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.”

“In the fertile land, the LORD God grew every beautiful tree with edible fruit, and also he grew the tree of life in the middle of the garden…A river flows from Eden to water the garden…” (Genesis 2:9-10)

“He carried in his own body on the tree the sins we committed…By his wounds you were healed.” (1 Peter 2:24)

“Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will heal them; the Lord will raise them up.” [The oil used in services and prayers for healing is from the olive tree.] (James 5:14-15)

“On each side of the river stood the tree of life…and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” (Revelation 22:2)

Photo credit: Josh Scholten at http://www.cascadecompass.com

In the midst of what is honestly a rather mediocre movie is a scene that has remained embedded in my memory ever since the only time I’ve watched it. Well I’ve gone back and seen this particular clip a time or two, the rest of the movie was “meh” so I haven’t sat through the whole thing again. The movie is Red Planet, starring Val Kilmer, Carrie Ann Moss, Benjamin Bratt and The Mentalist…er, I mean Simon Baker. (I had to be sure that I wasn’t confusing it with the movie Mission to Mars, since they were released about the same time. Ya know, kinda like Armageddon and Deep Impact were released the same summer, only the two movies about Mars were far less memorable.) Since there isn’t a good set of clips that tells everything you need to know, let me set up the scene for you…

Like most other movies that have their setting on “Mars,” this was set in the future when earth was running out of space and resources needed to sustain the life of our planet’s inhabitants. After a prior mission had gone to Mars to set up a large greenhouse of sorts to establish life through vegetation so that oxygen could begin to be introduced on Mars, the plot of the film involves the second mission, which involved the first humans to check up on the project and its progress. As the majority of the group took a smaller shuttle to the surface from the larger craft, which remained in orbit around Mars, they ran into some difficulty and realized that they would be in need of the oxygen that was present in the greenhouse. As they are moving toward the location of the greenhouse, they see the reflections of the sun against the shiny frame from a distance and their hearts immediately grew with excitement. However, their joy quickly turned to dread as they drew nearer and discovered that the greenhouse had been utterly destroyed and the frame was all that was left. To their knowledge and by the evidence of lifelessness before their eyes, they were without oxygen and thus, without hope of making it out alive. Some interesting things happened when they discovered this, including a fight that breaks out where one man gets thrown from a cliff to his quick demise. But the rest decide to just sit there and allow their oxygen tanks to run out and the question is asked right before this clip of what symptoms they would be experiencing as they were going to suffocate to death by lack of oxygen…

What happens next is Kilmer’s character realizes that he’s able to breathe Mars’ air and he quickly tells his colleagues that they can take off their masks and keep living. That raised the question of mystery: where did this air come from? And the rest of the movie is their search for where there might be some green things and life on the planet, which they discover not too long thereafter.

The metaphor always gripped me of the sufficiency of what was unseen in the air around them. We’re sometimes told of another world, another kingdom which is breaking in and invites us to participate, but there is sometimes difficulty in trusting the grace of what (or Who) is not seen. Earlier today, I was with a group of men praying over a friend and his daughter. One man asked that God’s grace would “flood” their lives. I began thinking about the issue of breathing and the impossibility of doing so underwater. Why would we pray for this? But I soon remembered the message of trusting that God would enable us to breathe in this new life. And my mind was brought back to this scene in the movie.

As far as they knew, the world in which they were stuck was full of aridity and lifelessness, or at the very least, an atmosphere to which their lungs could not possibly adapt. In one act of desperation (or perhaps it was mere luck or accident), one person took the leap and discovered that there was life in the midst of a seemingly lifeless world…that there was hope in the midst of a seemingly hopeless world. (Hitting near home yet?) And that unlocked the door for the search of where this was coming from. The goal became, in a sense, “Let’s get to the source of this Life.” That’s part of what I understand when thinking about the Kingdom of God: now & not yet; already inaugurated but still waiting to fully realized until the end; and hence, this search marks the race of kingdom living. Or, as I recall Robert Mulholland in chapel once paraphrased the request in the Lord’s Prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread”: “Nurture us today for kingdom living.” Lord of heaven and earth, enable me to breathe in your life as your kingdom continues to come on earth as it is in heaven.

