Friday, November 25, 2011

Gilly’s Choral Christmas Playlist, trk. 1: “A Spotless Rose” - Herbert Howells

          I’m a bit of an explorer when it comes to Christmas music. It feels like I’ve blogged about everything from Sarah McLachlan and Stephen Colbert to David Crowder*Band and Yo-Yo Ma’s duet with Allison Krauss. This year, I’ve decided to give a bit more of a nod to my classical side and attempt to make my conservatory alma mater proud. So . . . choir nerds take heed! This is for you.
          During my years in the Chicago area, my wife and I decided to see St. Olaf’s traveling choir (a very excellent program) as they stopped for a concert at Fourth Presbyterian in Water Tower Place. The sanctuary in the middle of that flourishing tourist haven was visually stunning, and had quite the impressive acoustics. This concert is actually where I first heard the first two “tracks,” of this playlist, the first of which is “A Spotless Rose” by Herbert Howells.

A spotless rose is blowing,
Sprung from a tender root,
Of ancient seers foreshowing,
Of Jesse promised fruit;
Its fairest bud unfolds to light
Amid the cold, cold winder,
And in the dark midnight.

The rose which I am singing,
Whereof Isaiah said,
Is from its sweet root springing
In Mary purest maid;
For through our God’s great love and might,
The Blessed Babe she bare us
In a cold, cold winter’s night.

          The text (Winkworth’s English version of the original German) is arguably based on a combination of Isaiah 11 and 35, where the prophet, using agricultural metaphor, foretells a time of redemption from famine and injustice, and this time of peace and flourishing would come from a descendant of Jesse: Jesus Christ.
          Herbert Howells was a likable English composer among myself and my conservatory colleagues for his borderline atonality. He wrote much in the arena of church music, including a few Magnificats and the longest Stabat Mater.


Thursday, November 17, 2011

Brainstorming on How to Really Keep Christ in Christmas

          It seems to happen every year. Christmas season would not be complete without an issue/dilemma (or a few) of political correctness. This year it’s the naming of a tree in Wisconsin’s Capitol rotunda a “Christmas tree.” Religion is an undeniable part of history and culture. It’s just interesting that anyone (mostly because they lack a little historical and etymological knowledge) could think that it’s even possible to remove all traces of religion from the public square. I could go on and on about that.
          Meanwhile, some have taken up political arms to “keep Christ in Christmas.” This is a good goal for the heart of every Christian: to strive for Christ-likeness in celebrating His birth. However, this cliché mainly seeks to keep Christ’s name (but not necessarily, inadvertently, His honor) in the holiday’s over-commercialization and appearance in the public square.
          If we “fight” to keep Christ’s name and face upfront in the holiday season, yet still celebrate it as do the non-Christians, Christ’s name will be meaningless to them. To keep Christ in Christmas is to honor Him, and emulate the sacrifice, love and charity inherent in His incarnation and earthly life.
          Christmas, in our country, however, has become diluted and drowned in countless traditions. The top lists of Christmas songs have no theological content. Kids behave themselves to get gifts from a creepy, legalistic old toy-distributor who employs elves and flying mammals (kinda sad since he’s based on the legend of a very charitable Christian saint). And it’s become a hay-day for smart retailers who stir up materialism, gluttony and greed. America spends about $450 billion on Christmas every year. In this economy, I’m sure a few could think of a more beneficial or God-glorifying way to use that money. Nonetheless, Black Friday shoppers have literally killed for great deals. Should any Christian want to attach Christ’s name to all that? We should really know what we’re “fighting” for.
          Each Christmas, I try to discipline my mind to downplay the distractions of eggnog and ornaments and I try to remember the original Christmas. I think of the faith of a young married couple, originally pregnant out of wedlock, shamed and rejected by their community, who sacrificed time, energy and reputation to bear the child they (rightfully) believed was the Messiah. I think of how the God of infinite glory was born in a barn and His first “visitors in the hospital” were laughable lowly shepherds. I think about the patience of the faithful followers of God whose families waited through centuries of oppression for a savior.
          But, most of all, I think about Jesus, who didn’t cling to His equality with God, veiled His God-ly attributes and came from the glory of Heaven to the muck of the earth, in human flesh, and lived an impoverished life of love, sacrifice, giving and Truth to His foolish and hurting children. It’s the most loving, sacrificial, relational and communicative thing that’s ever been done. 
          How do we celebrate the arrival of such a sacrificing and all-loving Savior? I’m not totally sure, but the hoarding of opulent food and presents doesn’t seem quite so appropriate anymore. Recently, there debuted a sermon series known as Advent Conspiracy, operating under the tagline that "Christmas can (still) change the world." They have plenty of ideas that arguably make the celebration of Christ’s birth more Christ-like, such as:
  • Spending less on gifts (think of it as a “possessions version” of fasting) to better focus one’s mind on God
  • Giving gifts to the poor, either directly or through supporting charities, sponsoring children, etc. Some have made donations in another’s name as their Christmas gift to that person to encourage charity.
  • Giving the gifts in other love languages. Material possessions aside, there are a lot of people (maybe even in your family and friends) that could use the intangible but eternal gift of a loving relational initiative, whether it’s words of affirmation, quality time, or even forgiveness. Many possibilities on that one.
  • General self-downplay of distractions from worship, which include some Christmas traditions, event and other related logistics, and the shallow over-commercialization that permeates the culture. 
          Yes, Christmas is a “time of giving.” But, using Christ as the model, it’s a time of sacrificial giving to those in need, not so much the time for the newest iPod. If we think of Christ’s incarnation as a template “gift,” we need to remember that His life and death were a sacrifice for the health (physical, relational and spiritual) of others, including those who didn’t love Him back.
          Like I said, I‘m still brainstorming and trying to apply things myself, but I’ve thus far concluded that we need to, simply put, be more Christ-like (and less like a mere Christian version of the complacent American consumer) in order to truly keep Christ in Christmas.        
*More information about Advent Conspiracy can be found at

