Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Advent Recap

I flew back to Connecticut today, and I came home to a dead Christmas tree.

So, Christmas really is over. But as I put away my decorations and drug my dead tree outside, I listened to Christmas music.

I discovered this weekend that all this time, all through Advent, I've had an Andrew Peterson Christmas album, "Behold the Lamb of God," on my iTunes. Not only that, but I learned of Indelible Grace's Christmas album titled "Your King Has Come." I just couldn't end the season without giving both a good listen.

So before you pack up your decorations and drag your Christmas tree to the curb, check out these albums online, or maybe buy them for next year. You can listen to "Your King Has Come" for free on Matthew Smith's website. Matthew Perryman Jones' rendition of O, Holy Night is what I was looking for all month--what an incredible song! And there's a song on Andrew Peterson's album that you just have to hear. Check it out, via Lala, below:

Joy and peace to you in the New Year!

Friday, December 25, 2009

Advent Thoughts

It's Christmas Day, and I'll admit, I'm a little sad. I have always loved the anticipation of things--birthdays, vacations, holidays, parties--almost as much as the thing itself. And so it is with Christmas. As a little girl, I would lie awake in bed for weeks before Christmas, imaging the fun times with family and the many gifts under the tree. I would count down from at least a hundred days to the day, driving my mom crazy. And then Christmas would come. It would be glorious, of course, everything I imagined it to be and more. But then it would be over so quickly and I would feel sort of empty. I loved that anxious feeling, the beforehand waiting, the most. I guess that's why I love Advent.

And now it's over. Taylor and I packed up our presents and brought them upstairs. In a couple of days I'll pack up my suitcase and go home. When I get back to Bethel, I'll pack up my Christmas decorations and put them away. And this sweetness, this waiting for Jesus to come, it seems I'll have to pack it up as well.

But the beauty of Advent is that it not only celebrates Christ's coming to us in a manger, but anticipates His coming to us in undeniable glory. That anticipation, that waiting, does not have to be packed up with the Christmas ornaments. And when the Day finally arrives, it will not pale in comparison to my anxious waiting for it, as Christmas sometimes does.

What I have loved this Advent is learning to relate to God as the One Who Comes. It wasn't just in that Bethlehem stall that God revealed Himself as Immanuel--no!--He has been Immanuel for all of eternity past. He is the God who is present with His people.

In fact, it's the pillar of cloud, again, that reminds us of God's ever-present-ness with the Israelites. It was the cloud by day and the fire by night, the Shekinah, Hebrew for "dwelling," that reminded God's people of His care for them and directed them where they should go (Numbers 9). God came to Moses in the burning bush. He spoke to Abraham. He walked with Adam and Eve in the Garden. He said to Joshua, "Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go." God with us. Not just beginning with Jesus, but from the beginning of creation.

In Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus, John MacArthur writes, "You see, God only whispers in His creation. He revealed a shadow of His glory in the Shekinah. But He speaks with absolute clarity in His Word. 'God...spoke' (Hebrews 1:1), and not in a whisper, but in full voice. Still, there was an incompleteness in it all until, '[God] has in these last days spoken to us by His Son" (Hebrews 1:2).

"Now that is God shouting. You can't mistake it. Christ is God, and you see every attribute of God manifest in him. His judgment, his justice, his love, his wisdom, his power, his omniscience. It's all there in person as we see Him walk through the world, working his work, living his life. The fullness of God may be seen as it was never seen before in Jesus Christ."

And this is the One we call Immanuel, who saw fit to leave his heavenly dwelling and make his home among us, visibly and personally. This is the Incarnation we celebrate at Christmas: the coming of the One of whom the prophet Zechariah said, "Shout and be glad, O Daughter of Zion. For I am coming, and I will live among you," declares the LORD" (Zechariah 2:10). He is the one
who enables the psalmist to declare,
"say to those with fearful hearts,
"Be strong, do not fear;
your God will come,
he will come with vengeance;
with divine retribution
he will come to save you" (Psalm 35:4).

