“I Love That Line!” by Michael Stephens

CC BY-NC, WanderingtheWorld (www.ChrisFord.com), Flickr

CC BY-NC, WanderingtheWorld (www.ChrisFord.com), Flickr

This is the third post in the “I Love That Line!” series that features writers’ reflections on their favorite Christmas carols. Here I reflect on a line from “The Christmas Waltz.”

Christmas is a season of slowing. In spiritual formation, slowing is the habit of literally slowing ourselves down and resisting haste (Selah). I’m happy that Christmas, specifically, is that rest, like a musical interval, the world uses to breathe and regroup. Holidays of national identity and other observances just aren’t capable of offering the repose we desperately seek.

Instead, it is themes of thankfulness, giving, and spiritual reflection that best express who we are as humans and how we are supposed to function in an essential way. The Christmas season, more than any, helps us rediscover ourselves. I consider it a remarkable work of God and human custom, so good for the soul.

The Christmas Complex

It is why I especially love a line from “The Christmas Waltz”:

“It’s that time of year when the world falls in love,
Every song you hear seems to say
‘Merry Christmas! May your New Year dreams come true.’”

And no one sings it better than Frank Sinatra, for whom it was written. His robust yet silky-smooth voice seems to slice through the apathy and rigor of a year almost done, holding forth something in our faces almost too wonderful to behold, maybe even an invitation—This is what you’ve been seeking.

Why we fall in love with this time of year is something I don’t fully comprehend. It’s so nuanced…and I like it that way. Of course, hardliners will preach, “Jesus is everything about Christmas!” Obviously, the birth story is central to it all. Jesus’s advent is significant for Christians and the unreligious who identify with Christianity. Yet those who understand the role of lore in human culture appreciate the narrative, also.

Simply put, with or without a religious attachment to the season, we still find ways to participate in its wonder.

Christmas transports many of us back to our childhood and the days before we lost our innocence to a life of making a life and the woes that attend it. For others of us, Christmas is a celebration of family and the only time we ever see our families. And who doesn’t love gift-giving, surprises, and festivity with loved-ones?

Christmas is cheerful because we make decisions to set aside grievances, forgive, and show grace (think Snoopy and the Red Baron). Some go even further and find in the season a perfect opportunity for acts of service and humanity to others.

Wonder in a Tune

If there is one expression inclusive of all these significations and the many more we don’t see, it is surely Christmas music—“Every song you hear seems to say, ‘Merry Christmas! May your New Year dreams come true.’”—isn’t that so true?

Christmas music, I think, is one of the quickest ways to get in the Christmas spirit. It gladdens me up instantly, and I think it does the same for many of us. The implication resounds: we seem to derive our greatest joy from motifs of fellowship, love, giving, faith, and family. Undoubtedly, these humanize us and enliven cold hearts that have often calcified with indifference and distress throughout the year.

You see, Christmas may be a single day on the calendar, but the spirit of Christmas can and should be a yearlong reality. “Oh, that we could always see such spirit through the year.” Well that’s a personal choice, and it should wait no longer.

A Christmas done right adequately prepares us for a new year. Our focus has hopefully fixated on substantive things. And for all the rest we’ve desired and forsaken and loved yet lost earlier in the year, we can now set real goals, not mere resolutions, and hopefully fill the new year with more Christmas as we attain them.

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“I Love That Line!” by Guest Writer Kathleen Becker

CC BY-NC-SA, jpc101, Flickr

CC BY-NC-SA, jpc101, Flickr

This is the second post in the “I Love That Line!” series that features writers’ reflections on their favorite Christmas carols. Kathleen Becker, writer of Coming2Him, reflects on two stanzas from “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”

“Tomorrow is Christmas! It’s practically here!”
Then he growled, with his Grinch fingers nervously drumming,
“I MUST find some way to stop Christmas from coming!”
For, tomorrow, I know all the Who girls and boys
Will wake bright and early. They’ll rush for their toys.
And then! Oh, the noise! Oh, the noise! Noise! Noise! Noise!
There’s one thing I hate! All the NOISE! NOISE! NOISE! NOISE!”