Monday, November 14, 2011

Happy Birthday to Abby, Our Creative Trooper Princess

          My older daughter is three now. 
          Normally on birthdays celebrated over social media, people post baby/toddler pictures to show how much someone has grown, or “how far he/she has come.” I actually can’t help it but think about how far we can trace Abby back in our crazy and chaotic married/family life. 
          When I first found out my wife was pregnant with Abby, I was a seminary student scrambling behind a sound board at a church plant. When we went to Lake Geneva for our 1-year anniversary, Abby was a baby bump. Christina held her first baby shower while I was doing missions work in Romania. 
          It was a foggy damp night as we drove 20 miles through empty Chicago roads to the big hospital in Evanston, IL (home to the Big Ten’s Wildcats) for Abby to be delivered. She was the 2-week-old star of the Thanksgiving reunion as our parents and some grandparents from both sides of the family crammed into our quaint 2br apartment in a lower-income part of the northwest ‘burbs. 
          When I graduated from seminary, Abby was there. When we moved to Memaw’s house for lack of employment, Abby was there, sleeping in a playpen. And now she’s been courageously participating in the community of our new church family. She likes to dance and sing on the stages at church and wants to go to Awana and ballet class. 
          She was along for the ride of the adventurous and sometimes troubling transitions of our family’s life. 
          A little known story about Abby: Just a few months into Christina’s pregnancy, there came a day that her stomach was so sensitive that she couldn’t even keep water down. We took her to the emergency room late one night to get rehydrated with an IV. I sat and watched my wife sleep there in the half-room, worried about both her and my child in utero. We didn’t know what to expect when Christina was stabilized and a doctor came in to do a sonogram.
          But what we saw was our little baby, bouncing around the womb and clapping her hands. “Oh, you’ve got a feisty one there,” the doctor smiled and said. Our Abby’s a trooper.
          Abby, you are, stubbornly and willfully, our creative little drama-princess. I hope you never lose your imagination or your bleeding heart. I like it when you cuddle up to one of your parents or give your little sister a hug or some help. I like it when you sing and dance, or try different color dresses on your princess dolls. I like it when you take conversational initiative with guests and visiting family, sometimes even more hospitably than me. It’s my privilege to raise you, and you’ll never lose my love and support as a father. 

Friday, November 11, 2011

Word Study: “Relevant,” and How We Need to Let It Be

          As a disclaimer to my fellow closet-seminary-nerds out there, this isn’t the type of word study from a Hebrew, Greek or Aramaic lexicon of the Scriptures that delves into exegetical and etymological studies. This is, rather, a deeper (and somewhat deconstructive) look into various words of modern Christian discourse. In other words, I’m re-evaluating the language of “Christian-ese.” 
          Today’s word: “Relevant”
          It started off as a key element in church advertising. A cutting edge church would brag about its “relevant” messages. Caricatured examples involve frequent references to current events, pop culture and lingo, as well as a watered down and thinned out biblical portion. Many churches with this approach have done well to grow in their regular attendance. I mean, who wouldn’t want to hear an eye-catching and understandable message on a topic that very applicable to an individual’s life?
          There are opposers, however. They (rightfully, I’ll add) question the predominantly topical approach and the shallow involvement of Scripture in sermons. However, the seeming “non-relevance” in what is often their approach (which I’ll get to later) does little to nothing for church growth and even discipleship.
          My stance? Preach the Word, and let it be relevant.
          I think the term is embarrassingly redundant. The Bible is relevant. All of it. To everything. When one looks at a box of mac & cheese and reads the caption “Made with Real Cheese!”, one would think, Of course it’s real cheese. As opposed to what else? Sadly, people have used fake cheese. We do not need to make the Bible relevant. We can only make it irrelevant. We need to let it be relevant.
We make the Bible “non-relevant” when we:

