When Life Plays for Keeps

In keeping with all the Olympic metaphors of late I’ll throw one in to the ring as well.

There are days when I feel like I’m playing some type of volleying sport with Life! Unlike the women’s Chinese badminton team, however it seems that Life does not play to lose.

It feels as if Life likes to slam things past me at speeds that make my neck snap. She plays to win and she plays for keeps. Much of Life seems to have to be lived on her terms. After all, we don’t get to choose the diseases we get, the jobs we lose, the children we have or don’t have, or the floods, fires, and famine that plague us. We don’t get to pick our families, our gene pool, or how our ancestors were treated.

On the surface, Life could convince us that we have no recourse but to hand over the match and walk away in a quandary of confusion and convoluted thinking.

As people of faith, however we have another piece that follows us out on to the court and that is the element of belief. We believe that God has uniquely placed us in the story for a purpose. We believe that the purpose is to bring hope and heaven into the darkness – to leave things better than we found them. We believe that Jesus calls us to take who he is into places that don’t know it yet.

I’m learning that we live in that thin, snug space where we experience pain and peace at the same time – where the pain turns out to be the peace. It is the narrow gap between swinging back and despairing that we call home.

When we view life as something to be won instead of something we live, we will be in perpetual conflict. Freedom comes when I see something that isn’t mine to change and instead ask God where to find him in it. That’s far different than hitting it back again and again. On the occasions that I can make a difference it will be from a place of peace and conviction, not because I hit it back enough. It will be more about releasing than resisting.

When it feels like Life is playing for keeps I am reminded that God is the keeper. I experience more comfort in the thin, snug space of what is the more I quite trying to win at life.

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 Redneck Epiphany

I have a friend with whom I meet every other Tuesday morning at Cracker Barrel for breakfast. We have met for a number of years and I always enjoy the times I can glean some wisdom and fresh perspectives from him. Besides, he’s a therapist and I kind of see it as the counseling version of a second opinion.

While waiting for my friend one morning I found myself browsing through their country store that begins putting out its Christmas decorations the day after Easter these days, I’m pretty certain.

As I wandered the exhibits of square-dancing pig salt and pepper shakers and tractor caps that read, “I’m With Stupid” I happened upon an unexpected Christmas moment.

At the top of a pyramid of various angel figurines and boxes loomed a glowing glass figure. It stood three feet tall and had brass wings and a bronze head. The body was an inverted cone of glowing glass that lit up with a champagne glow. As I noticed the glass body of the figure I realized that it was a lava lamp angel. Not just a lava lamp, but one that created ethereal, golden bubbles as the morphing lava swirled and reshaped itself inside. It was mesmerizing.

Suddenly, the overhead music began to play, I Saw the Light! It was like a redneck epiphany! I tried desperately to make sense of the sign that this appointed moment in time must be but alas, nothing came to me. It was simply me, the three feet of lava lamp angel, and I Saw the Light blaring away on the intercom. It was the kind of moment that could have brought a Hee-Haw fan to Jesus! Instead, I merely exhaled the slightest sad sigh to myself before realizing that now when I hear people sharing their stories of angelic encounters in our midst I’ll finally have something personal to share!

Whether through visitations in dreams and visions, messengers in great numbers or as a single agent, angels have played a pivotal role in the story of the gospel. The coming of Jesus is heralded by these beings in praising multitudes from the heavens while others share the foreshadowing of events in dreams and private conversations of the most intimate nature.

It seems that when angels are on the scene there is confrontation, information, and consolation. From the beginning of each conversation the recipients of the news are told not to be afraid and to take heart.

I began thinking about these types of exchanges as they pertain to peace.

Confronting without information is just inviting contention. Merely informing someone with a “just the facts, Ma’am” approach doesn’t get to the heart of anything. Consoling alone can sometimes even be a form of enabling that doesn’t change anyone but instead leaves them feeling justified and entitled in their pain or predicament.

Confrontation with information and consolation is what left Mary speaking the words, “May your word be accomplished in me.” It left Elizabeth saying that the Lord removed her shame from her and it found Joseph taking back his fiancee when shortly before he was planning to call off their marriage and leave her quietly.

Peace was coming face to face with indisputable truth in a consolation that made it seem doable.

Author, monk, and mystic, Richard Rohr says, “The Word of God confronts, converts, and consoles us—in that order.”

As bearers of good news ourselves, can we bring an encounter that is balanced in confrontation, information, and consolation? Can we not fall prey to the emotionally charged temptation with confrontation at the expense of informing and consoling? Can we inform without becoming cold and indifferent to the emotions in the story we are telling? Can we console in love without minimizing the facts as we help our friends own what is theirs in a situation?

I don’t have any personal connections with angels that I know of but I will say that the next time I’m confronted, informed, and consoled I will see that person challenging me as more of a messenger from God instead of writing them off as the cheap lava lamp angel version of a meddling friend.

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.