(Dr. Seuss, How The Grinch Stole Christmas)

Halting Christmas

I’ve looked in the mirror and seen the Grinch. It was a slow progression.

When my children were young, I experienced Christmas through their sweet, innocent eyes. Christmas was a wondrous time—every song was meaningful; every decoration pointed to Jesus; every gift was a blessing; and every baking day was itself seasoned with stories of God’s love.

As years passed, however, the songs became rote, the decorations dusty and clutter, the gifts too important; and there was no time for baking together.

The quest for the nativity scene, perfect CD, fresh inspiration, new perspective, and heart-rending story to instill deep meaning all began to consume my Advent season. I wished to challenge and grow my family’s faith. After all, Christmas was important.

Yet the busyness of the season was rushing in all the while. And, trying to fit it all in, I found myself competing in shopping blitzes, scrambling to concerts and pageants, and throwing up decorations that often looked like I had literally vomited them out!

Still, the ‘tomorrow of Christmas’ loomed and so did deadlines for packages to be mailed, gifts to be wrapped, and neighbors to be…“cookied.”

“I MUST find some way to stop Christmas from coming!”

    • Until I can find that perfect something that will spread love, joy, and peace in the hearts of my family
    • So I can capture Christmas wonder in my own heart again
    • Before it’s over and, like last year, I miss the opportunity to inspire others with Christmas cheer

Christmas…Today

Yes, I officially became “Grinchy,” dreading the tomorrow of Christmas, growling at the calendar, drumming my fingers, and covering my ears to all the Noise! Noise! Noise! Noise!

“It’s too much! I can’t make them see. I can’t create that perfect spark to ignite the flame of spiritual passion,” I cried.

But taking a deep breath, I closed my eyes and finally allowed the Whisperer to rest a comforting hand on my weary shoulder. Softly, a melody from my childhood broke through. Exhaling and unclenching my fists, I was reminded about the ‘today of Christmas’:

“How silently, How silently
The wondrous gift is given;
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of his Heaven.
No ear may hear his coming,

But in this world of sin

Where meek souls will receive him still,
The dear Christ enters in.

Christ Born Within

Christmas no longer looms ahead of me; it’s today…right now. I can walk in the Now enjoying the activities of the holiday season because my heart and hope rests in the joys of my salvation. My peace, cheerful countenance, and life in the “blessings of his Heaven” are now my Christmas witness to those around me. That fire reignited in my soul radiates out to those I love, familiar and unfamiliar alike.

The fuzzy green now gone from my complexion, my own heart rejoices in the today of Christmas, for the Lord has come.

“The great, glad tidings tell:
O come to us, abide with us,
Our Lord, Emmanuel.

Read more by Kathleen on her blog Coming2Him.

“I Love That Line!” by Guest Writer Lisa A. Tuttle

CC BY, VinothChandar, Flickr

CC BY, VinothChandar, Flickr

This is the first post in the “I Love That Line!” series that features writers’ reflections on their favorite Christmas carols. Lisa A. Tuttle, aka “Sparky”, writer of Hey Sparky! What Time Is It?, reflects on a verse from “Welcome to Our World.”

Okay, call me a sap, but I love Christmas music. Old English carols, traditional church carols, holiday pop music—I like it all.

Well except for that song “Christmas Shoes”.  It brings out my “Grinchiness.” And although the spell checker indicates “Grinchiness” is not a word, I can spell it and use it in a sentence—and admit to it. You know exactly what I mean. So “Stink! Stank! Stunk!” on you, Spellcheck, and fiddle-dee-dee! and fa-la-la!

Anyway, other than the aforementioned song about holiday footwear for deceased family members, I like it all. Typically, I like the older songs a bit more than the newer ones; but that’s a generalization, not a rule. That detail was broken eleven years ago…big-time.

Welcome, Lord Jesus

In July of 2002, a CD was released by a new artist. Oddly enough, he included a single Christmas song on his otherwise non-holiday recording.

I will never forget the first time I heard it. I got goose bumps listening to this song with lullaby for a tune, sung by a voice that felt like warm honey. The words were simple yet powerful and unlike anything I’d heard before. It stirred a deep aching in me and brought tears to my eyes. All these years later, it still has that effect on me.

