Done With Christmas!

Okay, I’m just going to say it – I am REALLY done with Christmas this year.

I don’t mean to sound like Scrooge’s successor but for a myriad of my own reasons I was done with Christmas before Christmas this year. I suspect I’m not alone.

I had nightmares of being led out of Best Buy in handcuffs and having to decide whether to include my mugshot in my Christmas letter or not.

I was fairly certain that I was going to have a meltdown that would make the glassy-eyed woman in the Target commercials look emotionally well adjusted.

Probably somewhere between pulling off three Christmas Eve services (leading two of them myself) and an additional Christmas Day service, musicians and singers dropping on me like flies from any number of flu strands and family conflicts, my beginning a Christmas piano project to release next year as well as trying to pull together what Christmas for my own family would look like, I just decided that I was done with Christmas before it ever got here this year.

Factor in a couple of unforeseen medical specialists in December for my wife and one unanticipated ER visit for her the week before Christmas Eve and my toaster was moving toward the scorch setting.

So, in the spirit of the season (and in a feeble attempt at maintaining my sanity and sense of humor) I decided to list a few of the ways that, if you’re like me might indicate that you could be getting close to “done” with Christmas this year.

You might be done with Christmas if …

… you procrastinated your shopping to the point that the valet parking rate at the mall sounded reasonable.

… when choosing a gift for your wife you seriously consider fashion advice from a sales woman in a pantsuit that looks like it came from the Kim Jong iL collection.

… you are tempted to finally send the “honest” Christmas letter this year because you know that everyone has seen your teenager’s Facebook page anyway.

… you realize that you have raised children who expect Santa to show up at the Christmas Eve service.

… you see the elf from Macy’s taking a smoke break outside and you ask him if you can bum one off of him.

… your boss has left candy canes in everyone’s boxes with a note that says, “Thanks for a great year!”, and you realize it is your Christmas bonus.

… when the entire mall starts to look like one big tacky Christmas sweater party to you.

… you find yourself carrying pepper spray, not for the potential muggers in the parking lot, but to protect yourself from the salespeople with the cologne spritzers in the department stores.

… the Carol of the Bells playing overhead in the stores starts to resemble a Mayan war chant in your head!

… walking through the Galleria feels like you’re participating in the Running of the Bulls.

… you have enough fudge and leftovers to last until the Spring thaw provided you don’t eat yourself into hibernation (otherwise known as a diabetic coma).

… you have to resort to installing an electronic invisible fence around your refrigerator to keep from helping yourself to a cheesecake or your third breakfast of the day!

… you have fantasies about ripping off those crazy antlers and reindeer noses from the Escalades that take up two parking spaces at Target!

… when someone gives you a sticker that says, “Jesus Is the Reason for the Season” you decide to blow off shopping and just take Jesus to Starbucks for a Venti Soy Chi.

So, by next week I’m sure I’ll be back to my old self. I’ll be ready to blog again about the compelling things I’m reading, the perspectives on faith, culture and hope that resonate with me, and maybe even share a few thoughts I have for the New Year.

For now, … well, for now I’m just done with Christmas.

The Bethlehems of Our Lives

Do you have a memory of a time when your experience of the presence of Jesus was palpable? I don’t mean an emotional moment or a campfire conversion in grade-school. I mean a time and place of simplicity and humility. A season when there was nothing glamorous about you left and your persona had finally turned you in. You had come to the end of yourself and wondered why it had been such a long trip. At the end of that road was an encounter so profoundly silent and powerful that it could hardly be articulated yet it was as if something has just passed through you.

Phillips Brooks, the rector of the Church of the Holy Trinity of Philadelphia in 1865 was on a year long tour of Europe and the East when he penned one of America’s most loved and well known Christmas poems.

One evening after an early dinner he and his fellow travelers rode on horseback through the Eastern countryside and came upon the simple town of Bethlehem. He was intrigued by the way the small town was situated on a range of hills and terraced gardens. After passing fields where shepherds were still tending their flocks he imagined a night long ago when over the same fields angels appeared to a band of ragtag misfits announcing the coming of the Savior.

Moved by the humble surroundings in which God chose to bring himself in human flesh into the world, Brooks began to pen the words to the Christmas carol known as, O Little Town of Bethlehem. The beauty of the poem is in its simplicity, much like the beauty of Bethlehem herself.

It was a couple of years later that the poem was set to music by Brooks’ organist, Lewis Redner and later performed in a Sunday School program for children. Redner is said to have been awakened in the night with an “angel strain” playing in his ear and quickly grabbed staff paper, jotted down the melody and set the harmony to it at the church the following morning which was a Sunday in December of 1868.

