I Will Hold My Candle

This story, rooted in Isaiah 11:1-9, was first told to the saints of Crafton Heights on Christmas Eve, 2002.  It is the title story for my collection of original Christmas stories published by Lulu Press, I Will Hold My Candle and Other Stories for Christmas.  I offer it as a New Year’s posting because 98 years later, I still hope that we can put down our weapons and sing a few songs together.  Not because we are so great, but because I believe in the Prince of Peace to whom we sing all those carols.

He always was – and, I suppose, always will be my hero.  My grandfather.  I guess I always felt close to him – I’m even named for him.  Edward John.  To make things simple, the whole family’s always called me John – except for Pap.  He called me Eddie, and I loved him.

He was born in Scotland, and had a tough, tough life early on.  He came to America after World War I and settled down here with some of his other relatives.  He married my Gram, and became a well-respected member of the community.  It always seemed to me as if he knew everybody in town – and he probably did.  He ran the only hardware store for miles around, and it was well known that if you needed a hard-to-find item, Ed would take care of you.  He was funny, gentle, smart – he was my hero.  I wanted to be him.

There was only one thing about Pap I didn’t understand.  Everyone else in the family went to church, but not him.  And on Christmas, when people came from all over to be together, we went to the candlelight service together.  And my Pap – my funny, gentle, Pap – well, not only did he not come to church with us, but it’s the only time I’ve ever seen him make fun of my Gram.  He would stay home and drink beer all night on Christmas Eve, and when we got home from church he’d be drunk – and angry!  Every year, it was as if someone had gotten hold of the Pap that I knew and replaced him with a bitter old man.  When I got old enough to understand a little bit about what was going on, I asked my Gram.  She just shushed me and said that I wouldn’t understand.  She said it was because of the war, and that he would get better in a few days.

On Christmas Eve of 1965, something amazing happened.  We all went over to Pap’s house for dinner, like usual, and there was the old man wearing a suit and tie!  He grinned and said that he was coming to church with us.  I was 14 at the time, and had never seen him so excited.

We got to the church and everything went like it always did.  There were the little kids in bathrobes acting out the story.  And then we sang “Silent Night” and lit each other’s candles.  But when I reached over to light Pap’s candle, I saw that he was crying.  Not only that, he was singing in another language!  “Stille Nacht! Heil’ge Nacht! Alles schläft; einsam wacht…”

After we came home, I asked Pap why he came to church with us.  And he told me a story I’ve never forgotten.  He said that when he was 18 he went into the Army back in Scotland in order to earn some money and help out at home.  By the time he was 22, in 1914, he was a corporal in the Second Scots Guards, stationed in the trenches in Northern France.  He talked about being scared to death by all the stories he’d heard about the Germans – he didn’t trust them, he said, and he knew that they’d slit his throat as soon as say “hello”.

On Christmas Eve his unit received orders from HQ at St. Omer, stating that the enemy was planning a holiday attack and to be extra vigilant.  At 8:30 on Christmas day, he looked out and saw four Germans coming across the battlefield.  His captain sent Pap and another fellow out – unarmed – to make sure that the Germans weren’t going to cross the line.  It turns out that the enemy carried a few tins of meat and a small barrel of beer.  They wanted a Christmas truce!

Pap said that it took a while, but the beer helped things out and that by lunchtime, both sets of trenches were pretty well emptied of soldiers.  At first, they buried the dead and cleaned out their trenches, but towards the middle of the afternoon, a fellow from Glasgow showed up with a soccer ball.  An impromptu game broke out, with the Germans playing the Scotsmen.  Afterwards, there was more beer, and the men sang Christmas carols together for hours.  Pap said that they almost forgot that there was a war on as they told stories and even showed each other photos from home.

Just after midnight, there was an order from his Captain to return to the trenches.  When the men were all back in the hole, the Captain fired three shots into the air.  From across the field, the German commander did the same thing.  The war was on again.

“Fancy that, Eddie,” Pap said to me.  “Here’s the German, shaking my hand as if he were trying to smash my fingers, offering me cigars and a pint of beer – and then a few hours later, trying to put a hole in me headgear!  It just didn’t make sense to me at all.  I had begun to believe that if in fact we were all Christians, then we’d work things out and go home.  But before I knew it, I was burying my mates and trying to save my own skin.”

It seemed as though Pap had a lot of hope – but that hope turned to anger.  He reasoned that if the story of Christmas were true, then it should make a difference in the ways that we treat each other.  But since they spent the next three years trying to kill each other, then the story couldn’t be true.  My Pap told me that as far as he was concerned, there was no such thing as peace on earth, good will towards men.  It was just a lie, a hoax, invented to make people feel better.  That’s why he got drunk every Christmas, he said.  He couldn’t get that feeling of betrayal or disappointment out of his mind.