But there is more! The One who came to us then, and who made himself continually present by imparting the Holy Spirit to dwell in the hearts of believers (John 14:26), is also the One who will come again! Revelation 21:1-8, one of the Advent Scriptures, gives us a beautiful description of what will happen on that Day:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away." He who was seated on the throne said, "I am making everything new!"

And so our Jesus, the supreme expression of God with us, will come and dwell among us fully and finally. He will make everything new and--the most encouraging thing to me this first Christmas after Grandma Russell's death--will do away with the affects of sin, all pain and death and mourning. Glory! This is the holy paradox: our God has come...and He is coming to reign forevermore!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Advent Confessions

Our 6 p.m. service tonight at Walnut Hill was beautiful. Not only did we sing Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus, but the sermon was about sin. Call me crazy, but I love a good sermon about sin.

Don't get me wrong--I'm not one of these legalists who loves to wallow in condemnation and guilt. It's just that sometimes I'm so painfully unaware of my need for a Savior. And if you ask me, that's the worst place to be at Christmastime. After all, how can you rejoice in being free if you don't recognize the depth of your sin to begin with?

I have a sweet little gaggle of high school girls who come to my house once a week to study the Bible. It's the most precious time. And yesterday, as we were munching on M&M cookies, talking about boys, and discussing Romans 5, one of them said something really insightful about sin and our need for God's grace. I shared Spurgeon's famous quote with them: "If your sin is small, your Savior will be small. But if your sin is great, then your Savior will be great also." We talked about how Spurgeon (and Paul, whom he was sort of paraphrasing) wasn't saying that we should sin more...he wasn't even necessarily claiming that some sins are greater than others. Rather, he was alluding to how we understand our sin.

Here's a confession: I sometimes pretend my sin isn't such a big deal, that I'm doing okay, really. And that's when my Jesus starts to seem awfully small, too.

So tonight, I relished the reminder of sin's potency in my life. There was a time of silent confession, reminiscent of Sundays at Third, that seemed oh-so-appropriate just days before this holiday where we celebrate the Incarnation. My sin is great. So great, in fact, that it demanded the death and resurrection of God's own Son to reconcile it. That God would pay that price for me, for the world, is the real miracle of Christmas.

Tonight's Advent Scriptures included John 3:16-21. I think I might have skipped over those familiar verses had it not been for the timing of this evening.

This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God.
John 3:19-21

Oh that we might come into the light this Christmas and let our sin be exposed! Then, and only then, will we realize how great is our Savior King, Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Come, Thou long-expected Jesus,
Born to set Thy people free.
From our fears and sins release us,
Let us find our rest in Thee!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Advent Tunes

A friend at the church office sent me a link to an article posted on "Relevant" magazine's website in which the editors picked their favorite spiritual Christmas tunes. (Read it here.) The story is complete with a free playlist of the songs that you can listen to over and over simply by creating an account with Lala.

In the spirit of great Christmas music, I've created my own Advent playlist for you on Lala. It comprises a couple more obscure hymns (imagine that!) than "Relevant's" list, is far less trendy, and excludes Relient K's "I Celebrate the Day" (great melody; the theology is just a little limp), but there are one or two overlapping songs. Unfortunately, there were also a couple of songs I wanted to include that Lala doesn't have...

1. Third Day's Christmas Offerings is consistently good. This song sticks out to me because it's one of my favorite carols in general.

2. I admit, Sufjan Stevens is "weirdly weird"...or "beautifully weird," depending on who you talk to. But I fell in love with "Once in Royal David's City" when we sang it at Third during Advent a couple of years ago. And I've come to love Sufjan's quirky version of this neglected hymn on his Songs for Christmas album.

3. Amy Grant's Breath of Heaven is old school, and maybe a little cheesy. But ever since I played Mary in a Christmas musical at Vale Baptist (the musical was called "The Perfect Gift," and I can still sing a great rendition of "No Room for You"), I have loved imagining what it must have been like to be the mother of Jesus. So something about this song gets to me!

