a different kind of Christmas song

I love the melodies of this season. You might even catch me singing out of church calendar order. “O Come, Let us Adore Thee” always feels appropriate probably because adoration is always appropriate. We are welcome to approach the throne of grace in every season and adoration seems the proper thing to sing.

But, today there is a different melody … one that isn’t getting lost between The Christmas Song and Mariah Carey. The melody is not like the hallelujah chorus. It doesn’t feel like the candlelight service. This melody is different.

I am singing sadness into this beautiful season and I don’t know if that’s altogether okay. I don’t know if that emotion jives with the church calendar and with the anticipation of my Savior and when others are singing “repeat the sounding joy”?

Can I sing sadness at Christmas?

I think I am, regardless. This song is not all sad, but it is not all “tidings of comfort and joy,” either.

Christ came down because we are wretched and wayward. He left glory and snuggled into a humble straw bed because we worship other gods. But, mostly He came down because in His great love He is exalted.

He came quietly, like a whisper in the winter.

And His life shook the universe while He held the universe together. He rubbed shoulders with brokenness, broke bread with sinners, and invited the lowly to dinner. He loved without exception, but He never apologized for the message of redemption – the message that creation is in desperate need of saving.

And if you give a good honest look at our desperate need, it might make you sad, too. Sad that He had to come the way He did, sad that we are so hardheaded and sad that we couldn’t learn a different way. Sad that after a miracle birth and miracle resurrection we are still learning and still desperate.

There are a lot of people stuffed on to subway trains, with trees and shopping bags and too many tired faces. Christmas is work here, like a second or third job. It gets spelled out in wrinkles and reprimands and cumbersome boxes and Christmas is work.

Limbs start to feel like lead and the “Christmas spirit” is sly like a fox.

And maybe that’s why I am sad. Because the world is still dark. Even though the light came as a miracle in a stable, but the world is still rushing in blind darkness – collecting toys and keeping up appearances and wishing happy holidays.

Sadness is an okay way to feel at Christmas, but it is never the end of the story. In my heart I know that Christ conquered the grave and with that death and darkness fell, too. I know that there is a standing invitation to dance in marvelous light – an invitation that I can extend to every Christmas-weary soul.

Christ came to give life, and life abundant. He came to walk out perfect obedience, to demonstrate perfect love. He came because He was the only One able to perfectly satisfy the payment a world of sin required. And in His coming and living, He showed us the way.

Sadness is an okay emotion, maybe, if it is a prayer. And that is what I am singing today – a prayer to be an instrument, to be a little bit like the miracle who came to redeem me out of a life of darkness.

This is the Christmas song I am singing today.

calvary’s hill on the horizon

It snuck up on me, in between all the Thanksgiving plans and while I concern myself with living in the moment. The season of strung lights and sleigh bell music and egg nog descended on this city before I could clear away the thanksgiving plates.

Last night at small group, someone shared a prayer request against distractions in this season – that she would be able to focus with her family on celebrating the simple message of Christ coming to earth. New York City does a really great job of distracting even without the help of a consumer-driven season of overspending and dress up parties. So, I’m trying to take it slow. I’m trying to let the Advent readings marinate and linger so I’m anticipating the right things – the best things – and not the hollow things of empty boxes and returned sweaters. And this morning that anticipation led me to Calvary.

“There’s a place for focusing on the stable, the shepherds, and the wonder of the incarnation, but to appreciate the depth of what is happening here, we must keep Calvary’s hill on the horizon.” – David Mathis in “Let a Little Lent into your Advent”

Because this season is not waiting for a baby. We are not anticipating the coming of a birth, not merely anyway. Jesus came to earth in a miracle of miracles, but then he lived life full through and ended up at the cross. That God knew all of this before sending His son, and even ordained it, is part of what makes this season magical.

God inserted Himself into his very ugly and and desperate creation so that He might be our redemption.

