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Hope

Nevertheless, there is hope. A new day is dawning…

Even when the dark comes crashing through, when you need a friend to carry you and when you’re broken on the ground – you will be found. So let the sun come streaming in, ’cause you’ll reach up and you’ll rise again. Lift your head and look around – you will be found…

Benj Pasek & Justin Paul

January is traditionally a difficult month for me. It is the final month of what I’ve lovingly dubbed “anniversary season” – the remembrance of all the death days of my family every year. The season runs from the beginning of September until the final day in early February. The day I lost my grandmother who helped raise me. And January is that month when all the emotions usually come crashing down.

Lord knows that this year has added some more beloved ones to the cloud of witnesses watching over our brood from up above. On some level it would seem that this year should probably be one of the hardest in recent memory. Yet somehow… it’s not.

I am not entirely certain why or how, but for some reason this January I find myself full of something I have not felt with this strength in a great long while: hope.

Hope to get me through today. Hope for a better tomorrow. Hope that the future is indeed shining bright upon the horizon.

Perhaps it is all the heroes, including within my own family, that are now fighting for us from the other side, but at some point my heart started to believe again. Believing that all of us will be found. All of us will find and become who we are meant to be.

This is not to say that there will not be a fight ahead of us. This is not to say that there will not be hard days filled with sighs too deep for words. Real life still hurts. This world still has many battles that need won so that all God’s children may find themselves safe and flourishing as God desires.

Nevertheless, there is hope. A new day is dawning, no matter how many may try relentlessly to stop it. Heroes on both sides of the veil now do all they can to see it safely arrive.

More than anything else , now more than ever, all of us need to work for one another. To find one another. To walk with one another as we tread the path ahead. Because that is the source of our hope – God’s gift of one another.

Ultimately it reminds us of the most important thing: we are never alone.

And if we remember that, we can do anything.

Lord Jesus

What Lord do you serve?

Last week, there was an attack on many things. None of which can stand.

However, there is one in particular that I will address here, because it is my calling as a minister of Jesus Christ to do so.

What Lord do you serve?

Last week there were some who claimed to serve a Christ I do not recognize and a Jesus that bears no resemblance to our Lord and Savior that is described in the gospels. So, in order to ensure that you know who you are serving (always a good idea), allow me to describe our Lord more fully:

The Christ we serve is one who taught us that we are made to love and be loved. That we are to turn away from sin and chose a different path. That we are to denounce evil and its power in the world. That we are to follow in his way. For he brought sight to the blind. Made the lame walk. Welcomed the untouchable with open arms. Made the deaf to hear. Raised the dead. Brought good news to the poor. He taught mercy not self-righteous sacrifice. Proclaimed release to the captives. Fought to see the oppressed go free. Proclaimed the year of the Lord’s favor.

That is the real Christ. The Jesus of the gospels. The Living Word of God made flesh. Our only Lord and Savior. We are to follow no earthly lord before him. Serve no false prophet. Seek no true glory for ourselves. Our lives are meant to be about living out his Love. The love of the Beloved who chose a cross over the might of angel armies. Jesus Christ, who chose to fight with love and not violence. That is the Lord we serve.

We are to be disciples of this Jesus alone. Obeying his word and showing the love of God he taught us by loving our neighbors, and even our enemies. Showing the whole world that we are his disciples by displaying God’s love with every breath, every thought, every action of our lives.

This is not a permissive love. It is an all-encompassing love where God’s justice and righteousness are certainly present. Nevertheless, it is always a love that seeks a flourishing life for all of God’s children and most especially those that the world chooses to forget and to trample.

So make no mistake when you pray to Christ tonight. Know the Lord to whom you are praying. And have a good long talk.

Just make sure that you are praying to the Jesus of the gospels and not to yourself.

Begins…

Whatever may come, whatever may pass, however the world may try to shake our resolve as we leave Bethlehem behind us, the light of God’s love goes with us. And now it is our turn to shine it onto a world so desperately in need…

When the song of the angels is stilled, when the star in the sky is gone, when the kings and princes are home, when the shepherds are back with their flock, the work of Christmas begins: to find the lost, to heal the broken, to feed the hungry, to release the prisoner, to rebuild the nations, to bring peace among others, to make music in the heart. (Howard Thurman)

My first introduction to this timeless poem came in the form of a choral arrangement and so I am including it as my last song in the season of Christmastide. And since today is Epiphany, it seems appropriate to pause one last time to reflect on what we have learned throughout these Advent and Christmas seasons and how we might continue on into this new year.