Some of you read the title of this post and thought, “A lot depends on the size of your bite.” This is true! Some people can handle chewing & swallowing a bigger bite than others. I have eosinophilic esophagitis (EE), so my bites usually have to be smaller than what most adults can handle. Now I could tell you about the details of how my gastroenterologists/GI specialists came to that conclusion, but that’s another story for another day. Suffice it to say that nine years ago, when I had a chunk of steak lodged in my esophagus, I didn’t know about this syndrome (as many of you reading this have never heard of it), much less that I would one day be diagnosed with it.

It was Thursday and was premium night at the Asbury College cafeteria. That meant that instead of the usual array of “meh” choices for your entree, they offered a more elegant selection, which included grilled steak on one particular evening. As fate would allow it, this particular premium night was the night before Senior Chapel, where I had been asked to share a testimony about my life and/or my time at Asbury as my class was getting prepared to graduate. Being the night before Senior Chapel, those involved in the service the next day were to go to rehearsal in Hughes Auditorium, where chapel is held. Because of the unfortunate circumstance that occurred in the cafeteria that evening, I was unable to make it to rehearsal. Instead I spent most of the rest of the evening in the ER at a hospital in Lexington.

I tried to swallow the bite of steak after not chewing enough. The food met resistance. I grabbed my glass of coke and tried to wash it down with liquid. The trouble with a food impaction is, if the liquid you try to force it down with doesn’t do the job, that liquid comes back up. So my tray started getting fizzy from the coke. I wasn’t choking, the food was just stuck on its way to my stomach. So although the cafeteria manager knew the Heimlich maneuver, that wasn’t going to help and in fact may have caused worse damage had he tried to do so. He sent me to the Health Clinic. They didn’t have the necessary means of assisting me, so they gave me strict instructions not to lay down but to go to the Emergency Room. Carrie (we were engaged at the time) took me to the ER. We waited in the waiting room…waited…waited…waited… After about an hour and a half (on top of the hour it had taken to go to the Health Clinic, see what they could/couldn’t do and then drive to the ER), I finally said to the folks at the front desk, “It is really hard having food stuck in your esophagus for over 2 hours, not being able to swallow any sort of liquid, including my own saliva. Can I please be seen soon?” They called me back a couple of minutes later.

Then I had to prove I was having this problem. They gave me 3 cups of water to attempt to drink. And the same thing happened with that that had happened in the cafeteria with my coke. The water came back up. So they paged the GI doc to come in and do a scope to push the food down through an endoscopy. At that point, the doctor at the ER told me to lay down. “Are you sure, because my Health Clinic said not to.” “Yes, I’m sure.” So I laid down, and within a minute I felt the food go down. [Note: this activity did not do the trick the next couple of times I had food impactions…that’s when I knew there was an underlying problem that needed to be addressed.] I told him I felt that. Being skeptical of this, he asked me to attempt to swallow three more glasses of water, which I did effortlessly. So they called the GI doc to return home since there was no need to perform the scope.

A few minutes later, the nurse came back with specific written instructions on how best to proceed, especially when consuming food. On the sheet in bold print were these words: “When eating, cut your food, especially meats, up into SMALL pieces and CHEW THOROUGHLY before attempting to swallow.

When God called Abram (Gen. 12), God said, “Go…to a land I will show you.”  In the creation account in Genesis 1, God had paused at the end of each day to enjoy & celebrate the work that had been done. “God saw how good it was”(CEB) – Gen. 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31. At the beginning of his venture in following God’s call, Abram stopped at various times, celebrated and worshiped the God who had revealed himself to Abram by building an altar unto the Lord (Gen. 12:7, 8; 13:4, 18). If eating a meal is anything like walking a journey, then we ought to take time to enjoy each of the courses and not rush through them. Trying to eat a steak in one bite will not only land you in the ER, it will also rob you of the joy of enjoying each savory bite.

Some speak of biting off more than one can chew. I had bitten off more than I could swallow. The same principle applies. But as grace would have it, I got to go back to campus that evening with no scars and only an embarrassing story to share. Ever since, I’ve tried not to eat the whole steak at once (literally & metaphorically). I must confess that I have failed a time or two though.

Oh and I did get to speak in chapel the next day. I guess they trusted that I wasn’t really going to choke. ;^)