But in the summer of 1964, something amazing happened.  My Pap got a letter from Europe.  It was from a man named Johannes Niemann in Germany.  And in the letter was a photograph with four or five soldiers holding a soccer ball.  On the back was a note: “Christmas Truce, 1914.  Fritz beats Tommy, three goals to two.”christmas-truce-1914

It turns out that Niemann had taken the photo on that Christmas Day, and somehow had tracked my Pap all the way to Pittsburgh.  Moreover, Niemann asked my Pap if they could meet.  Well, Gram had been after Pap to take a vacation, and so they did.  They went to France in December of 1964, and there, along with a few of the other soldiers, they had a sort of “50th Anniversary Reunion”.  Niemann had been one of the first Germans out of the trenches, and he and Pap spent a lot of time talking about the War and how their lives had been affected.  And Niemann talked with Pap about God.  He told Pap that he was a believer in Jesus Christ.

“Now you’re talking nonsense, Niemann!” my Pap roared.  “How can you believe in a fairy tale like that?  Don’t you remember that we were trying to kill each other?  That if someone asked you what you wanted for New Year’s 1915 you’d have probably asked for my head on a platter?  And I’d have wanted yours?  We talked about religion all day that Christmas, but it was obvious on the 26th that there was nothing to it.  It’s a lie, Niemann, a lie.”

“You see, Edward,” the German replied, “I remember very well. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t thank God for that Christmas Truce.  For you, that day has become some sort of a wall – it stands between you and faith.  It’s an obstacle for you to overcome.  But for me, it’s different.  That day has always been a window – it has let me see the power of God at work.

“When that day dawned – on Christmas morning 1914 – we were at our worst.  Men from all over the world – strangers with no reason to hate – were trying to exterminate each other.  But even in the hell of those frozen trenches, the power of God’s love broke through enough to give us a glimpse of what could be.  Do you remember the Bible, Edward?  Do you remember what it says in Isaiah?  ‘The wolf will dwell with the lamb…the cow and the bear shall feed…they shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain, for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea…’  That’s what our God is doing, Edward.  It will come.  I know it will come.  I’ve seen it through a window – and I know it is happening.  I want to be a part of it – and I want you to be a part of it, too.”

And so it was in a little village in France that my Pap went to church for the first time in half a century.  And it was a church filled with Germans and Scotsmen who had, at one point, sworn to kill each other – but on that night in 1964, they shared the light of Christ.

Pap said to me that Christmas Eve a year later – 1965 – “Eddie, did you see what it was like at church tonight?  Did you see how everyone was holding candles and their faces looked a little different?  Did you notice that there was some sort of a glow?  Now imagine, Eddie, what it would be like if folks looked like that without the candles? – If we looked like that all the time?  That’s what I think the song means when it says, “Silent night, Holy night, Son of God, Love’s pure light Radiant beams from thy holy face, with the dawn of redeeming grace…”  Jesus is like that all the time, Eddie.  The light just comes from him.

“Eddie,” my Pap said, “I want you to think of these Christmas Eve services as a window in your life.  For a long time, I didn’t even bother looking because my heart was so closed.  I know that most of your life isn’t full of that kind of beauty or warmth, Eddie.  But it should be.  It should be.  And God intends it to be.”

He got quiet for a while, and I didn’t know what to say.  Then he reached into his pocket and brought out a little box that he had clearly wrapped himself.  “Go ahead, son.  Open it,” he ordered me.

I had never in my life received a gift just from Pap. It was always on Christmas or my birthday, and it was always from Pap and Gram.  But there were the two of us sitting in the kitchen, and I unwrapped this little box.  Inside I found a stumpy little candle – maybe three inches long.

Pap smiled and told me that it was the candle that Niemann had given him in France the year before.  And then he took my hands in his and he said, “Eddie, you can’t do it by yourself.  Life hurts sometimes.  It hurts a lot.  But you can remember the way that it’s supposed to be.  And you can hold your candle, Eddie.  You can hold your candle.”

And every Christmas since then I’ve carried that candle in my pocket.  I haven’t missed a service.

On Christmas Eve in 1982 I was on my way out the door to the midnight service.  I got a call from my mother.  My Pap had died that evening.  I wanted to go home right away, but my wife reminded me that I was to sing the solo in church.  Silent Night.  And so I went to the service, and I sang Silent Night.  And I sang it in German.  And I rejoiced that my Pap was finally able to see the whole picture – not just through a window.

And so I’m here tonight.  And I’ve got Pap’s candle in my pocket.  If it looked stumpy and shabby in 1965, you can imagine that it looks pretty beat by now.  But I’ll finger it in my pocket when we sing Silent Night.  And I’ll pray that just as the soft wax melts with the approach of heat and flame, that the hardness, coldness, or bitterness in your heart might melt into the warmth of this room.