This year has not brought the easiest set of seasons, to be sure. Throughout the month of December life has had its ups and downs, its joys and sorrows, its triumphs and tragedies. Yet the star still rose. The angel spoke. The shepherds heard good news. The magi arrived. The Christ-child was born. And God’s love was set loose in the world again.

The honest truth is that Christmas is not meant to be only one day, or even twelve days, per year. The birth of the Child at Bethlehem is meant to bring a dawn of Love in our hearts that transforms us permanently. Making each day a new opportunity to live into a new life. A new way of being.

What might that look like?

It will look like that Child’s life when he was all grown up: Finding the lost. Healing the broken. Feeding the hungry. Releasing prisoners. Rebuilding peoples in need of reconciliation and restoration. Bringing true peace, one where justice is present. And speaking the true universal language that all of God’s children know – music of the heart.

Whatever may come, whatever may pass, however the world may try to shake our resolve as we leave Bethlehem behind us, the light of God’s love goes with us. And now it is our turn to shine it onto a world so desperately in need.

Days Gone By

I was telling one of my best friends earlier this week that in some ways I am not ready for the new year…

Should old acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind? Should old acquaintance be forgot and days of auld lang syne? For auld lang syne, my dear, for auld lang syne, we’ll take a cup of kindness yet for auld lang syne.

“Days gone by,” that’s what auld lang syne means. Every year when we take our first breaths of the new year’s air, we begin by singing a song that honors all that has come and gone in the years before.

The good. The bad. And that lay between.

2020 has certainly been a year without parallel. We have seen some of the very best of humanity. We have also seen some of the very worst. We have watched as people stood up to bullies with a gumption not seen in a long while. And we have lost many, many people who matter to us greatly, as individuals and a global community alike.

I was telling one of my best friends earlier this week that in some ways I am not ready for the new year. This is the last year I will have had my late husband with me. And it will also be the first New Year’s Eve I will celebrate without him since 2002.

But the promise of a new dawn still lingers on the horizon. And as Brad told me before he died, we are to live our lives to the fullest and fight the good fight as long as possible.

So yes, we will step boldly into 2021 and all that the future holds, even as our cloud of witnesses continues their eternal dance in heaven (including my husband, my mother-in-law, and my Uncle Steve – all lost in 2020). My prayer is that they will stay close. And my hope for all of us is that we will raise a glass and sing this song once more – because though the days ahead are promising, we must never forget the days gone by.

Auld Lang Syne

What Is This

And yes, it was a wonderful day in so many ways….But there was a gaping hole in the room. We all knew it.

What child is this, who lay to rest on Mary’s lap is sleeping, whom angels greet with anthems sweet, while shepherds watch are keeping? This, this is Christ the King, whom shepherds guard and angels sing. Haste, haste to bring him laud, the babe, the Son of Mary.

It is Christmas Day. Or should I say, Christmas night. All the presents have been opened. The carols have been sung. And the snow that was coming down this morning has even stopped.

And yes, it was a wonderful day in so many ways. The joy on my boys’ faces when they realized that Santa had been here last night. The reckless abandon tearing into their gifts. Faces lighting up around the room as we shared memories from years gone by.

But there was a gaping hole in the room. We all knew it.

Sometimes there were tears. Sometimes there were naps. Sometimes there was just pain.

And yes, we know he is here with us. And we know that he is watching over us and so very happy that we are all together – continuing the family that he and I began together. We just miss him. And on Christmas, it just hurts.

So on this day, as we celebrate the birth of the King of Kings, the babe, the Son of Mary, who is enthroned by loving hearts, we still press on. We still hold love in our hearts. And, as he would have wanted, we will live our lives as fully as we can.

We just do so wrapped in a love that both envelopes us in joy and sometimes hurts a bit more than we want to admit.

