Thursday, December 25, 2014

Have a Merry Christmas!

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. -Isaiah 9:6

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Hopes and Fears of All the Years

If Christmas carols bring to mind images of hot chocolate and coziness, you have them in the wrong mental category. Carols contain some of the deepest theology of all hymnody. If you don’t believe me, you should spend some time with “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” or “Joy to the World.”
While “O Little Town of Bethlehem” may be associated with nativity plays and children nestled all snug in their beds, it contains this bold and compelling claim: “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”
What does this mean? How were the hopes and fears of all the years met in Bethlehem the night Jesus was born?
You can read the rest here.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

From Disbelief in Santa to Belief in Jesus

There are some interesting points and connections in this article.

I used to hang around the mall and tell kids there is no Santa. I’d buttonhole them after they’d exited the fat man’s lap. Come here, kid, I got some news for ya. I didn’t do it because I was mean. I did it because I was 13 and in the mood to share my own disillusionment. I told myself that I had a higher purpose. I’d come to believe that faith in Santa stood behind a loss of faith in general— churches shuttered, pews empty. Some blamed Darwin. I blamed that sleigh-crazed fat man from the frozen north.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Charles Dickens and Christmas

For those that wonder about where we've gotten all of our various extra-biblical Christmas traditions, you'll find this article very interesting.

A hundred and seventy one years and two days ago, Charles Dickens first published A Christmas Carol. Like many others, my Christmas always starts with him. People say Dickens invented Christmas: he didn’t – though he aided its revival. Britain’s newly urban population didn’t have much energy or opportunity to celebrate it, thanks to the extremely un-festive combination of long hours of unregulated industrial toil and displacement from the rural communities they’d grown up in. Dickens was the most successful of numerous cultured Victorians keen to revive the season, both out of nostalgia for the (more fondly than accurately) remembered country Christmases of yore and a sense of social conscience.
Many of our ideas about what makes a merry Christmas (including the phrase itself) were his first. Dickens placed charity at the heart of the season and made us hope for snow. In his imagination Christmas was always white, which his biographer Peter Ackroyd puts down to the eight unusually cold, happy winters of his boyhood, before his father, John, ended up in debtor’s prison.
So, if you're planning on it, go on and have a Dickens of a Christmas!
You can read the rest here. HT: Lauren Laverne

Friday, December 19, 2014

Friday Fun: Sheboygan Scanner in BuzzFeed

The twitter account of the police scanner of Sheboygan, WI, where I've been serving in ministry for the past 4.5 years, has made it to BuzzFeed as "The Best Police Scanner You Aren't Following."

You can read what they deem as the best tweets here.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Happy Christmas from the Middle East

Canon Andrew White (AP)
A Christmas message from a pastor who has shepherded refugees suffering the ISIS onslaught.

The fact is that Christmas has one reason only -- that Jesus was indeed born. Throughout history from the Jewish tradition there was the profound belief that one day the Messiah, the anointed one of God, would be born. He would be the one who would lead people to their heavenly father God. He would be the one who would change peoples understanding of God forever. He would be the one known as the King of Kings.
Yet he was not born of the right stock, he was born of an unmarried mother who was no more than a refugee. She gave birth to her son in a grotty stable, in a grotty little town just outside of Jerusalem called Bethlehem. Not a very grand start for the person who would change history. From the day he was born history was divided into before him BC or after him AD. Those who follow that refugee child now call themselves Christians.
Christmas is also a time when you assess what has happened over the past year. For me this year has been so hard because I am not the vicar in a leafy Parish in the Hampshire/Surrey boarders where my family live. My parish is Baghdad in Iraq. The nation where the Christians have been dismissed from their hometowns in there hundreds of thousands. They have fled in their masses to the very North of Iraq fleeing the onslaught of the terrorist group known as ISIS. There for weeks my staff team have fed and clothed, provided mattresses and cradles for the thousands and thousands of internally displaced people.
Here in their refugee camp, the Christians with no Christmas like us in the West have placed a refugee tent for Jesus, and there in the camp is a tent for another person who was also a poor refugee who had nothing.
This Christmas as we celebrate what we have, let us not forget that we too are celebrating the birth of a refugee who had nothing but gives us everything. As we delight in what we can give to people this Christmas let us not forget what this Christmas is really about: the time when this refugee child comes to all of us as the one who leads us to God and offers us the most wonderful gift possible this Christmas. Christmas is all about relationship with our ultimate creator.
You can read the rest here.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The American Jeremiad

An intriguing biblical and historical look at the notion of "good ol 'days," "golden eras" and our country's seeming moral decline.