Christ’s birth is beautiful because it is the earthly beginning of the story of salvation on the shoulders of the God-man. Everything about the birth is as unbelievable today as it was when the angels declared it to Mary and Joseph and the shepherds in the fields. Still crazy, still beautiful, still miraculous. But, what makes Christ’s birth ever deep is that his life culminated in Calvary – that He died a shameful death on a cross and then rose again to conquer death altogether and purchase pardon for sinners.

The salvation story is not seasonal.

As we anticipate the coming of the Savior King this Christmas, may it be inside the wonder of a greater miracle. How wide can our eyes be to fully take it in? How deep can our joy reach to fully revel in it? How far can our laughter roll to feel the weight of it?

Come, Lord Jesus. Come and live the life of a Messiah. Come and purchase our pardon and come to set us free. Come and do for creation what only You can do. Come and be magnified by the miracle of salvation. Come.

Come to this earth with Calvary on the horizon.

wait, with great expectation

Waiting with anticipation sounds like a funny thing to do.

Because it is hard to wait actively and hard to anticipate passively. And that’s exactly the miracle of Advent.

There is nothing passive about the days leading up to Christ’s birth into the world – the longing for a Messiah is almost palpable throughout the Old Testament. Even as hundreds of years passed, the people of Israel (and beyond) waited with great expectation for the Savior King to come to earth. They were waiting, but they were not resigned to indifference. They read and re-read the prophecies and the promises and then they said, “Come.”

Hundreds and hundreds of years of “Come, Lord Jesus.” I imagine it maintaining the same intensity, though some generations must have faltered. Still, generation after generation waited actively with the words, “Come.”

The incarnation was never meant to happen to us, like witnessing an act of charity on the subway by chance. The incarnation of our Lord was planned from the very beginning, even the stars thrown into the sky were set on a trajectory to proclaim His coming. 

And we are invited to take part in His coming, to anticipate the arrival of the Savior and the fulfillment of the Lord’s promise. Christ coming to earth is reason to celebrate salvation for our future, but it is also a reason to celebrate God’s salvation in our present. Because He is a faithful promise keeper … and that translates to Tuesdays. The incarnation is about Tuesday morning devotions and Tuesday afternoon meetings. The incarnation is about financial difficulties and health concerns. The incarnation is about family and brokenness.

The incarnation is about God being a faithful promise keeper when He sent Jesus as a baby into a dark world to be the light.

And the incarnation is not something we let “happen” to us. It is something we invite to transform our Tuesdays and our lives.

Come, thou long expected Jesus. Come.

about hope

Hope is hard, sometimes.

But hope is what pulls our heads up from pillows and hope is what makes our footsteps to follow. It is what motivates us toward good things and what fills those things with joy.

The crazy hard thing about hope is it confirms that we are in some way lacking.

To hope for something means you do not have it and life will be better if/when you do. Every time we hope for something, we are aware again of our deficiencies. Hope means we are not self-sufficient, that we cannot manipulate the remedy of our lacking.

I am hoping for a lot of things, but today is the first day of Advent so I am thinking of just one. Because I am dreadfully lacking in every way – desperately in need for all the ways I fail as a human and for all the ways my willpower can’t fix those failures. Today, I am taking deep December breaths as my deficiencies rumble unsettled somewhere in my gut.

Jesus is my hope – a sure and steadfast anchor for my unsteady soul. He is the promise that remedies what I lack, my present and future hope.

Join me in singing advent songs as we hope for Christ’s coming, remembering again the miracle of the incarnation. We simply cannot remember it enough. Our hope is like watchmen waiting for the morning – expecting and anticipating so much so that the first rays are the highest delight.

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Psalm 130 ESV
5,6 I wait for the LORD, my soul waits,
and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord
more than watchmen for the morning,
more than watchmen for the morning.

7,8 O Israel, hope in the LORD!
For with the LORD there is steadfast love,
and with him is plentiful redemption.
And he will redeem Israel
from all his iniquities.

dawn and dusk

My favorite time of day changes as the day wakes up and walks with me. Generally, just after lunch has never received the title and perhaps also late morning, but I can’t tell you for certain. I just know that there are moments when I glance up from whatever I’m doing – walking, reading, working, thinking – and I’m hit between the eyes with wonder.