What Child Is This

Holy Night

Because Jesus did not come to create a merely holly-jolly season of superficial feelings. Jesus the Messiah came to turn the world upside down…

O Holy Night…. Truly he taught us to love one another; his law is love and his gospel is peace. Chains shall he break for the slave is our brothers; and in his name all oppression shall cease. Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we. Let all within us praise his holy name. Christ is the Lord! O praise his name forever. HIs power and glory evermore proclaim.

Based upon a French poem, Cantique de Noel, it was Unitarian Minister John Sullivan Dwight who created the popular English translation in 1855 which we all now know and love.

Since most recordings use only the first verse, many people do not realize the controversy originally tied to this song. It was beloved in the North in the United States and tied to the abolition of slavery. Which is why I both ensure it is always a part of Christmas Eve worship at churches where I serve and ensure that we always sing the third verse as (which I have quoted above) as well as the first.

Why does it matter? Especially on the night when all we care about is the warm fuzzies?

Because Jesus did not come to create a merely holly-jolly season of superficial feelings.

Jesus the Messiah came to turn the world upside down. To lift up the poor and cast tyrants from their thrones. To feed the hungry and welcome the homeless. To fight for the oppressed and stand with the outcast. To free the enslaved and to break the chains that bind forever. Not just to cast out our individual sin, but to break the back of the systemic sin the continuously cripples our world and everyone in it.

That is the power and glory of the Christ we proclaim.

So when you hear that high note tonight, and I hope you manage to find it somewhere, remember that we are not welcoming the prince of lack of conflict. We are welcoming the Prince of Peace – true peace that will bring justice to reign, hope that will never fail, and love that will always endure.

O Holy Night

Breath of Heaven

It is a holy prayer for all of us who need to be reminded of God’s holy presence that is always already in our midst. To be reminded of our need to breathe. To be reminded that help is only a breath away.

Breath of heaven hold me together, be forever near me, breath of heaven. Breath of heaven lighten my darkness, pour over me your holiness, for you are holy, breath of heaven.

Although it was written for Amy Grant’s 1992 Christmas album, I did not come into contact with this song until nearly two decades later when the church I was serving sang it as a choral arrangement for Christmas. It was at that time that I learned it was one of my late husband’s favorite Christmas songs.

It is a remarkably poignant reflection from the perspective of Christ’s mother Mary, trying to be strong and able to do all that is needed for her child, but barely able to hold herself together.

The funny thing is that as the years have progressed, I find myself more and more relating to this song no so much even from the shared perspective as a mother, but simply as a fellow human. A child of God. Someone who’s world is turning upside down. And how oftentimes I can barely take the next step forward.

It is as though the second verse can hear my pleading heart: help me be strong. help me be. help me.

I was commenting to someone this morning that today was seeming to be a good day. And for the most part it was.

But for a few moments this afternoon and evening it trying to careen back into the shadows of the overwhelming swells of grief, stress, and anxiety. Oddly enough, it was this song that brought me back. Breath of heaven, hold me together, be forever near me…

I guess my best advice tonight, on this Christmas Eve Eve, is to remember this song and hold onto it tight, not only during Christmas, but also throughout the year. It is a holy prayer for all of us who need to be reminded of God’s holy presence that is always already in our midst. To be reminded of our need to breathe. To be reminded that help is only a breath away.

Breath of Heaven

Ukrainian Bells

That is the wonder of what music and the holidays can do for us. Yes, there are many times when they can bring back so many difficult and very hard things that we can barely muddle through. But there are also times that just the first few notes of a song can make us laugh out loud because of the things a certain song has seen.

Hark how the bells, sweet silver bells, all seem to say throw cares away. Christmas is here bringing good cheer to young and old, meek and the bold. Ding-dong, ding-dong, that is their song, with joyful ring all caroling…

This song was written in 1914 by Ukrainian composer, Mykola Leontovych, who based the melody on an old folk chant. And it was originally written with lyrics by Peter Wilhousky. However, far more often than not you will hear this song played without the lyrics.

For me this song brings back so many memories of my youth group’s handbell choir ringing a wonderful version of this carol that I have played far too many times to count.