You don’t need me to tell you that things are not what they once were for Christians in America. Much has changed in the last two decades, let alone the last two centuries. And some of this change hasn’t been good—not for America, not for American Christianity.
But there is a way of responding to declension—real or imagined—that only compounds the problem. We must guard against any response to decline that appeals to a past that never existed or to a future that God hasn’t promised us. In this article, I merely wish to sketch a cautionary tale. Narratives of decline, especially in our American context, build on an approach to history with a long history of its own.

You can read the rest here.  

Friday, December 12, 2014

Friday Fun: Home Free's "Angels We Have Heard on High"

"Home Free," the most recent winners of The Sing-Off, have made a music video for "Angels We Have Heard on High" from their Christmas album. They strive for hymnbook chord modulations, and I especially enjoy the little trill in the melismas.

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Vote for Your Favorite Christmas Hymn

The Huffington Post decided to have a vote among their readers for the best Christmas hymn. And these are hymns with theological clout, not the radio-popular carols that mostly talk about winter and/or Santa's operations. So far, "O Holy Night" is winning.

You can view the contestants and vote here.

Let me know if you come up with or see any trash talk in a "best Christmas hymn" contest. I'd be really curious.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Churches and Architecture: Round or Linear?

One blogger I follow on Patheos's Evangelical Channel reposted a recent editorial from the Catholic Channel. I use the word "editorial" precisely because this article seems a bit like a tirade that assumes a few things, especially about the common churchgoer's supposed frustration with "round" church facilities (seemingly defined as anything other than linear seating arrangement, including amphitheater-like settings). He shows pictures of some modern churches and their amphitheater-like seating arrangements and writes:

Have you noticed that nobody loves modern churches? Nobody. I mean NOBODY.

Seriously. Have you ever met anyone who sees a church like this and and heard them whisper, “I just love that church! It is so inspiring!”.

No. Never.

Have you ever gone into a “worship space” like this and heard someone say how awed they were to be in the presence of God? I doubt it.  

That’s because these buildings were not designed to inspire awe or to remind you about the presence of God. They are people centered, not God centered. They are auditoria, not temples.

You can read the rest here. He does bring up some points from Old Testament temple construction and Roman Catholic history. Architecture is also a form of art with which we worship, like music. Like music, architecture in the church must always deal with the balance of aesthetic and function. Like music, architecture in the church has suffered centuries of debate over what God's plan and use for it really is. And, like music, the debate of architecture in the church really seems tangential when we think of the churches of pre-Constantine Rome or modern China.

What are your thoughts on church architecture and how it does or does not affect our communion with God on Sunday morning gatherings?

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Three Reasons Why We Sing in Church

Christianity is a singing faith. It’s one of the chief things followers of Jesus are renowned for, both down through the ages and now all around the world. While the proportion of singing has varied from time to time and from place to place, most churches today devote about a third of their gathering time to congregational singing and invest a considerable amount of time, money, effort, and energy into the musical side of church life.
But why do we sing? What does our singing accomplish? What purposes does it fulfill? According to Scripture, God has both created and called us to sing for three principle reasons: to help us praise, to help us pray, and to help us proclaim. Let’s look at each of these reasons in turn.
1. Singing Helps Us Praise
2. Singing Helps Us Pray
3. Singing Helps Us Proclaim
You can read the explanations here.
HT: Rob Smith

Monday, December 8, 2014

Special Personal Announcement: God's Calling

Yesterday, during Sheboygan Evangelical Free Church’s morning services, it was announced publicly that, this next month, my wife Christina and I are following what we believe to be God’s calling in returning to the Chicago area to serve Him in ministry. This calling stems from my growing heart to serve a multi-cultural church in a highly urbanized location, and my wife’s growing heart to learn more about vocational ministry. This call brought us two opportunities:

1) I have accepted a call to serve as the Worship Leader for Skokie Valley Baptist Church, a multi-generational and multi-ethnic church with the Baptist General Conference in Wilmette, IL. 

2) Christina has been accepted on a scholarship at Wheaton College Graduate School to pursue her Master of Arts in Christian Formation and Ministry with a focus in Church and Parachurch ministry.

We will be leaving our current home and ministry in Sheboygan County and moving to the Chicago area in January of 2015. In the meantime, I’ll be working with staff and volunteers on the transition plan.

We will miss serving in Sheboygan Evangelical Free Church and are grateful how the church family, beginning with Pastor Mark Steele, took me under its wing, almost fresh out of seminary and invested and cared for him in his first full-time ministry. From the keytar and the accordion to brass/string arrangements to the wonderful plays this church has produced, it’s been a wonderful 4-1/2 years, and we look forward to keeping in contact and visiting on occasion. We have learned so much about ministry in our years here and are so thankful to have been serving with you!