It’s not surprising that men want to kill each other.  It’s not surprising that we claim to know the truth, and then want to do unspeakable things.  But what is amazing to me is that God would love us enough to want to do something about it.

I have a grand-daughter.  Her name is Johanna.  She’s twelve years old, and I love her deeply.  And she doesn’t know it yet, but after church the two of us are going to sit at my kitchen table.  And I’m going to give her a little box that I’ve wrapped myself.  Inside the box will be a stumpy old candle, a tattered photo of a few muddy soldiers holding a soccer ball, and a small Bible.

I hope she likes it.  More than that, I hope she lives it.[1]


[1] The Christmas Truce of 1914 is a well-documented occurrence.  While this story is a work of fiction, some of the names, locations, and quotes were borrowed from research done by Mr. Tom Morgan and are used with his blessing.  More information can be found on his his website.

Pastor Tony Gets Back on Track

It is my custom to write an original short story each year and tell it to the good people of Crafton Heights on Christmas Eve.  My hope is that in the hearing of my story, The Story will emerge a little more clearly.  The Story, of course can be found in John 1:1-14 and other places in Scripture.  If you like this story, you may be interested in I Will Hold My Candle & Other Stories for Christmas, a compilation of stories from the past couple of decades.  You can learn more about that volume by clicking here or just contacting me.  I would suggest that you find a hot beverage and a friend, and read this aloud.  Merry Christmas.

Cheryl Donaldson was, for one of the few times in her life, speechless.  She looked at her father, who sat awkwardly on the couch pretending to study a fascinating stain in the carpet near his left foot.  After a few moments, she broke the silence.

“How can that possibly be, Dad?  You have never been on a train?  You?  That is all you ever do!”

As Tony continued to study the carpet as if it held the secret to a long and happy life, Cheryl’s mind flashed back to the home on 33rd Street in the little town of Beaver Falls – the home in which she had grown up, and the home which at this moment was a veritable HO Gauge metropolis.  The man lived and breathed model railroading, and here he was saying he’d never been on a train?  It was incomprehensible.

When she was just a kid, Cheryl’s dad had taken her younger brother, Phil, into Pittsburgh to do some Christmas shopping.  While there, the two visited the old Buhl Planetarium and saw the miniature railroad village they always set out.  That same year, Phil’s Christmas present was a simple oval track layout and a couple of buildings from a town called “Plasticville”.  For the next three years, it was a little tradition that gradually escalated, as Tony bought Phil a couple of new buildings, or a new locomotive, or some other improvement to the 4 x 8 layout.

But after the third year, things changed dramatically.  That May, Phil was struck and killed by a drunk driver as he was riding his bike home from ball practice.  At Christmas, Cheryl was surprised to discover that even though she had never been all that interested in the goings-on in Plasticville, she had somehow become the heiress of that tradition.  She was glad for the attention from her father, and she went along, although she realized soon that it was never really about her.

A couple of years later, the 4×8 layout grew to become 6×12.  When she left for college in Washington, DC, her bedroom was officially designated as the train room. Tony didn’t like working on the layouts down in the cellar, and besides, it gave him something to do on his day off year-round.

Not long after his wife died of breast cancer, Tony drew the attention of the folks who were curating the train exhibit down in Pittsburgh when he actually cut a couple of holes in the walls between Cheryl’s and Phil’s old rooms.  In so doing, he was able to construct tunnels that would connect two increasingly elaborate layouts in the separate rooms.  Cheryl’s room remained the traditional winter scene, whereas Phil’s became a testimony to the splendors of rural life in the summer.  The folks from Buhl, and later the Carnegie Science Center, made several trips to the little house on 33rd Street in order to see how Tony managed the connections for such a project.

She looked at her father, who still hadn’t said a word, and remembered that the only time he had ever raised his voice to her was just three years ago, when in an effort to help bring him into the new millennium she had replaced all of his incandescent light bulbs with those new compact florescent bulbs that were supposed to save so much energy.  When Tony went in to work on the layout, he just about exploded.  He made her come into the room and listen to him talk about the ways that these new bulbs threw off his color scheme so completely that he couldn’t think of anything else.  He complained until she finally went and dug all the old ones out of the garbage and replaced them.  That year for Christmas, she gave her father an entire case of 75 watt incandescent bulbs just so he could be sure that the sun in Plasticville was always glowing predictably.

She knew that this was a difficult year for Tony.  Three months ago, he had finally retired from his pastorate at the church.  Or, to be more precise, the church had retired from Tony.  It simply slipped away, and when they had fewer than fifteen folks showing up on most Sundays, the denomination encouraged them to think about consolidating with another congregation.  Tony found himself a sixty-six year-old man who had lived in the same home for twenty-nine years…but unable to participate deeply in the life of the community to which he’d devoted three decades.  They decided that he would spend the Christmas holiday in Cheryl’s home in Prince Georges County, MD.  She wanted him to see his grandkids in the Christmas pageant and he didn’t have anywhere else to go, so that about settled it.

