

Musically, it would be like that moment when, in a song filled with dissonance yet concludes with a consonant chord, the instability is just about to be overcome by the final note, which provides the stable resolution we most long for.

A dissonant chord (Photo credit: wikipedia.org)

A dissonant chord (Photo credit: wikipedia.org)

When I first heard ‘O come, O come, Emmanuel’ as a child, there was something, musically, I didn’t like about it. It sounded dissonant to me. Like it didn’t seem to fit one of the few lyrics I then understood in the song: “Rejoice!” How could a song telling me to “Rejoice!” sound so…off? But perhaps that is why it is so appropriate, because the feeling is so familiar to our world, which is still cursed with dissonance…with evil that often holds us captive in fear. But this ‘joy’ we talk about, especially in Advent, is not identified with hollow happiness nor shown by fake smiles. Instead, it is of an expectant variety that in recognizing evil, is not held captive by it, for we believe that evil’s defeat has been guaranteed, and that we can pave the way (tune our instruments?) for the harmony to come “on earth as it is in heaven.” That’s not escapist theology…because if it was about going away from the earth, then the music would stop. God created the world in harmony with the creation responding appropriately. And God intends to take the dissonance away, so that beauty prevails. That’s what we long for.

As a later verse of (maybe) my new favorite Advent hymn says, “O come, Thou Day-spring, come and cheer; Our spirits by Thine advent here; Disperse the gloomy clouds of night, And death’s dark shadows put to flight. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!”

Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus!

Although it often invites moments of being teased, one of my favorite things to do with family around Christmas is looking through old family photo albums to recall the precious, though sometimes embarrassing, memories from my childhood. When examining afresh the pictures from yesteryear, as a family we get to relive, in a sense, our past and remember and be thankful for God’s faithfulness in bringing us to this moment of our shared lives, even as we anticipate greater days to come. This is what I mean in this post’s title as ‘the art of remembrance.’ That remembrance is more than just recalling stories and ‘memories’ of old, but is an affirmation that when we tell these stories, we are being mysteriously transported into the past and experience it anew. It is our way of living into the story that began before we could grasp it all or before we were even aware there was a story.

Practicing the art of remembrance is more than this...

Practicing the art of remembrance is more than this…

On two different occasions, God’s family was given what we now call the Ten Commandments, and they are recorded in Exodus 20 & Deuteronomy 5. The commandment that should strike a chord as we think about ‘remembrance’ is the 4th one: “Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy.” But did you know that in the two renderings of the commandment, there is a difference in the reason given as to why to remember the sabbath? Read them anew…

Exodus 20:8-11 – “Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God…For in six days the Lord created heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.”

Deuteronomy 5:12-15 – “Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God…Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.

Did you catch the difference? In Exodus they were called to remember the sabbath for its connection to the story of creation. In Deuteronomy they were called to remember the sabbath for its connection to the story of their deliverance from slavery in Egypt. Think about that: in Egypt they slaved seven days a week; God commanded them to remember they’re not enslaved anymore and to do so by taking a day off. (If there were ever a day when that message is needed, it would be now.) Remembering the sabbath was their (and our) way of living into the stories of God’s creation and redemption. Even as generations would come and go, remembrance was their way of looking back in gratitude because of God’s loving faithfulness in freely creating the heavens and the earth and in freely rescuing them from bondage.

Remembering is at the heart of who we are as Christians too: when we welcome new members into God’s family and renew our own covenant made in the past to God and the church; when we sit at meals and tell stories of the recent or distant past, recalling how God has got us through times of light and darkness; when we gather to grieve the loss of one of our own, yet remaining hopeful in the resurrection as we recall God’s faithfulness in the lives of those who have gone before us; and of course, when we break bread together and share the cup at the Lord’s Supper. When Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me,” I believe he meant more than just “retell this story and recall to mind my sacrifice for you.” It’s more than that, for again, remembrance is more than recollection. Remembrance, in the sacramental sense, is a mysterious act in which we commune with the saints, and Christ is mysteriously but really present in our meal.