The song is “Welcome to Our World” by Chris Rice.

The lyrics of this song are beautiful and replete with a haunting sweetness. The last stanza explains why Jesus came and what it meant for him to do so.

 “So wrap our injured flesh around you;
Breathe our air and walk our sod.
Rob our sin and make us holy,
Perfect Son of God.”

Identified with Us

The Delight of Heaven laid aside the glory of his deity to become a baby and assume our human frailties.

My frailties.

Instead of being worshipped and adored by angels, he became surrounded by rough-skinned, wounded-hearted humans. He wrapped himself in an earth suit prone to breakage and damage.

It’s a mind-blowing thought that God could now be bitten by a fire ant or drink contaminated water and spend the next week running to the waste pit. He could get a sore throat or drop something heavy on his toe and lose his toenail. He could get one of those maddening itches in the middle of his back, the kind you can never reach and isn’t really satisfied by scratching anyway.

Somehow this both comforts me and offends me. I’m offended because I know who he is and what he deserved. A smelly stable birth doesn’t qualify. A fallen body doesn’t qualify. The company of bitter religious men doesn’t qualify. A government hostile to his people doesn’t qualify.

Jesus, the Humble Servant

Yet Jesus knew it would be that way and he came anyway. In the most helpless, dependent form possible, he came and then lived among us submitting to the processes of the human body, soul, and spirit. He didn’t skip puberty; he didn’t skip the mean kids on the playground; he didn’t skip catching colds; he didn’t skip outgrowing his shoes.

He became one of us and never once threw down his “God Card”, not even when he was surrounded by aggressors and betrayers who closed their eyes to the wonder of what a man rightly related to God could do. The signs, wonders, and miracles he showed them meant nothing to them when his goodness threatened their personal religious kingdoms.

When darkness prompted those same aggressors and betrayers to publicly accuse, humiliate, torment, and kill him, he didn’t fight them; instead he voluntarily gave up his very life-breath—and made an incomprehensibly amazing transaction.

Born to Save

Jesus took our diseases, grief, and death-destiny and gave us in return his holiness, cleanness, and honored heavenly position. He made a way to the Father for us that cannot be cancelled or blocked by darkness. He robbed the power of sin leaving it destitute and slack-jawed; and he watched as all that is good and perfect about him was transferred to us as a gift. Ours is an identity we could not achieve for ourselves.

But on that first day when Mary held him, grunting and squeaking in her arms, who could have known any of this?

Indeed, welcome to our world.

Read more by Lisa at her blog Hey Sparky! What Time Is It? 

My Favorite Christmas Gift

CC BY-NC-ND, sparkieblues, Flickr

CC BY-NC-ND, sparkieblues, Flickr

What was the best Christmas gift you ever received?

Mine is a set of Bible commentaries I wanted for about three years. I had desperately needed more study tools and was overdue for a commentary. So I subscribed to Christian Book Distributors and found a set I heard mentioned at a church conference.

The retail price for the 14-volume library was listed as $500, but the wholesaler offered it for $99! Over time I watched the price fluctuate between $129 and $79, yet I never had the extra cash, or guts, to do the deed.

Truthfully, I was trying to talk myself out of the purchase. The commentary couldn’t be as wonderful as the glowing description or as useful as the pastor had suggested. And the retail price: it probably wasn’t true—first $500, now $99? I went to my local Christian bookstore, which I knew didn’t sell the set, and had them price it. Indeed, it was $500 to purchase at face-value. Now there was only one thing for me to do: steal the deal or pretend to need something more.

I mentioned the set to my sister as something I’d like for Christmas, but only as a joke. I was certain no one would be interested in giving me books or wish to spend as much on a single item for me when there were several others to buy for; but I was wrong.

What Is This?

In the chaos of Christmas Day at my mother’s house, I was handed a heavy box from my sister and uncle, which was odd. There was no shaking this solid package. I opened it but it took me a while to figure out what I was looking at. But then I recognized that it was the commentary set, and I froze. My heart began to race and I lit up like the Christmas tree! I couldn’t believe it and felt like crying. As far as I was concerned, Christmas Day could have ended right then.