Cheryl had just asked her father if he’d be willing to take an older man from her own church, Mr. Belser, into Washington DC to see about straightening out a question with the Veteran’s Administration about his benefits.  Mr. Belser knew his way around all right, but he had become dependent on oxygen, and he needed a second set of hands to help him handle the tanks.  Cheryl loved Mr. Belser, and she thought that her dad would jump at the chance to help him out, particularly since they’d be taking the Metro into the District.

Only now, the strongest man she had ever known sat on her sofa with a look of terror in his eyes.  His last words to her had been, “I’m sorry, Cher, but I can’t do that.  I’ve never been on a train before.  I don’t know how.”

Finally, she looked at her father, put the route map in his hands, and said, “You’ll do fine, Dad.  Thousands of people do this every day.  I promised Mr. Belser we’d do it, and I’ve got get the boys ready for the pageant at Church.  You’re on.  Now go get some rest, Pops.”

Later that night, a sixty-six year-old man lay wide-awake in bed.  He was too scared to sleep.  He was too excited to sleep.

Now know this, my friends, about Pastor Tony.  He knew more about the railroad than anyone he knew.  But he didn’t really know trains at all.  What I mean by that is that he could read all of the signal lights, and he knew the various codes for each blast of the locomotive’s horn.  Not only did he own a copy of the Northeast Operating Rules Advisory Committee rulebook on train movement and protocol, he had read it.  Twice.  He knew the slang that trainmen used.  And, as I’ve previously noted, he had forgotten more about model railroading than most people will ever know.  He knew railroads.

But he didn’t know trains.  He had never sat on the cracked vinyl and felt the shudder of the airbrakes approaching a station.  He could not anticipate the peculiar combination of odors brought about by industrial lubricants, electric transformers, and the commuting public.  He had never sat in a rolling passenger car filled with strangers glued to their Kindles or working their smart phones, all the while tethered to their iPods in a desperate attempt to avoid human interaction.  Pastor Tony, in spite of the hundreds of feet of track he’d laid in a dozen different Plasticvilles, had never felt the clatter of the rails deep in his bones.

But he would.  And the thought filled him with anticipation.  And with dread.

As it turned out, it went pretty well.  His daughter took him down to the Deanwood station on the orange line, and Belser was already there.  They headed to the elevated tracks and purchased their tickets, and there Pastor Tony confessed his anxiety to his traveling companion.  Belser thought it was a joke!  What a fuss!  He’d spent his whole career riding to work in trains, first in New York and then later in DC.  When Tony told him of his fascination with model railroads, Belser simply shrugged his shoulders and said, “I don’t get it.  I mean, no offense, but really – trains are not toys. They are for riding.  They are a way to connect with the real world.  I’ve always said, I learned more sitting on a train than I ever did watching that idiot box my grandkids always have on…”

And the adventure went off smoothly.  With Belser’s experience and Tony’s willingness to heft the oxygen tanks, they rode the Orange Line into L’Enfant Plaza and switched to the Green Line all the way up to the Georgia Avenue stop.  As Tony’s anxiety lessened, he was able to see what Belser was saying about the little universe of each railway car.  He watched the people and took in the sights and walked through the turnstiles and generally enjoyed himself.  They had such a good time, in fact, that after visiting the VA, they rode the Orange Line clear out to New Carrolton, where they sat for a while looking at the big Amtrak yards full of trains and people and their stories.

After his trip was finished, Pastor Tony sat in the third row of the little Methodist church there in Maryland and watched the Christmas pageant.  It hadn’t been going for but three or four minutes when the child assigned the role of the Angel Gabriel flubbed her reading badly.  Tony’s first thought was, “What kind of a yahoo is this pastor?  That’s why we don’t do Christmas pageants with our kids.  You can’t trust kids – they are late, or they forget, or even worse, they show up and they cry.”

So much of Tony’s life, to be honest, had been based on order and predictability.  That’s why he loved his train set at home so much – because he always knew what to expect there.  The lawns in Plasticville are always perfectly manicured.  The dogs never keep you awake with their barking.  The church parking lots are always full.  Gasoline is $129.9 down at the filling station.  In Plasticville, the death rate and the crime rate are zero.  There are no drunk drivers.  There are no accidents.  Plasticville is so reliable in so many ways.

But when you stop to think about it, as Pastor Tony did that very night, it’s not only the crime rate and the death rate that are zero.  In the whole history of Plasticville on 33rd Street in Beaver Falls, not a single person had ever been born.  No one ever graduated.  Nobody grew at all.  And while the passenger lines and freight cars ran faithfully and sometimes ceaselessly – not a soul ever boarded or disembarked from those trains.