Dawn and dusk are regular wonder hits in my life.

When the blue-grey morning sky gives way to pink-peach tones, the fuzzy coming together on the horizon makes me want to set my day’s destination to “first star on the right and straight on ’til morning” with Peter Pan.

Do you know the feeling? The feeling of wonder?

Dawn and dusk have that effect on me, so this morning I took a good, long pause to watch the warm colors bloom into the grey. I watched them fuzz together and then the gray get swallowed up. And as I squinted at the sun on my morning walk, I delighted in its fuzzy beginnings hours earlier. I smiled at the way the sun had introduced itself to this day quietly and then quickly took over the sky with bold rays.

I hope I can keep this feeling of wonder until dusk when it happens in reverse. Maybe it will help to reflect on this devotional from Solid Joys, “Christ is Like Sunlight” where John Piper explains Hebrews 1:3,

He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature.”

Piper writes, “Jesus relates to God the way radiance relates to glory, or the way the rays of sunlight relate to the sun.” And so, it is this relationship that is inspiring wonder in my favorite times of day.

if my heart wrote my soul a telegram

This is, ahem, very personal. If that makes you uncomfortable, you might want to read something else today.

Remember in the Sound of Music when Leisl tells Rolfe about the telegram she would write him as they exchange teenage love declarations in the gazebo? She started with, “Dear Rolfe (stop)” and then he called her a baby.

If my heart wrote my soul a telegram yesterday, it went something like this:

I have two fears (stop)

I wasn’t prepared to feel what I felt or to feel it so intensely. But, the telegram didn’t get sorted until about 11:00 pm last night when I finally stopped the repetitive rhythm.

Yesterday, Patrick and I trekked up to the INHABIT conference on the Upper West Side, sponsored by the International Arts Movement. We listened to plenary speakers and attended breakout sessions with several hundred other folks from across the country who care about the ways art intersects with faith and how that translates into culture care.

And in the middle of all the note-scrawling and introductions and processing, I realized I had never invited someone into this space before. This very metaphysical, very precious and precarious space I had tucked deep away where it couldn’t get broken.

Maybe it’s what a comic book junkie feels at a comic book convention or what a car enthusiast feels at a car show or a musician feels about the symphony. I know I’m not the only one who feels uniquely at home in a very unhome-like space because I am surrounded by people who speak the same language.

This is what I feel when I pack my notebooks and pens, when I check in at registration, when I listen to the philosophical implications of architectural structures and the words communicated through a brick used in its traditional function or adapted for a new purpose. This is what I feel when I am around people asking questions about beauty and meaning and longing – people who wrestle and wander and wonder because it feels right to do so.

Eric Liddell’s painful conclusion in “Chariots of Fire” paints well the picture of this affection and deep delight, “God made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure.”

I’m not sure how exactly God made me – I am not fast like Eric Liddell, nor am I particularly brilliant in a profession, nor am I an established or even struggling artist.

I just know that when I work the muscles in my brain and respond with the muscles in my heart and typing fingertips, I feel His pleasure. I feel His pleasure in a strange and not altogether happy way, but in a way that I do not feel anywhere else. There is a familial comfort in knowing that other people want to use the same language, to plumb the same depths, to wrestle the same lions – believing it is a worthy pursuit and even a pursuit that reflects and delights our Creator.

These types of gatherings have been home to me for years and there are few people who share the same affinity. But that’s never mattered before. I do not expect people to understand this language and I’ve learned to filter my excitement and my conclusions and my muddled processing.

But yesterday, the fear-filled telegrams pushed up behind my eyes. I felt a bit like my self-confident exterior got cracked like an egg and all my fear dripped out. So, I have two fears.

I am afraid of being misunderstood.
I am also afraid of being dull.

I am afraid that my love for beauty and questions and doubts and language and words (and all those things I have hidden in a precious and precarious place) will not make sense to the person I love the most. I am afraid words won’t come and when they do, that they will tumble out incoherently.