Friday, December 5, 2014

Friday Fun: Acapella Nutcracker

This video by the acapella sensation Pentatonix has been out in cyberspace for a few days now, but I think it deserves a lot more attention. Pentatonix has now covered Tchaikovsky's "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy," bringing pop acapella into the world of classical music. Has this been done before? If so, let me know of some examples. The Nutcracker's "Russian Dance" was one of my favorite pieces as a kid (I played it on the piano for a recital in 4th grade), so I listened to a decent amount of Tchaikovsky. Pentatonix's arrangement and execution seems to nail the chromaticisms, modulations and complex chords of the barely-tonal piece Tchaikovsky intended. On top of tackling this work, Pentatonix creatively added some vocal percussion and, I think, made a slight homage to Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" music video. Enjoy!

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Top 7 Bible Verses for Christmas Cards

These Bible verses might be good choices as you write Christmas cards and find other ways to communicate the message of Christmas to others this year.

Isaiah 9:2
John 1:29
Luke 1:37
John 1:9-10
Psalm 117
Matthew 3:17
John 3:16

Read the explanations here.

HT: Grace Robinson

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

This Year's Christmas Musical Feast

My family and I have the blessing of being introduced to a variety of Christmas music this year. Some of it is new; some of it we just discovered. In the past, my Christmas music was mostly defined by a collection of a late 80's/early 90's CCM compilation that I snuck into my mom's shopping bag at my Christian grade school fair. That music was good, but I've really needed to expand my horizons. Thus, below are the albums we're pulling from for our Christmas playlist.

Campfire Christmas, Vol.1 - Rend Collective: Give this album a listen if you can. It's festive and happy, just like you would imagine a Celtic campfire gathering to be. And they have very cool lyrics to "Auld Lang Syne."

White Christmas - Seasonal Hits of the 1930's and 40's: Our church recently produced Taproot Theatre's "Christmas on the Air," which takes place in 1935. This album was the soundtrack.

The 8-bit Hymnal 2 (Christmas) - Tyler Larson: If you're like me and would really love to play grade-school adventure video games from the late 80's/early 90's while listening to Christmas carols, this is your album.  

Christmas Masterpieces and Familiar Carols - The Westminster Choir: I had to go back to my classical-loving side at some point. This album contains several carols performed excellently, as well as some classical seasonal classics, including from Handel. 

Monday, December 1, 2014

What About the Mothers of Bethlehem's Massacred Babies?

1824 (oil on canvas), Cogniet, Leon (1794-1880)
Musee des Beaux-Arts, Rennes, France /
Giraudon / The Bridgeman Art Library
I still remember when I first saw The Ten Commandments in grade school. The brief clip of the Egyptian massacre of infant and toddler Hebrews (that Moses escaped) brought my young soul to tears. Ever since, I've only seen portrayals of that story, and the Christmas story when King Herod orders a similar massacre, where such elements are much more downplayed, if not excluded. I've sometimes wondered how to help teach my kids (and anyone) about the tragic and unjust part of the Christmas story, and how it does have a happy ending. I came across this really powerful article

A disastrous event that took place in Bethlehem related to Jesus’ birth that is also part of the picture of Christmas. Herod ordered the slaughter of all the boys two years old and under. Yet we tend to allow sleigh bells, evergreens, and shopping trips to push it out of view. It is nevertheless, in all its brutality, what Christmas is about: a Savior’s “invasion” (to borrow from C. S. Lewis) and confrontation with the forces of evil.

Matthew’s narrative of Christ’s birth juxtaposes noble and wretched characters in stark contrasts: stars and swords; majestic kingly visitations and twisted kingly agitation; Mary rejoicing, Rachel weeping; children who die and the child who gets away. How do we reconcile this glorious birth with the bloody death of those boys?

Jesus had to escape Herod’s decree in order to face the day when the angels would not intervene and when Joseph would not whisk him to Egypt; the day when Mary, not Rachel, would weep and could not be comforted.

When Jesus delivered us from evil, he went, like the mothers I read about, to crime-ridden sewers to bring back his loved ones from slavery. He went, Wright writes, “solo and unaided into the whirlpool [of evil], so that it may exhaust its force on him and let the rest of the world go free.” Jesus, in the end, was the one “who was not delivered from evil.”

In the verse that follows Rachel’s lament, Jeremiah writes: “Do not weep any longer, for I will reward you. Your children will come back to you.” God’s portrait of grief—the weeping mother—is overruled by the picture of children returning.