It was over twenty years later that the song, after growing in popularity finally made its way into a hymnal for the Protestant Episcopal Church. It is now one of the most recognized carols of our time.

The simple melody fit the simple lyric. The simple lyric fit the humble, secluded town which inspired it.

Bethlehem, mangers, stables, shepherds; it is in the most humble and desperate of circumstances that Jesus shows up. It is in the Bethlehems of our lives that we find Jesus. It is in the stables and the mangers of our story, those seasons when the shine has worn off that we entertain an encounter with a Savior.

As Phillips Brooks wrote:

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.

The Beautiful Dissonance of Advent

“The extraordinary thing that is about to happen is matched only by the extraordinary moment just before it happens. Advent is the name of that moment.” Frederick Beuchner, Whistling In the Dark

When I was a young piano student my teacher would take me to a number of concerts featuring our local philharmonic orchestra and guest instrumentalists. I studied piano at the University of Evansville Preparatory School of Music and had the same piano professor from the time I was in the fourth grade until I graduated from high school. I was in grade school when she first offered me those unique opportunities to experience such amazing musical performances.

Such sophisticated events were always a treat for me. My mother would get out my suit and make sure I was crisply pressed. She also managed to confiscate my chewing gum and make sure that I had one last crash course in Manners 101 before going out the door to the local concert hall in our Indiana town.

The anticipation would first begin to stir within me when my teacher even mentioned a new guest pianist that would be coming to perform with the symphony. When the day arrived I was giddy and could think of nothing else. Getting ready to go wasn’t my favorite part but if it takes wearing a suit in order to hear such irresistible music then so be it.

When we arrived at the auditorium an usher with a tiny flashlight would escort us to our seats in the dimly lit venue. Even the twilight level of the lights told me that I was in for something incredible and extraordinary. Sitting down in the spring-loaded theater seats my freshly polished dress shoes barely touched the floor as I fumbled with my program and fidgeted with excitement.

Eventually, the orchestra members, all in concert black, filed to their respective positions on the stage and took their seats. The concertmaster rose to the podium and upon a cue from him a most unusual and unexpected sound arose from the cavernous stage. It was the most dissonant and yet strangely transcendent bouquet of tones. It began with a few instruments on the same pitch and then it was joined by other instruments a fifth above or a fourth below. The swirling passages by flutes and clarinets practicing one last pass of runs that would be played masterfully later emerged in the thick sonic sauce known as tuning the orchestra.

The tones grew louder as they resonated and bellowed out into the massive concert hall. There was nothing particularly beautiful about this sound but it set the stage for what was to come and it created anticipation in us for that moment we had all waited weeks to experience. It was also a vital part of making beautiful music.

Suddenly there was silence. It was as if the air had been sucked from the room. The twilight setting of the lights faded away to darkness and even the tiniest bit of murmuring in the auditorium ceased. There was a holy hush that fell upon the room as if every person was holding their breath. It was an extraordinary moment before an extraordinary happening.

From the wings of the stage a rotund man in a tuxedo and tails emerged bathed in a white spotlight holding a baton as if it were a fragile reed. The spontaneous applause that broke forth from the audience was thunderous and wholehearted. The conductor bowed humbly acknowledging our generosity and then took the podium where every eye was completely fixed on his suddenly stalwart countenance.

He raised his baton with the grace of a feather floating upward. The silence was deafening and we, the audience desperately needed to exhale as we waited for him to unleash what would become two hours of the most beautiful music ever written.

To borrow Frederick Beuchner’s analogy, the moment that the baton is raised becomes the extraordinary moment before the extraordinary happening that we have been waiting for. As he said, this extraordinary moment is called Advent.

As I began to ponder the season of Advent this year it reminds me a great deal of the experiences I had as a youngster listening to the orchestra preparing to play. We must expect some beautiful dissonance before the peace is delivered that has been promised. Life has some artistic discord that must be embraced in that preparation season.

What does life look like when the baton is raised? Those moments find us walking a friend through their grief, meeting a monetary need, showing mercy to the sick, sitting with a troubled young woman with a difficult decision to make, spending our days mentoring a young man who has no father – these are the moments the lyric of O Come, O Come Immanuel paints so well.

This is the beautiful dissonance. Christ has come and this is what he looks like.

The beautiful dissonance of Advent is to be savored. It is the season of extraordinary opportunities, extraordinary anticipation, and extraordinary joy before the baton falls and the most beautiful music is unleashed upon us. We are enjoying the tension of that extraordinary moment before the extraordinary happening. In this anticipation is joy and shalom, the peace He came to bring.