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A Song For Tonight…

O come, O come, Emmanuel,

and ransom captive Israel;

that mourns in lonely exile here,

until the Son of God appear.

Rejoice!  Rejoice!  Emmanuel,

shall come to thee, O Israel!

 

O come, Thou Wisdom, from on high,

and order all things far and nigh;

to us the path of knowledge show,

and teach us in her ways to go.

Rejoice!  Rejoice!  Emmanuel,

shall come to thee, O Israel!

 

O come, O come, Thou Lord of might,

who to Thy tribes on Sinai’s height

in ancient times did give the law

in cloud and majesty and awe.

Rejoice!  Rejoice!  Emmanuel,

shall come to thee, O Israel!

 

O come, Thou Rod of Jesse’s stem,

from ev’ry foe deliver them

that trust Thy mighty power to save,

and give them vict’ry o’er the grave.

Rejoice!  Rejoice!  Emmanuel,

shall come to thee, O Israel!

 

O come, Thou Key of David, come

and open wide our heav’nly home;

make safe the way that leads on high

that we no more have cause to sigh.

Rejoice!  Rejoice!  Emmanuel,

shall come to thee, O Israel!

 

O come, Thou Dayspring from on high,

and cheer us by thy drawing nigh;

disperse the gloomy clouds of night

and death’s dark shadow put to flight.

Rejoice!  Rejoice!  Emmanuel,

shall come to thee, O Israel!

 

O come, Desire of the nations, bind

in one the hearts of all mankind;

bid every strife and quarrel cease

and fill the world with heaven’s peace.

Rejoice!  Rejoice!  Emmanuel,

shall come to thee, O Israel!

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To Look At….Or To See

Twin Falls

I’ve hiked the trail to Twin Falls outside of North Bend, WA a few times.  And when I say, “a few times,” what I really mean is “a lot.”  A quick tally in my head after a co-worker asked how many times I had been on the trail brought the number close to 20, if you included the potential number of times I will hike it this summer with Summer Program kids.

The reason for the large number is simple:  it’s a great hike for kids from elementary through middle school ages.  This is especially true when the kids are urban kids, often times ones who are on a hike for the very first time.  Over the course of the 3 mile round-trip trail there are climbs that are challenging for most kids, there’s the chance to play around in the South Fork of the Snoqualmie River, you pass an old growth tree that was most likely standing in that same spot when the Union and Confederacy were at war, and there’s the great view of the falls from an observation deck built on the hillside directly across from the falls at the end.  So if you’re scoring at home, there’s a challenge for the kids, there are learning opportunities for them along the way, and then there’s the pay-off of seeing a really cool waterfall.  It’s almost the perfect hike for kids.

As a result of being on the trail so many times with kids over the last 4 summers, I’ve almost got the trail down to a science.  I know where and when the kids will need to stop to rest and drink some water, I know how long it takes groups of different sizes and ages to hike the trail, I’ve got a few educational moments for the kids that I hit on almost every hike, and I know exactly what time we need to turn around in order to get back to the van to beat traffic coming back into Seattle.  I even know a few places to offer a bathroom stop before we get to the trailhead since 95% of the kids would rather be in the agony that comes with holding it than go into the non-flushing trailhead “outhouse”.

This in-depth knowledge of the trail can be both a positive and a negative however.  On the one hand, I feel pretty confident about taking any group out there at any point.  On the other hand, the trail can become incredibly monotonous.  Rarely is there something new to see for me, and if there is it’s a slug on the trail or 4 chipmunks hoping for dropped crumbs at the benches rather than 3.  Sometimes, like Henry David Thoreau talks about in his essay, “Walking,” I can drift through the entire hike in body only, without ever getting there in spirit.

That wasn’t the case last week though.  Last week I hiked the trail twice: once with an elementary group and once with a middle school group.  Even though several of the kids from both groups had done the hike with me before, these two days both offered the chance to hike the trail as if I was doing it for the first time.  Everything was amazing to the kids, from the trees to the water to the birds singing to the waterfall.  Cameras and camera phones were clicking left and right, and around almost every corner one of the kids let out a “WHOOOOOAA!” reaction to something they were seeing.  For 4 hours over the course of 2 days, I was brought back to the reason I love the outdoors:  the opportunity to explore, to be inspired, to see something new, to feel small, and to step away from the frantic pace of the city.

Thoreau also once said, “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.”  My job for the summer is to take kids into the outdoors and show them the wonders of Creation.  But for these two days last week, the opposite was true:  the kids were showing those wonders to me.  They were enabling me to once again see the things that I had fallen into only looking at.