4. O Come, O Come, Emmanuel might be my favorite all-time Christmas hymn. Bold statement, I know. But yall know I love songs that talk about Israel--there's something powerful about reflecting on God's hesed, or "covenant faithfulness" to His people. Rosie Thomas' version of the song is, I think, inspired. I usurped this one from "Relevant's" list, and I just love it!

5. I first heard Jars of Clay's rendition of Little Drummer Boy in my Grandpa Corwin's minivan back in middle school. It's still the best version of the classic I've ever heard. Very back-in-the-day Jars sounding.

6. Union grad Chris Rice's "Welcome to Our World" is a long-time favorite that ties manger to cross beautifully. Lala's version (from an album with a title too lame to mention...) is a letdown compared to the track from Deep Enough to Dream. If you're going to purchase it on iTunes, I'd highly recommend the latter.

7. Emmanuel, from Chris Tomlin's Glory in the Highest: Christmas Songs for Worship, doesn't sound especially Christmasy, but you've got to love the rich lyrics.

8. Of course I can't resist including some Caedmon's Call in any playlist! City on a Hill produced this compilation album last year, and Caedmon's Babe in the Straw is a favorite.

9. Hillsong put out a Christmas album a couple of years ago called Celebrating Christmas that to be honest, I could take or leave but for this one song. O Rejoice is this powerful invitation to behold the God-man. It's easily my favorite modern Christmas song. Lala doesn't feature it for some reason, but you can listen to the full MP3 here.

10. Sandra McCracken sent an e-mail the week before last announcing a new album she'll be releasing in the next few months--it's a sequel to The Builder and the Architect, which was a hymns project. The new album includes a Luther hymn called This is the Christ, and as a Christmas treat, she offered a rough version of the recording to fans via Noisetrade. You can download it for free just by forwarding the link to five friends. Just scroll down the left-hand side of this blog to find the widget. I've loved the song and can't wait for the rest of the album!

11. I couldn't have been more thrilled on Sunday when the Walnut Hill praise band broke into Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus during the offering. Since I've been reading a book by that title (see previous post), I have meditated on the words of the song some this season. After singing it in church on Sunday, I decided to look for an audio version to download. I found several that I really liked--Chris Tomlin and Christy Nockles do a great rendition on Tomlin's Christmas CD and Red Mountain Church, one of my favorite hymns resurgence groups has a beautiful modern arrangement as well. But my favorite is by Daniel Renstrom, a relative newcomer on the worship/hymns scene. His album was produced by Nathan Nockles, and from what I can tell it's really solid. It reminds me of the worship band at West End--just that beautiful blend of rich, old songs put to really quality guitar-driven music. You can listen to a clip of the song here.

So there you have it: my favorite Christmas tunes. I hope they inspire you to press in to the heart of God this Advent Season!

Monday, December 7, 2009

Advent Readings

In my quest to find Christmas afresh this year, I ordered a book of Advent meditations called Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus: Experiencing the Peace and Promise of Christmas. It's a collection of 22 essays and sermons by theologians such as John Piper, Tim Keller, Martin Luther, Charles Spurgeon, and R.C. Sproul. It also includes a sermon excerpt of Skip Ryan's, who is the chaplain of Asian Access and a Dallas friend's pastor at Park Cities Pres! The book draws its title from Charles Wesley's hymn by the same name. Check out the lyrics of this lesser known hymn--they're incredible!

These readings have been a beautiful complement to the daily Advent Scriptures. I thought I would share a little snippet with you in order to endorse the book. Keller writes:

'In the first chapter of Luke, Elizabeth says, "Blessed is she who has believed what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished." Elizabeth is saying to Mary--and to us--"if you really believe what the angel told you about this baby, if you take it in, you'll be blessed.'

"But our English word 'blessed' is so limp and lightweight. In English we use blessed to mean something like 'inspired.' But in the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures, the word for blessed meant something much deeper than that. To be blessed brings you back to full shalom, full human functioning; if makes you everything God meant for you to be. To be blessed is to be strengthened and repaired in every one of your human capacities, to be utterly transformed.