I am also afraid that my rambling and circular processing and childilke chasing will make my favorite person bored. I am afraid he will not enjoy the moment in a superlative way and that his lesser enjoying will be my fault.

I am not saying this is rational, I am just saying this was the telegram that I was finally able to communicate to Patrick last night after we rode his motorcycle out of Manhattan. Between sighs and frequent pauses in our late night, neighborhood pizza joint, I tried to explain that I didn’t need him to love what I love or to understand why this language feels like home. I explained that I didn’t need him to be someone who loves conferences and note-taking and the cultural implications of the functionally changing purpose of bricks.

I just don’t want to feel crazy.

I just want so much for him to experience the superlative delight I feel when I’m around this language. Whatever that is for him, I want to say yes to it. Part of what pained me yesterday was thinking that I had asked him to live less in the full delight God prepared.

In his typical and patient way, he told me I wasn’t crazy. He really said a lot more, but I think I just needed to hear that I wasn’t crazy and that I hadn’t ruined his day by making mine great.

I didn’t expect to learn this lesson along the way of love. I really didn’t expect to struggle so sincerely, but I guess I didn’t know how precious or precarious this language was to me.

And in this lesson learning, I am bending to the beauty of Christ’s love. Alone, I can hide things and keep them safely hidden. Alone, I can pretend my vulnerabilities are transparent and my guard is appropriate. But in love, I can see how tenderly Christ completes my affections – how perfectly he understands my needs and how patiently he provides.

I did not know my soul required this kind of care and I was overwhelmed yesterday when I realized Christ has been caring for me in this way all along.

As I receive love (by way of opening up my hidden spaces), I can boldly believe it casts out fears.

Two fears is too few, but it was the number needing cast out yesterday and I believe Christ is able. Not only that He is able, but that He promised to be the One who casts out. I believe that.

I am so thankful for these hard lessons, for these painful purgings of what I didn’t know was hidden.

My uncle sent me the above song today, a song I have returned to when I need a reminder of Christ’s sufficiency. Today was a beautiful day to be reminded.

same park, same path, different heart

The day was not more or less beautiful. The park was not more or less packed.

The children played soccer under the same sun’s evening glow, the same moving mass of strangers ran in circles around the same lake, the same warmth burst out from the tips of trees and into the same cool, autumn air.

Everything about my run was the same, except that it was different.

I rounded the curve last night on the East side when it starts to slope down and I realized a smile had stretched across my face. It was a facial expression that defines stupid grin and it was amplified by my oogly eyes marveling at the sky. For the entire steady slope, I grinned and oogled the sky.

I smiled at all the strangers who had made me feel uneasy and emotional a few days before, but I thought my delight might be entertaining (if they create stories in their minds about strangers like I do). I befriended one lady, in a runner’s world kind of way. She was about my height with a similar stride and a purple headband. We ran comfortably side by side and I imagined her story until she sped on ahead around the south curve (confirming my prediction after seeing her serious running tight/skirt combo and determined arm swing).

Everything was the same, but my heart was different.

I was not afraid.

I felt like Kevin from Home Alone when he opens the front door to his empty home and yells to the Christmas darkness, “Hey! I’m not afraid anymore! Do you hear me? I’m not afraid anymore!”

To get empty of fear is liberating, but only if I am getting filled up with something else. Otherwise I’m just yelling at darkness and hoping my endorphins will keep pumping boldness into my blood. The emptiness has to be displaced – the fear has to be replaced by something strong enough to shove it beyond the bounds of influence.

Christ got empty. He emptied Himself so that we could be emptied of emptiness – emptied of that vacancy we feel when fear screams out from our insides.

My salvation has pushed emptiness out and fear with it. Hope has displaced strife and faith has removed worry. I am not afraid anymore because I believe the fullness of Christ is pushing against and spilling beyond my boundaries.

I am not afraid of missing out. I am not afraid of being a stranger. I am not afraid of hugging this city when it doesn’t hug me back. I am not afraid of being unknown. I am not afraid.

I am not afraid because Christ emptied my fear when He got empty.