Sunday Jazz

Ok, I’ll admit it:  I didn’t go to church today.  See, I’ve been battling a nasty cough and fatigue for roughly a month now, and the combination of feeling relatively human again and near-80 degree weather proved too much for me…..I went fishing.  Since all of the rivers around are either closed or blown out right now, I turned my attention to a solid tide and a day to explore some new beaches on Puget Sound.  What I didn’t except from the day however, was that while the fishing was pretty good and the weather was unbelievable, my favorite part of the day came courtesy of the extra time spent driving in the car.  And NPR.

Almost 20 years ago I was about to enter 6th grade, and I had a big decision to make.  I had already signed up for band class as an elective in middle school, but I hadn’t yet made up my mind about what instrument I wanted to play.  There were two previously used choices in our house already–a snare drum that my brother had played in middle school band a few years earlier, and an old trumpet that had belonged to our dad.  Eventually the trumpet won out, in part because of an image I had in my head of a famous trumpet player whose face inflated like a balloon when he played a custom trumpet that was tilted at a funny angle.  I would soon learn from my brother that his name was Dizzy Gillespie, and for whatever reason I thought that having my face resemble a bullfrog while playing a trumpet was exactly the direction my musical career needed.  A few months later I picked the trumpet as the instrument I wanted to play in middle school band.

What I didn’t realize at the time was that while my balloon face music career really didn’t have much of a future (I was decent, but not great), the early exposure to Dizzy Gillespie that started with a single cassette tape of an album entitled “A Night In Tunisia” would spawn a love for Jazz music that would soon dominate my CD collection.  In high school, while my friends’ CD wallets were full of Green Day, Rage Against the Machine, and Dave Matthews Band albums, mine was full of Donald Byrd, John Coltrane, and Miles Davis (with some of the other stuff mixed in there just to reassure my friends that I wasn’t a complete dork).  My room at home was soon decorated with posters of the “Blue Train” album cover and images of my 3 favorite trumpet players:  Miles, Dizzy, and Louis Armstrong.  Heck, even my original AOL log-in name was “Satchmo” as a shout out to Louis Armstrong.  A bit obsessive?  Don’t judge me.

Jazz remained a staple in my my CD collection all the way through college, but when I moved to Seattle I was forced to leave my large Jazz CD collection back in North Carolina.  Sure, I bought an occasional album here and there that I didn’t already own, and I had a bunch of Jazz saved on my laptop computer, but over the last 8 years the love of Jazz had fizzled to the point that it was more of an occasional enjoyment.

All of that started to change about 8 months ago when I realized that the Half-Priced Books store closest to us had begun selling re-released copies of some of Jazz’s all-time great albums on vinyl (ok, so if you’re scoring at home, I’ve referenced cassette tapes, CD’s, and now vinyl–I’ll just go ahead and say “8 track tapes” to cover all bases).  Needless to say I purchased a few and began listening to them occasionally on our record player.  A few months ago at dinner with a couple we were quickly becoming friends with I learned that the husband is a classically trained Jazz guitar player, and this information opened the floodgates of conversation around Jazz favorites.  This ultimately culminated in an Easter dinner with them, another couple we’ve known for several years, both couples’ children running around, and Jazz music floating through the air during all of it.  To say that the fire had been re-stoked would be a bit of an understatement.

Which brings us back to today.  When I left home this morning my radio was tuned to the local NPR station after having listened to “Car Talk” yesterday afternoon while doing errands.  The morning portion of the drive where my brain was not yet awake enough to focus on more than driving and fishing was filled with the news and part of another program.  After my 2nd or 3rd stop at a beach I returned to my car to find that the programming had shifted to Jazz.  Over the course of the next 5 hours of driving, stopping to fish, driving some more, stopping to fish some more, and then driving a bit more, Jazz remained the programming for the duration of it all.  Basically I spent most of my day driving with the windows down on a spectacular May afternoon, with the Olympics and Mt. Rainier popping up in a crystal clear fashion from time to time, catching a few fish here and there, and all the while drifting along to Count Basie, Lee Morgan, and Chet Baker.