I am still asked these many years later whether I use the books, and the answer is absolutely and regularly. The volume—Barnes’ Notes On The Bible—has been one of the greatest enrichments to my Christian life. First printed in the mid-19th century, they are indeed classics on the scripture replete with academic study, reflection, and conviction.

Although the volume is still available for purchase, it can be used online free of charge—along with so many other classic sets and tools. This helps when studying and working from the computer, which I’m doing more, although I prefer books.

If there is someone you know who loves the Word of God, consider a gift that will help them study academically and develop an enhanced knowledge of scripture. It would be a gift that never stopped giving.

What was the best Christmas gift you ever received? Share your story.  

Hail Mary, Full of Grace

CC BY-NC, sofi01, Flickr

CC BY-NC, sofi01, Flickr

What endears most of us to Mary is her acceptance of the will of God—“Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word” (Luke 1:38). Hers really is a hallmark example of faith in God’s promise.

What’s peculiar to me, however, is how the scripture seems to commend Mary and her faith. If you’ll recall, after Gabriel leaves her, she packs up and makes haste to see Elizabeth, whose husband, Zechariah, Gabriel had already visited. Elizabeth herself was now six-months pregnant. After hearing Mary’s news, she exclaims, “Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!” (v. 45). Now that’s good.

I Believe!

I love the implications. Elizabeth’s words have some real meaning in them. The odd thing about her life at this moment is that back home Zechariah communicates with her by writing. Did you forget that? Gabriel had struck him mute for disbelieving the promise of God.

Should I ever encounter the angel of God, he’ll have no trouble with me believing!

I wonder how many times Zechariah repented for his disbelief; did Elizabeth ever ridicule him—the priest—for being audacious…with an angel, after all! “Hon, let me get this right: you were scared silly by this messenger, and then you doubted him!” “(Scribble)” Fiction doesn’t get any better than this.

Now can you see why Elizabeth’s words are interesting? And what about Mary? She is newly pregnant and spends the first three months of her pregnancy in Judea with Elizabeth until her ninth. Did Mary leave Nazareth to avoid questions and her community’s disdain? Did God’s holy child become a burden for her to bear once she returned and everyone could infer a possible reason for her absence?

The Light of Promise

One of my favorite preachers, the late Southern Baptist pastor Adrian Rogers, had a good saying he often used: “Don’t doubt in the dark what God has shown you in the light.” Now an angel radiating the glory of God is certainly enough reason to trust and never doubt again, for most of us at least. But circumstance has a way of making us second-guess our faith.

We all know what it’s like to receive the promise of God and, in that moment, feel like we can trust him for anything. Standing in the light of promise gives us a seeming invincibility to doubt, for the promise is as good as possessed. Then, the clouds close and shut out the light. We never knew that daytime could literally turn black as night.

I don’t imagine Mary’s pregnancy and the next few years of her life being the easiest. We cannot know. Sadly, I’m a little more persuaded they were difficult because the devoutest folk can be mean or dispiriting and given to chatter. And how do you convince someone that your child is the long-awaited Messiah? That YHWH is his father, not Joseph, your unwed husband. Maybe strange occurrences swayed a few, but carrying Jesus probably cost Mary some grief.

I firmly believe “Be it unto me” remained her attitude toward God, but it couldn’t have been easy. And before you doubt me on this, going to the cross wasn’t easy for Jesus, although he too was resigned to the will of God.

But Paul calls him the “God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction” (2 Cor. 1:3-4); and I’m sure he allowed the clouds to part from time-to-time to let Mary know…to reassure us that his promise abides. We must know that the darkness is not to be feared and trust that the clouds, although stormy and destructive at times, won’t kill us and cannot possibly extinguish the light of promise.

The Diagnosis

Paul writes, “Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed…without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead…yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith…being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised” (1 Cor. 4:18-21; cf. v. 17).

I look at this verse and see an X-ray of Zechariah and Mary’s conditions. Zechariah doubts God by limiting him to the impotence of his body; but Mary trusts God by telling him, “You have the power to give life where there is none.”