          1. Treat sermons like classroom lectures. Having studied the Bible and theology in academic seminars in my undergrad and grad school, I learned the difference between education and edification. There’s a reason that, in seminaries, there’s a difference in pedagogy between preparing a sermon and preparing a lecture. Academic lectures are primarily meant to feed the mind, and, by New Testament standards, were never meant to be a primary part of gathering. Sermons, on the other hand, are meant to be a healthful and applicable interpretation of the Word that feeds the soul. 
          One animated missions/outreach pastor I once met spoke against his own received compliments, saying, “God doesn’t want to hear ‘nice talk!’ He wants your life.” We need to always remember to “not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says (Jas. 1:22).” Do we really apply the Word to our daily life and strive for biblical living? Or do we just peruse sermons (or even churches) like we’re auditing a class?
          2. Drown the Gospel in temporal addenda. One reason that some people oppose any type of “relevant” message is because they see their own and familiar approach to ministry as more biblical with less or no “packaging.” The problem with this argument, however, is that the Gospel is always “packaged” in some way, and canonizing the cultural “packaging” makes the Gospel itself more implausible and “non-relevant” to others. “Relevant” services, arguably, are a seeming over-reaction to the American church’s aura of insistence that, to be a Christian, you must immediately wear certain professional clothes, appreciate only limited styles of music, speak and understand “Christian-ese,” attend weekly and seeming inapplicable theology/doctrine lectures, and sometimes a whole host of other extra-biblical additions that more than detracted from the life of Truth-inspired love and sacrifice we’re all called to.
          The Gospel is transcendent and timeless. Influential ministers, musicians, ministry fads, kitschy cliches and extra-biblical traditions will all pass away, but the Word of God will remain forever. The communicability of the Word of God from the pulpit to wandering unbelievers is an arguable call Paul makes to the Corinthians. The Gospel, at its core, is a beautiful gift for all the world. Let’s not wrap up the message with any ugly “non-relevant” packaging.
Question of Relevance
          So, how “relevant” is the Bible to you? You’d be surprised. Take for example, Jesus’s command not to divorce (Mt. 5:32). At first, one might brush it off after face value as just another taboo for those in struggling marriages, but it actually applies to everyone. Jesus was, in fact, speaking to a people who had (and used) the power to divorce at the slightest thing (e.g. my wife burned my supper!). Therefore, His command not to divorce isn’t a dispassionate and legalist statement, but rather an encouragement for more grace, forgiveness and love in marriage. This could apply to all relationships and friendships in general.
          Hmm. That passage just became more relevant. I wonder what the rest of the Bible has to say.  

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Go Ahead. Go to Starbucks.

          There’s always a few questions with how Christians should use their money because there’s always paradox and/or tension. We ought to be frugal and charitable, but we can’t always trust what’s cheap. We try not to support business that fuels greed, materialism and other unhealthful mindsets. I’ve, personally, heard a lot of jokes at Starbucks’s expense, but I can tell you that I’d support a Christian that gets their coffee at Starbucks. Contrary to perception, buying from Starbucks is one of the most charitable everyday things an everyday Christian can do.
          Now I know that Starbucks doesn’t always have the charitable aura. They multiplied (maybe even overpopulated) across the world and toted their endless possibilities for coffee-tailoring to fit your style. If there was to be a poster company for kitschy over-commercialization, self-serving materialism and corporate greed, both Christians and non-Christians would nominate Starbucks, along with McDonald’s and maybe a few other hackneyed chains. 
          But that’s an unfair stereotype of Starbucks. There’s a reason or two Starbucks has, unlike many other chains its size, made it onto Forbes and Ethixphere’s list of “most ethical businesses.”
          Their coffee beans and food supplies are “responsibly grown” and “ethically traded,” supporting the farmers' businesses and communities across the world. Their paper is primarily recycled, and many stores give the leftover pastries to a local homeless shelter. Starbucks also supports various charities that don’t get much support, such as Ethos Water or the Red program.
          And what also makes a business ethical is how they treat their employees. About five years ago, I put on a Starbucks apron (as many other seminary students did) looking only to fund my grad school living costs with maybe some pocket change, but I also learned how to better meet people and provide for their needs. Both of my daughters were provided the best local pediatrician care under Starbucks’s very affordable health insurance (and both of them were born during the economy’s downturn).
          I worked at Starbucks for three years, and I still don’t like coffee. It isn’t the perfect business, but it’s not the scrooge that the cynics make to be, either. People may complain about their prices (and believe me, I got more than an employee’s earful when the cost of a drink went up a whopping 10 cents), but they can rest assured that it’s much more likely to fund a local nonprofit charity than a CEO’s personal jet.
          Myself, I’m looking forward to a peppermint eggnog chai, and I’m very curious as to what charitable alliance they will promote this year.