Once I returned home, thoroughly back on the Jazz-wagon, I started thinking about why I loved Jazz so much when I was younger, and why I appreciate it and love it even more now.  Sure, there was the hope that wearing Miles Davis t-shirts and making my face puff up while playing the trumpet would make me cooler (which didn’t work, by the way), and even still today there can be a bit of pride in hanging my hat on a form of music that a lot of people my age don’t appreciate.  But I think the reason that Jazz holds so much for me is that it serves as a bit of a metaphor for life and faith.  There’s an unbelievable amount of depth to it.  There’s raw emotion that is poured in that also then pours right back out.  There’s joy and there’s pain, and those two emotions can often be separated by the thinnest of lines (or notes).  More than anything though, there’s a spontaneity (even in the composition of the big band era arrangements) that leaves the listener on edge to see what’s next, and it’s in this spontaneity that room is left for us to realize that we have a voice and a part.   It’s in this spontaneity that all of our rough-around-the-edges components and diverse sounds can blend into a harmony in the hands of a master composer.  It’s in this willingness to accept spontaneity that we realize that we don’t have to provide all the answers to all the questions if we’re willing to follow the composer–that there’s room for things to not always make sense.  And it’s in this opportunity to explore spontaneity that we can ultimately find freedom, because we follow a God that wants us to live and use and explore our gifts and talents released from the fear of failure and self-doubt.

While I’m in no way saying that my new plan is to skip church every Sunday to listen to records here at the house, I do believe that God did a little something for me through NPR today.  If as a result that means incorporating a bit more Jazz back into my daily routine in order to remind me of a few things, then I’m more than fine with that.  Who knows, I might even start posting some songs or videos on here just for fun too.  If I’m going to start that, I might as well start with a place similar to where I started some 18 years ago.  Enjoy.

A Song for Good Friday

Sometimes the best words to sum up how you’re feeling in a given day aren’t even your own.  I’ve found that expressing my thoughts on the death of Christ on this Good Friday would best be done by a relatively new song entitled How Deep the Father’s Love For Us–a song that we’ve sung several times over the last few months at church.  It’s a song written by Stuart Townend, and thought it’s only a few years old, it’s one that has the simple rythmns of a song that could be hundreds of years old.  Enjoy.

“How deep the Father’s love for us,
How vast beyond all measure
That He should give His only Son
To make a wretch His treasure

How great the pain of searing loss,
The Father turns His face away
As wounds which mar the chosen One,
Bring many sons to glory

Behold the Man upon a cross,
My sin upon His shoulders
Ashamed I hear my mocking voice,
Call out among the scoffers

It was my sin that left Him there
Until it was accomplished
His dying breath has brought me life
I know that it is finished

I will not boast in anything
No gifts, no power, no wisdom
But I will boast in Jesus Christ
His death and resurrection

Why should I gain from His reward?
I cannot give an answer
But this I know with all my heart
His wounds have paid my ransom”

Abiding Amidst Adversities

Although I cannot claim to have read all of The Bible, I don’t think it would be a stretch to say that there are very few verses from Genesis to Revelations with more importance than the 5th verse of John 15:  “I am the vine; you are the branches.  If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.”  In essence, Jesus is summing up the entirety of his teachings into two sentences and is offering the blueprint for how the disciples are to carry on once he is gone.  It’s no wonder, then, that this teaching is one of the last ones given to the disciples.

Since I’m in a “venturing out onto a limb” mood, I’ll also say that there aren’t many verses that are tougher for us to swallow than verses 2 and 3 of James 1:  “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.”  In times of joy or contentment this verse might not seem so difficult.  But step back into one of the dark times of your life and then think about finding pure joy there.  Further still, step into that time of your life and consider what it means to remain with Christ throughout the depths so that joy and perseverance and fruitfulness can be obtained.  Now we begin to see the depth of meaning behind, and difficult nature of, Jesus’ words.

But here’s where things get interesting.  Jesus wasn’t telling us to remain in him as he remained in us from some distant mountaintop where everything is neat and clean all the time.  Instead, his words came directly after washing his disciples’ feet, having Judas leave in order to betray him, after telling Peter that he would deny Jesus three times, and after attempting to explain to the disciples the crucifixion that awaited him.  In essence, he spoke these words in the midst of his darkest hour, in the midst of his toughest trial, directly before this group of disciples that he was telling to remain in him would all abandon him.  And yet his message to them was still to remain as he remained.

As we consider that point, the good news in these two passages starts to come into focus.    See, it’s not that remaining is in any way easy.  Neither is finding joy in the midst of trials.  But if we are to remain as Jesus remains we must be willing to walk through the midst of our trials and dark times with the full knowledge of an omnipotent plan that leads to joy on the other side.  In essence we must be willing to pray both sentences of Jesus prayer in Gethsemane:  “If it is possible may this cup be taken from me.  Yet not as I will, but as you will.”