We serve a God whose promises for us are enduring. He wants you and me to simply accept them as true and trust him. You may be in a dark period now hoping for the clouds to part for once; know that the promise still shines. Despite the pain, you will possess everything God has promised you.

The Spectacle of Grace

CC BY, the bbp, Flickr

CC BY, the bbp, Flickr

That night there were shepherds staying in the fields nearby, guarding their flocks of sheep. Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared among them, and the radiance of the Lord’s glory surrounded them. (Luke 2:8-9, NLT) 

God hides big messages in plain sight.

The announcement to the shepherds is my favorite divine encounter story in the Bible. It is obviously a bucolic scene, but there is also featured an enjoyable contrast of rustic earthiness and divine splendor, not unlike the satisfaction of creamy and crumbly in the mouth.

The glory of a single angel is apparently enough to frighten folk stiff. That’s the case throughout scripture, and it was the case with the shepherds. But then all heaven broke loose and the sky filled with the heavenly emissaries shouting praises to God, creating what had to be an overwhelming and spectacular scene of grace-come-to-earth.

I hope God will let us relive these events one day. This one is at the top of my list.

But what about that big message, you said? We know it wasn’t about the angels and the scene itself. And although the angels heralded the birth of the Savior, this isn’t the big message I want you to see. Instead, it deals with…the rustic earthiness and crumbly nature of the recipients: the shepherds.

Life of the Scorned

I’m certain there were many events and incidents the Holy Spirit could have included in the Bible and did not (cf. John 21:25). But I’m glad this particular one made it in.

You see, shepherds were not an esteemed bunch; their reputation was more akin to tax collectors. Although many folk in the Bible, from Abraham to David to Amos, were shepherds and the task was common and respectable for a period of time, the occupation gradually lost its noble standing.

Many shepherds were cheats and thieves and their actions stereotyped the vocation. Society viewed shepherds as untrustworthy and incompetent, second-class citizens; and they were not allowed to hold judicial office or serve as witnesses in court—just like tax collectors.

The youngest son in the home usually tended the sheep. The elder sons would move on to help the father plow, sow, and harvest, so the younger boy would be left with the sheep. If you’ll recall, David was the youngest of his family; and do you remember the scorn he met from his brother Eliab on the battlefield: “What are you doing around here anyway…What about those few sheep you’re supposed to be taking care of?” (1 Sam. 17:28).

Leveled Playing Fields

God preserves this birth announcement for us and with it delivers an enormous message about human social stratification from his point of view. For God has entrusted outcasts and the marginalized with the prize of first knowing that a Savior has come for them and everyone.

Understand, this encounter did not offer these shepherds more reason to know this Messiah would be a spiritual deliverer as opposed to the political one they anticipated. Contrarily, it would have convinced them that he was indeed the long awaited ruler. Signs affirmed the presence and help of Jehovah to the Jews. The revelation of grace and spiritual truth would come later through Jesus himself. Yet this symbolic event serves a bigger point to us.

And this truth is that God’s grace and immense love is all-inclusive, not about caste and class and petty human divisions that disenfranchise and diminish in our eyes the glory of God in one another. Each of us, regardless of our status, morally identifies with the shepherds’ odious reputation and shares the same guilt in God’s eyes. Nonetheless, by grace we stand tall, shoulder-to-shoulder with the rest, and beside Christ in the presence of the Father.

Grace, a Battering Ram

We like to portray grace as sweet and refined—and it is that; but, like the Word of God John was instructed to eat (Rev. 10:9), it can be both sweet to the mouth and bitter to the belly. It is possible to live infatuated with God until his precepts judge and demolish our sinfully convenient and self-serving configurations.

Thus, God chose not to make his announcement to kings and officials, who with this information could conceivably engineer a plan to further their own power, wealth, and corruption—again leaving those with the greatest need with nothing and being deprived.

Instead, God spared no expense in pomp and gallantry on a few men with nothing more to lose in life and so erects an earthly kingdom from the floor-up.

Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.” (1 Cor. 1:26-31, NIV)

More on this topic in “People of Your Kind!”