And as Pastor Tony watched his grandson giggle with the other shepherds when they had to say, “Hail to you, O Virgin fair”, it hit him – this was what made the birth of Christ so important.

His whole adult life he had talked and taught about the incarnation – about the idea that God became a human.  And yet his concept of God had been so limited.  In Pastor Tony’s mind, God hovered above the earth in the same way that Tony doted on Plasticville – manipulating the environment and setting up pretty displays.  But if the incarnation means anything, thought Tony, it means that all of these things matter.  It means that somehow, the God who made us cares enough about us to come into the noisy and smelly and cluttered places of our own lives.  It means that God enters in, fully and completely.  And if that is true – and he believed it more that night than he ever had before – then it meant that God was not expecting Tony to be some perfect statue who kept it all together and remained unshaken.  No, the incarnation means that God expected Tony to grow in and through each step that each day brought him.  In Jesus Christ, God moved into our neighborhood in a way that Tony could never enter Plasticville…and because God was willing to risk doing that in Jesus, Tony was free to grow in ways that were impossible to the denizens of his bedroom empire.

By the time the three bathrobe-wearing wise men dropped off their improbable gifts to an increasingly antsy Joseph and a Mary who looked as though she really needed to find a bathroom in a hurry, Tony knew that he probably wouldn’t be spending a lot more time rearranging the landscapes back in Cheryl’s old bedroom.  He wasn’t sure, exactly what he would be doing – only that he would be doing – and not watching – for as many days as God gave to him.

For his entire adult life, Pastor Tony resisted change, seeing it only as loss.  When he got a glimpse of a God who was willing to transform and walk with him in the midst of anything, Tony’s fear of change diminished, and was replaced with a sense of trust and adventure.  Oh, he knew he hadn’t got it all figured out yet, but he also knew he was on the right track.

And that has made all the difference.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

A God Who Sings

Sunday, December 16 was the third Sunday of Advent – a time of waiting, watching, wondering, confessing, searching, and hoping – something that we did a great deal of this past weekend.  Our texts for the day included Zephaniah 3:14-20 and  Luke 1:68-79

pianoDo you like to sing?  And do you ever sit around with your friends and pass away the evening with a few songs?  It seems to me that back in the day, people sang together all the time.  A century ago, we’d all sit around the old piano in the parlor and have a great time.  Before that, we’d be around the campfire and someone would croon along with the harmonica or guitar.  Singing was something that normal people did on normal days.

And then we got radio, and recordings and before too long it seemed as if it was better to leave the singing to the professionals.  The more you hear someone like Bing Crosby or Adele, the more you realize that you aren’t the best vocalist God ever put on this earth.  You might not be the best singer in your circle of friends, your family, or even in your shower.  And whereas once upon a time it didn’t matter that not everyone had the dulcet tones of Michael Buble or Whitney Houston, now we seem to think that if we can’t do it like a pro, we shouldn’t do it at all.

Except at Christmas.  Christmas is the one time of year when it is acceptable to sing in public.  If you don’t believe me, then come along with us this afternoon as we go and inflict ourselves on the – er, I mean, as we go share the Good News of the season with the folks who live in The Pines of Mt. Lebanon.

Dylan_Xmas2Not only is it safe for amateurs to sing at Christmas, but we are willing to tolerate incredibly bad music at this time of year.  Bob Dylan, why did you ever make a Christmas Album?  Is there anyone who really wants to buy Twisted Sister singing “O Come, All Ye Faithful”?  And William Shatner singing “Good King Wenceslas”?  “Christmas on Death Row”, by Snoop Dogg?

Why?

Christmas is about singing.  If we don’t, someone will. And it’s been that way since the beginning.

Sure, Dave, we remember the angels.

Yes, well, that’s part of it.  But it goes deeper and further than that.  The angels learned all that music from someone.

There are a lot of places where we could turn to find the answer to “who taught the angels how to sing”, but this morning’s reading is as good as any.  Let’s look at the context.

ZephaniahZephaniah was sent to tell the truth to God’s people during the reign of King Josiah in Jerusalem – between 640 and 609 BC.  The Northern Kingdom has already been overtaken by the Assyrians, and Zephaniah is coming to tell the remainder of God’s people that God is a God of judgment and justice.  The beginning of the book that bears his name depicts God as a warrior who comes onto the scene punishing those who have broken faith with God: those who have worshiped idols; those who have mistreated the poor; those who have deserted justice.  More than that, says Zephaniah, God is going to deal with the surrounding nations as well.  Judah’s neighbors were apparently taunting the people of God, saying that God was too far away to do anything, that God was not interested in or able to keep faith with his people.  All in all, most of the book of Zephaniah is a hard and terrible prophecy of doom for those who are arrogant or violent or unjust or cruel.