At the point where we learn to lean into God’s plan for our lives, even in the darkest of times, our reward is to know what it means to be attached to the true vine that is the very source of pure joy.  May God help us in our pursuit.

Reflection on Hebrews 10

In my first few years of truly knowing and following Christ, I based my actions and routines on other Christian role models around me.  My thinking was that since they seemed mature and happy and growing in their faith, then my success hinged on my ability to mirror them as closely as possible.  It failed miserably.  I grew increasingly frustrated because the things that brought them life weren’t bringing me life.  Roughly 4 years into my faith walk, I felt as though I was beating my head against a wall, making “sacrifices” that would hopefully be pleasing to God, pleading for God to intervene so that I could realize some growth, and on the verge of shutting the whole thing down.

As we enter into the Advent Season, some of us might feel the exact same way:  burnt out, frustrated, stuck in the same routines, and unable to understand why all of our hard work—our sacrifices in the name of Christ—aren’t leading to a deeper joy or growth.  We’ve become like the priests in Hebrews 10: “day after day standing and performing (our) religious duties; again and again (we) offer the same sacrifices, which can never take away sin”…or lead to joy…or help us get out of the rut we’re stuck in.  That was me, 10 years ago—and if I’m honest, can still be me today.

The reason that I didn’t shut the whole thing down was because of a prayer prayed over me by someone I barely knew.  They prayed that God would break through and reveal a faith that wasn’t based solely on the faith of others—that I would realize His desire for a personal, intimate, individual relationship with me.  At that moment I realized that faith isn’t about checking off boxes for the sake of checking them off, just like sacrifice was never intended to become a meaningless routine—even if routines and boxes become comforting in our moments of crisis and doubt.

And there-in lies the beauty of Advent and Christmas:  It’s the time of year where we wait and expect God to turn the entire system upside down.  It’s when we await the birth of the “priest (who) offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, and sat down at the right hand of God, and since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool.  For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy…And where these (sins) have been forgiven, sacrifice for sin is no longer necessary.”

My prayer this Advent Season is that we might allow ourselves to relax into deep relationship with God, away from the confines of structures and sacrifices and box-checking, which is made possible because of the arrival of the King.

Reflection on Isaiah 11

This year for Advent the church that we attend put together a daily devotional written and edited by members of the congregation.  I wrote two, one focused around Isaiah 11 and the other around Hebrews 10.  Here is the one for Isaiah 11, with the Hebrews 10 one to follow in a few days.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell if we live in a black and white world, or a grey one; a cut and dried world, or a world of paradoxes.  On the one hand, just a few weeks ago our country was deeply entrenched in the labeling of ourselves as either Democrat or Republican.  On the other hand, we live in a country deeply mired in a 4 year recession, and yet we still manage to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to go see “The Avengers.”  We simultaneously want to preach the American dream where anybody can succeed if they only put forth the effort, but we also can be quick to define who and what is acceptable.  But it’s not just us.  These same divisions and desires have driven humanity almost since day one.

So what does this have to do with Advent?  Maybe nothing.  Or maybe everything.  As I’ve been thinking about Isaiah 11:1-9 over the last few days, it’s dawned on me that Christmas is the ultimate balancing act between the black and white and the paradoxical.  Here we have the birth of a child to an unwed mother, in a country where he wasn’t a citizen, into an economically dire situation, and yet this child was born in the knowledge that he was both fully God and fully human and was the Savior of the world.  This child came to teach a message that was both black and white (“love the Lord your God with all your heart, and your neighbor as yourself”) and a complete puzzle (“the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed”). 

That this child fulfills the prophecy in Isaiah 11 is yet another example of this.  In these 9 verses it says that he won’t judge with his eyes or ears, but with righteousness and justice, and he will strike the earth and slay the wicked not with bombs and technological warfare, but with the breath of his mouth—his words. And then there’s the pairings:  the wolf and the lamb; the leopard and the goat; the calf and the lion; the infant and the cobra.  All of these natural enemies will live together and lie down together because of the presence of this “shoot from the stump of Jesse”—Jesus. 

Advent, then, becomes a time for us to examine how we live between the black and white, and the grey—between the here and now and the not yet.  It gives us the chance to live in the paradox of being able to sing “Come thou long expected Jesus” and live into the salvation given through Jesus 2000 years ago.  It gives us the chance to rethink everything that we know about God stepping into the world in both a black and white and paradoxical way, because He knew that the world needed to see both.