In particular, there was this one performance for some group out in West County St. Louis, where we started on some ridiculously fast pace not set by our director (probably at least twice as fast as we were supposed to go). I can still see the look he gave us – what precisely do you think you’re doing? But there was no stopping the freight train at that point and somehow we did all stay together the entire song. And I think we ended up laughing at the end.

Somehow today is a good day. I am feeling good and smiling. The pain is not hitting as hard on my chest and I can breathe. So these memories of joy are something I crave. I want the laughter. I want the cheer. I want to enjoy the happy times we’ve had lo these many years.

That is the wonder of what music and the holidays can do for us. Yes, there are many times when they can bring back so many difficult and very hard things that we can barely muddle through. But there are also times that just the first few notes of a song can make us laugh out loud because of the things a certain song has seen.

I hope that you are able to find some of your own happy memories in the next few days and hold on to them. And I hope you are able to make a few new ones, too. I know I will be trying my hardest to do the same.

Oh, and speaking of happy memories, my other favorite version of this carol is from some very happy memories of getting to see the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. So check out what this guy did to his house to go with their version of the Carol of the Bells.

Carol of the Bells

I’ll Be Home

It is difficult when loved ones cannot come home…

I’ll be home for Christmas. You can plan on me. Please have snow, and mistletoe, and presents on the tree. Christmas Eve you’ll find me where the love-light gleams. I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams.

Written in 1943 by Kim Gannon and Walter Kent, this song was originally recorded by Bing Crosby. It was written as a letter from one of the soldiers fighting in World War II to his family and ends with that heart-wrenching line – if only in my dreams.

I remember when my father died, almost thirty years ago now, this was the song that my mom could not stand to listen to that year.

It is difficult when loved ones cannot come home – something our military families must deal with every single year. And this year, with the global pandemic going on, there are many other families who find themselves unable to be together this year.

For some of us, we find that our loved ones are not only unable to be there this year. They never will be with us again.

Unlike my mom, I still love this song and find myself listening to it every time it comes on. Yes, it does make me cry a bit sometimes. But honestly, I know he still comes and visits my dreams. And I know he still watches over us.

Yes, it hurts. Yet, something Brad and I both learned well during this life is that sometimes there is beauty even in the pain.

So for all of you who are missing your loved ones right now – remember you are not alone. It’s okay to cry. It’s alright to admit that your heart is breaking. And you do not have to be perfectly happy all the time.

Just know that somewhere in the celestial realms, perhaps in that place where we still remember dreaming, the all the love we have felt still holds us safe, even on days when it feels too difficult to breathe.

Come, All Ye Faithful

In many ways, this song is the ultimate beckoning hymn for the arrival of Christmastide. And given the fact that Christmas begins on Friday, Christmas Eve is only four days away, and we are in the home stretch…

O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant, O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem. Come and behold him, born the King of angels. O come, let us adore him, O come, let us adore him, O come, let us adore him, Christ the Lord!

This morning we premiered our 2020 Children’s Nativity for the church where I serve. It was filmed 99.9% on Zoom by nineteen children from our church family, plus an amazing supporting cast. And our younglings were a wonder to behold retelling the well-known story with candor, humor, and love.

It was a joyous occasion and as a result, it was this song that remained as the ear worm in my head all day long. More specifically, it was my husband’s favorite arrangement of it, which I’ve included on the link below.

Over the years I have been blessed to sing so many different versions of this classic hymn, in English and in the original Latin. It possibly dates as early as the thirteenth century, but more likely the seventeenth. And has remained a standard hymn for Christmas church services ever since.

In many ways, this song is the ultimate beckoning hymn for the arrival of Christmastide. And given the fact that Christmas begins on Friday, Christmas Eve is only four days away, and we are in the home stretch, what better way to celebrate the final Sunday in Advent than by lifting up the angel’s call that is already beginning to arrive in our midst.

Get ready, it says. The time is almost here.

So, deep breaths everyone. Try not to panic. And remember to do what you can to find some joy when you are able, even when it pops up in unexpected places – like here!

Because Bethlehem waits. And ready or not, here we go.

O Come, All Ye Faithful