But like many of the prophetic works of the Old Testament, it closes with a promise.  Listen to the verses that precede the reading you’ve already heard:

On that day you, Jerusalem, will not be put to shame for all the wrongs you have done to me, 
because I will remove from you your arrogant boasters. 
Never again will you be haughty on my holy hill. 
But I will leave within you the meek and humble.
 The remnant of Israel will trust in the name of the Lord.
They will do no wrong; they will tell no lies.
 A deceitful tongue will not be found in their mouths.
They will eat and lie down and no one will make them afraid. (Zeph. 3:11-13).

The Lord is both interested in and able to keep faith with those whom he has called.  The Lord has no intention of forgetting the covenant.  The judgment of the Lord is not about coming in and punishing people he is just steamed at and can’t wait to destroy: it’s about restoring his original intentions; about protecting the weak from the violent, about establishing justice and lifting up the fallen.

There is a wonderful scene in the passage you’ve heard where God’s people are free to sing and dance as in a carnival or a fair.  The enemy has been banished and the streets are full of laughter and joy.  One image that I have when I read this is remembering the way that South Carson Street looked the last time the Steelers won the Super Bowl.  An even better image that some of you might remember is the day that Nelson Mandela was freed after being imprisoned by the apartheid regime in South Africa for nearly three decades.  On that day, more than a quarter of a million people crowded into Capetown to celebrate the beginning of a new South Africa.

Zephaniah 3:14-17 by Gwen Meharg.  Used by permission of the artist.  More at http://www.drawneartogod.com/default.asp

Zephaniah 3:14-17 by Gwen Meharg. Used by permission of the artist. More at http://www.drawneartogod.com/default.asp

Both of those images pale in comparison to that which is described by the prophet, though.  The people are singing and dancing and there is such great joy – but there’s even more than that – because the Lord God is there in their midst.  Those who celebrate do so not only because of God, but in the presence of God!  God is singing with and to the people of God!

Doesn’t this image point us towards some of Jesus’ stories? The one about the father who was so happy that his son came home that he ran through the streets of the village and grabbed his son, and then ordered a feast on his behalf?  Or the woman who was so overcome with joy when she found a coin that she feared she’d lost that she called her neighbors and begged them to come and have a party with her?

Beloved, this is an Advent prophecy!  Zephaniah describes the God who makes it his business to restore purposes and defeat enemies and celebrate with the last, the least, the lost, and the little.  That is what it will be like, says Zephaniah!

Six hundred years later, an old priest named Zechariah is taking his turn in the Temple.  While inside, he encounters an angel who tells him that God is about to take another step in bringing that kind of reality to pass and send the Messiah to come and save the people.  Nine months later, the old man holds his baby for the first time, and just like the Lord in Zephaniah’s prophecy, he can’t help but sing and rejoice.  The only difference is that whereas in Zephaniah, the prophecy is about what God will do, here in Luke, Zechariah talks about what God has done.  True, this child is a newborn who hasn’t even filled his first diaper yet, but in Zechariah’s mind the deed is as good as done.  So far as he can see, God’s actions are unfolding even now.

Zechariah and John, by Jonathan Case.  Used by permission of the artist.  More at http://jonathancase.net

Zechariah and John, by Jonathan Case. Used by permission of the artist. More at http://jonathancase.net

And did you hear what he said to the little man?  He looked the next generation in the eye and he said, “You, child – YOU – will prepare the way.  You are not the messiah – but you can direct people to the place where they can see him.  You are not the light – but you can remind people that the darkness is not eternal.  You are not the song – but you can hum along until people get confident enough to sing it themselves.”

So here’s the deal: this is my best guess.  All of those terrible Christmas songs that I mentioned earlier are a simple testimony of the fact that human beings want to sing.  People want to know something of the hope, joy, and peace that echoes through these refrains.  But when we stop to think about the huge claims that are made in these songs – a world redeemed, a people regenerated, the hungry fed, the poor hearing good news – well, sometimes that gets a little scary to sing those lyrics.  And so we sing, all right, but we sing about reindeer and snowmen because somehow, to our modern ear, those songs sound a little less preposterous than does “O Holy Night.”

The thing is, though, that Santa and Rudolph and Frosty don’t really get much of the heavy lifting of Christmas actually done.  They’re about stuff, and Christmas is about substance.  They’re about happy, and Christmas is about joy.  They’re about escape from reality, and Christmas is about deliverance from sin and evil.

So Church, this week, let me ask you to help continue the work of Advent.  In particular, let me ask you if you will use your energy and your gifts to help someone else be able to sing a little louder or a little stronger.

Take your voice to the market, and as you shop, sing for justice.  That is, use the power that you have to help to create a world wherein everyone has the opportunity to feed their family and earn a decent living.