When we eat the bread and drink from the cup, our act of remembrance is our way of living into the story of Christ’s redeeming the world through his becoming human in being conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, remaining faithful to his Father, being betrayed, suffering, dying, and being resurrected. Each time we partake of the meal and we remember Christ, we relive our redemption and give thanks (Eucharist = give thanks) for God’s loving faithfulness in rescuing us from bondage to sin and death. I’ve seen it put this way before: “The Christian is one who remembers!” And as St. Paul reminds us, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”

If Advent I is hope for the longing, Advent II is love for the hurting. As emptiness may oddly convey expectant longing, pain may oddly show the process to purity. Just as dead stumps and empty branches are the images of hopeful anticipation, a metal refinery and a washboard (see Malachi 3:2) are the images of cleansing pain. I’m not intending to suggest that all pain fits this bill, but there are times when the path to being more filled with the love of God…to have, as John Wesley was so apt to put it, the “love of God shed abroad” in our hearts, is one marked with painful struggles and real hurt.

One of the helpful bits I came across in prepping for this week’s sermons came from Jennifer Ryan Ayres, who borrowed from Ralph Smith, in the Feasting on the Word commentary:

When silver is refined, it is treated with carbon or charcoal, preventing the absorption of oxygen and resulting in its sheen and purity. One writer has suggested that a silversmith knows that the refining process is complete only when she observes her “own image reflected in the mirror-like surface of the metal.” If this is the case, does [Malachi] also suggest that the imago Dei [image of God] is restored in this process?

(Photo credit: certifiedassets.com)

(Photo credit: certifiedassets.com)

The implications of this for Advent, a season of preparation for the coming of Christ, abound. This refining process is mentioned in the context of “preparing the way,” a key phrase for the season. As Christ is the “image of the invisible God,” in his Incarnation, God was (and is) refining humanity so that we may reflect the divine image once again. And that image is love (1 John 4:8).

So the path to Love’s arrival may be one marked with hurt. [That was something the Virgin Mary knew quite well as she prepared the way for the Lord.]

I don’t know. Maybe it’s too much to trust that the pain we experience in life will not be left unredeemed. Maybe the evidence that bombards our news outlets, our courtrooms, our funeral homes, our oncology wards, our unemployment offices, and so on, is too much for love to overcome…

Or…maybe, just maybe, we’ll find someday that Love’s reach is deep enough to find us in those areas of our worst humiliation and pains, like in an animals’ feeding trough because the beds were all taken up…and maybe, just maybe, Love will be strong enough to take us to a time and a place, as Mumford & Sons puts it, “with no more tears, and love will not break your heart, but dismiss your fears…” and hurts.

Hurting and not sure, but hoping, that something better is ahead? You’re not alone in the fire.

As I have reflected further upon the topic of Advent as a season of aching, longing emptiness, which I wrote about in the last post, I have been taken back to the realization of the important role of music during this time of the year. During the time around Christmas, our hearts and lips are tuned to sing more than most other times of the year. In Christmastide (Christmas and the days thereafter), our songs are those of hope arrived, joy fulfilled, peace on earth, and love’s dawn. But in Advent, our songs express the various sentiments of preparation: feelings of longing hope, expectant joy, wishing for reigning peace, and yearning for lasting love. Advent is meant to prepare our hearts for Christ’s coming…not just in the past as the Infant of Days in the manger, but also in looking forward to his return as triumphant King. As each year we step backward in time, into the shoes of an exiled people, a group who was feeling out of place, whose home had been taken from them, I realize that Advent adequately portrays our current place in time and space, and I’m drawn toward the songs that describe the longing for the coming of a promised deliverer. Not “deliverer” in the sense of one who will “Take me outta this earth!” but as one who will deliver the things longed for, the fulfillment of hope and joy, the bearer of peace, good will, and agape love. In this way, Advent, its themes, and hymns are meant to tie together the first (already) and second (not yet) comings of Christ on earth. Hence, Advent is about yearning for Christ’s “kingdom [to] come…on earth as it is in heaven.” One of my favorite of these hymns of longing was written by Charles Wesley, called ‘Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus,’ which is often sung during this season of longing and preparation.