"What Elizabeth is saying to Mary, and what Luke is saying to us is, 'Do you believe that this beautiful idea of the Incarnation will really happen? If you believe it, and if you will take it into the center of your life, you're blessed, transformed, and utterly changed.'"

I love that! To internalize the Incarnation is to be transformed into all that God intended us to be (i.e. to be regenerated by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit).

So even as this week feels a little frantic, I'm determined not to "bustle about but only in vain" (Psalm 39:6), but in all things to "believe that what the Lord has said will be accomplished" (Luke 1:45).

Grace and peace,

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Advent Scriptures

Is it just me, or does Christmas get easily buried beneath a slew of parties and cookies and tinsel? We're just days into the Advent season, and my mind is spinning. I love the pace of Christmastime at Walnut Hill because there are so many wonderful festivities--like the Happy Birthday Jesus Party held this morning for preschoolers, or the fun-spirited parties I'm busy planning for our middle and high school students. But somehow, before it all even started, I felt dry. At Thanksgiving I told my mom I was pining for the rhythm of Advent as it's celebrated at Third Pres in Richmond.

So, the relatively new-found Presbyterian in me (of course, I say that tongue-and-cheek since I work for a non-denominational church now!) decided this would be the year: the year I do my own daily Advent readings. The year I intentionally set aside time every day to not lose Christmas under a pile of wrapping paper. Not that Presbyterians are the only ones to celebrate Advent--it's just that before I attended Presbyterian churches, all I knew of Advent was the calendar full of chocolate my grandparents gave me every year.

I'm loving this new Advent rhythm. Every morning, I snuggle back under the covers, post-shower, with my Bible and read the morning Advent Scripture for the day. Every evening, I lounge on my couch in front of my five-foot Balsam Fir and meditate on the evening Scripture. It's a sweet tradition that is melting away the stress and distraction of the day. (Kind of like the daily chocolate from those Advent calendars!) I'm beginning to relax into the presence of God as I ponder His coming. Slowly, He's preparing my heart for Christmas.

But Advent isn't all about relaxing. Actually, it's more about anticipating. I love how Lauren Winner puts it in Girl Meets God:

"It's Advent, the weeks before Christmas, which means we are waiting for Jesus. It is the season of expectation, of being primed and pumped, the season during which you are supposed to cultivate longing for Him, the type of longing you feel when your beloved has been out of town for three weeks but you know he is coming home tonight.

"Every creative attempt to make the season meaningful, to steal it back inside the church, away from the shopping malls and cheesy radio stations, has been tried, and most of those creative attempts have proved wanting. Perhaps the problem is that we don't know what the meaning of this holiday, of Jesus' pushing into the world, is. If we did, we wouldn't have to worry about consumerism; if we knew what the Incarnation meant, we'd be so preoccupied with awe that we wouldn't notice all the shopping."

So that's my goal this year. To really get at the Incarnation. To anticipate not only Christmas, but also the Second Coming of my King in a fresh way. To know that all the shopping, baking, and wrapping is small fries compared to the glory of this God who made Himself small for me. Like chomping on an Oscar Myer wiener when there's a banquet waiting.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning...The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us. We have seen His glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
John 1:1-2, 14

To read the Advent Scripture along with me this year, check out my adaptation of a 2005 Advent calendar (below) that I found on Advent Readings 2009
I've also made it available on the Walnut Hill Youth page for our students and adult leaders.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Good Read: "A Biblical Theology of Alcohol"

Rob Tims, a friend, former boss, and a favorite theologian, wrote a great blog post about alcohol. Rob looks at the issue of alcohol from a systematic theological standpoint, meaning he's not just proof-texting Scripture, but considering what the whole Bible says about the topic. I think you'll find he presents a really balanced view. I especially appreciated the questions he recommends Christians ask to hone their Biblical understanding of alcohol. Read the article here.