This week, the church will take her voice to the graveyard and dwell for a while with those who grieve as we sing for hope.  The people in Newtown Connecticut need to know that there is a song for them this Advent.  You’ve already sung one verse of that this morning:

O come, thou Day-Spring, come and cheer

Our spirits by Thine advent here.

Disperse the gloomy clouds of night

And death’s dark shadows put to flight!

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel

Shall come to thee O Israel.

Remember that there are many of those for whom this Christmas will be difficult, and honor them by giving them the chance to tell their stories and share their pain.

Take your voice to the fringes of the room where you will find many who are marginalized or forgotten and sing of the Body of Christ.  Remind the last, the lost, the least, and the little that the promises of God are for them.

And this is a hard thing to say – but raise your voice to those who oppress and slaughter and do violence and join Zephaniah and Zechariah in singing to them that there is a reckoning.  God will come – for those who are hurt, and to those who have hurt them; for those who are little, and to those who would keep them small; for those who are deemed insignificant, and to those who would just as soon forget them.  The Lord’s coming is Good News – but what is Good News to much of the world is bad news to Herod, for instance.  Who will sing to the Herods of our day?

Advent and Christmas are seasons in which we recognize that it is the Lord who has come and that it is the Lord who is in the midst of his people, singing and dancing.  This is God’s deal.  This is God’s doing.  This is God’s business.  This is God’s strength.

But there is room in Advent for prophets.  For Zephaniah.  For Zechariah.  For John.  For me.  For you.  Sing!  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

The Problem With Light

As our culture plunges headlong toward Christmas, the church of Jesus Christ is lumbering along through Advent.  We are waiting for a new sense of the Promise, we are hoping for a fresh glimpse of the Light, and we have new Hope in the journey.  This message was preached in Crafton Heights on December 9, and is rooted in Malachi 3:1-4 and John 1:1-9

Gustave Dore, The People Mourning Over the Ruins of Jerusalem (woodcutting, 1866)

Gustave Dore, The People Mourning Over the Ruins of Jerusalem (woodcutting, 1866)

Jerusalem, 444 BC.  It is a difficult time and place – a dispirited environment.  Those who live here are survivors from the exile in Babylon.  They’ve heard the stories from their elders, but the days of King David and King Solomon – heck, the days of Kings Zedekiah and Jehoiachin seem like a real stretch.  The “glory of Israel” exists mostly as a fantasy in the minds of some old-timers.  The streets are ill-kept.  The stories all talk about the “twelve tribes” but the few who are here are mostly from either Judah or Benjamin.  There are no walls in the city.  There’s no temple to speak of.

We used to think that God was alive and moving in and through the power of the nation of Israel.  But now, we see a people that are clearly in the margins of society and history – an insignificant little province in a dim corner of the Persian Empire.

Back in the day, we’d look for the news and hear about the exploits of King Saul or the Prophet Elijah.  Now, you look at the front page and all you read about is the up and coming Grecian culture.  The Battle of Thermopylae is shaping the world – no one cares about Palestine?  What is Israel?  Who are we? Does the covenant that God made still matter?

And those who are charged with reminding us of the ancient truths – the priests – are lazy and corrupt.  They tolerate poor worship.  They offer bad advice.  Those who do show up to worship do so half-heartedly.  Instead of bringing their best to God, they offer the lame sheep or the blind goats.  They are going through the motions, at best, and simply repeating the words to some old songs that long ago lost their meaning.

This is the setting into which God sends the prophet Malachi.  Filled with the Spirit of God, he comes into this town, this temple, these people, and he says, “Are you for real? Do you know what you’re saying?  You are sleepwalking in your faith – mumbling and stumbling and you don’t really expect anything to change!”

The book that bears Malachi’s name is a series of dialogues in which Malachi repeats some of the things that those in Israel have said, and then offers God’s response.  Chapter two ends with the people asking, “Where is the God of justice?”  It’s as if the people are saying, “Gee, we’re doing all the things that God wants us to do, but God doesn’t seem interested in us.  We really hope that he’ll come and get things sorted out, but, gee, we haven’t seen him lately…”

And Malachi – which is Hebrew for “my messenger” – bursts onto the scene and explodes.  Do you remember that scene in A Few Good Men where Lt. Daniel Kaffee (played by Tom Cruise) is questioning Col. Nathan Jessup (played by Jack Nicholson) and he asks Jessup for the truth?  Kaffee has Jessup on the stand, and their exchange goes like this [warning: this contains some words that you don’t usually hear in church!] :

Col. Jessep: You want answers?

Kaffee: I think I’m entitled to.

Col. Jessep: *You want answers?*

Kaffee: *I want the truth!*

Col. Jessep: *You can’t handle the truth!*

Malachi says, “Go ahead, question the Lord.  Go ahead, say that you want the Lord to come.  But let me tell you something – you have to be careful what you wish for!”