Come, Thou long expected Jesus
Born to set Thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us,
Let us find our rest in Thee.
Israel’s Strength and Consolation,
Hope of all the earth Thou art;
Dear Desire of every nation,
Joy of every longing heart.

Born Thy people to deliver,
Born a child and yet a King,
Born to reign in us forever,
Now Thy gracious kingdom bring.
By Thine own eternal Spirit
Rule in all our hearts alone;
By Thine all sufficient merit,
Raise us to Thy glorious throne.

Advent’s songs are about this yearning. It’s like the prelude to a kiss. When captured in a picture, the moment right before the couple’s lips meet brings out this sense of longing for the kiss to be fulfilled.

almost kiss

In the Incarnation of Christ, divinity and humanity come together & meet in one person. In the coming kingdom, that which is already and that which is yet to be fulfilled are drawing nearer to one another, yearning and waiting for the completion of the union between earth and heaven. May we echo with Charles this season of Advent, “Now Thy gracious kingdom bring.”

Why Winter and Advent belong together. I took this pic of the bare maple leaf in front of the parsonage this afternoon.

Why Winter and Advent belong together. I took this pic of the bare maple tree in front of the parsonage this afternoon.

Empty trees. Bare branches. Dead stumps. Not exactly the sorts of images you expect during what is supposedly this season of hope, but that’s the mystery of Advent…they really are. One song says that what God wants of us is holiness, righteousness, and brokenness. If I could add a verse, I would add one for the season of Advent…Emptiness. Emptiness is what I long for…what I need…what God wants of me.

What if what we need this season is not more, but less? Not just “less” in the commercial terms of what is said by the Advent Conspirators, though we need that, too. But less of what I have filled my life with, good things though they may be, but the things, sometimes even the gifts and graces in which my trust has begun to become (mis)placed, rather than the One who gifts and graces.

I spoke this morning about a song by David Wilcox that I have ruminated on from time to time. It was a song he wrote in the aftermath of his touring of the Biltmore mansion, where he was bothered to discover that the man whose dwelling was the mansion was lonely, and the ostentatious size of the house must have driven home that point rather well to the man. The story behind the inspiration of the song is on his live album ‘Songs and Stories’ but here’s a video and the lyrics to the song that hits home with me during this season of longing and aching. This season of emptiness and loneliness that just may be what we need to find the fullness that is on its way to adorn and fill us.

The depth of your dreams, the height of your wishes
The length of your visions I see
The hope of your heart is much bigger than this
For it’s made out of what might be

So now picture your hope, your heart’s desire
As a castle that you must keep
And all of its splendor, it’s drafty with lonely
This heart is too hard to heat

When I get lonely, now that’s only my sign
That some room is empty in me, and that room is there by design
If I feel hollow, well that’s just my proof that there’s more
I need to follow
And that’s what the lonely is for
That’s what the lonely is for

But you could seal up the pain
Build walls in the hallways, close off a small room to live in
But then those walls would remain
And keep you there always
You would never know why you were given,
Why you were given that lonely
Why you were given that empty in your heart
Why you were given that hollow
That’s just your proof that there’s more you need to follow
That’s what the lonely is for

Feels like a curse, not a blessing
This palace of promise
When the empty chill makes you weep
With only the thin fire of romance to warm you
These halls are too tall and deep

When I get lonely, well that’s only my sign
Some room is empty in me and that room is there by design
If I feel hollow, well that’s just my proof that there’s more
For me to follow
And that’s what the lonely is for
For me to follow, that’s what the lonely is for.

In Romans 8 St. Paul intimates that creation is achinggroaning as a woman in labor (appropriate for Advent, is it not?) and he says this not only of creation but also of God’s children groaning for the redemption of our bodies, which points us toward Christ’s return and the resurrection of the body.

Aching, groaning, longing. That’s how I have pictured Advent thus far this year. And maybe the first part of that aching is to long for emptiness. So perhaps emptiness seems like an odd word to convey the meaning of hope, but perhaps it is the most appropriate for now. After all, emptiness is one of the benchmark terms we associate with the Incarnation, right? (See Philippians 2:7: “but he emptied himself…”).