Malachi uses satire as he deals with the worshipers, saying, “the Lord whom you seek” and “the messenger…in whom you delight”.  Clearly, these are people who are half-hearted about seeking the Lord at best, and any “delight” that they have in the covenant is in name only.  But Malachi says, “You know what?  God has heard your prayer, and he is coming.  And it’s going to be rough.”

Why?  Because God is going to purify his people. And purification is not easy.  Did you hear how the “messenger of the Lord” was referred to?  He’s compared with a “refiner’s fire” and with “fuller’s soap”.  A refiner’s fire was a white-hot flame used to burn away impurities from precious metals.  Fuller’s soap was a caustic solution used to bleach imperfections from cloth and wool, and it contained lye.  Can you imagine the “Precious Moments” figurines that would be based on the messenger of the Refiner’s Fire and the Fuller’s Soap?  How about going home from church today and turning on the “Hallmark Hall of Fame” special, and seeing “a heart-warming tale of a man who comes back to his old neighborhood and throws lye on everyone before he sets them on fire…” Yeah, this is not a photo on a lot of Christmas cards.

The reality that Malachi longs to impress on the people is this: that God does now, and has always taken the promise seriously, and that God expects his people to do the same.  Malachi looks at his congregation and says, “How can you ‘mail it in’ when it comes to your faith and obedience, and then stay up all night praying, ‘Gee, God, where are you?’  Take the promise seriously – and expect God to show up.”

Malachi – the messenger – was sent to remind the people that God had never left the people, even when they accused him of doing so.

The Gospel of John announces the birth of the Messiah to a world that was not unlike Malachi’s.  Now, 400+ years later, Palestine was a backwater province of the Roman Empire, which had defeated the Greeks, who had defeated the Persians.  Caesar is in control, Rome dominates the headlines, Jerusalem is a ‘has-been’ and Galilee is a ‘who cares?’.

Rembrandt, "The Preaching of John the Baptist" (1635)

Rembrandt, The Preaching of John the Baptist (1635)

But the light has come, says John.  The true light, that enlightens every person, has come into the world.  Isn’t that great news?  Isn’t that fantastic?

Well, it is if you want light.

Come on, John!  Who wouldn’t want light?

The people who profit from the darkness.  Those who find illumination to be disruptive.

We join the church in Advent proclamation.  We hear John the Baptist preaching and Mary and Zechariah singing about a God who is doing new things in the world – changing not only our inner reality but the social order.  Remember the Magnificat?  The hungry are filled with good things, and the rich are sent empty away…the mighty are put down from their thrones and the lowly are lifted up.

There’s a lot to be said for darkness.  There are a lot of people who defend it.  The pronouncement of light is an intrusive – and often unwelcome – word.  Don’t forget what they did to John the Baptist…or to Jesus, for that matter.

So as we read the Advent Scriptures and as we proclaim the coming of God’s messiah, we do so with a warning: be careful what you pray for, Church.

We are asking for the light.  If that’s the case, we’ve got to be prepared to leave the darkness.

Of course, Dave, you’re talking in circles now.

Cristo Redentor statue in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Cristo Redentor statue in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

No, I’m being honest.  It is not always my experience that people welcome illumination in their hearts or in their lives.  Think about light.  It can cause incredible discomfort.  Would you like to know what my earliest Christmas memory is?  I wish I could say it was something about visions of sugarplums or stockings hung with care, but it centers around my dad’s drive to record the Christmas experience on his super 8 movie projector.  He had a small camera with an incredible light bar on it and he came into the room before we were allowed to open the presents and he fired that baby up and I could not see a thing.  The lights were too much.  They made for a good movie, but they were very uncomfortable.

Think about this.  Let’s say that you got a great deal on jeans this holiday season.  I mean, you shopped around and you finally found the perfect size and the perfect cut.  And then you got home and heard about a fire in a factory in Bangladesh that killed more than a hundred people.  The great deal that you got came because a series of shadow corporations bought and sold garments, and more importantly, bought and sold people.

Don’t you wish you didn’t know about that fire?  Or where your clothing came from?  Wouldn’t it be better if we could just roll back those prices and be happy and ignorant and go about our business?  But once you know – once the light has shone on something like that – then you have to decide to what extent you are willing to profit from someone else’s misery and pain.

Yeah, merry Christmas to you, too, Dave.

The light can cause discomfort.  It can also cause embarrassment or shame.  A couple of months ago I was watching a movie in the privacy of my own little mancave.  I’ll admit, I was enjoying some raisinettes.  Go ahead, judge me.  But I love them.  And I spilled a couple.  Well, I thought I had them all picked up.  And then my doorbell rang, and I left the darkness of my own personal theater and answered the door and stood there blinking in the sunlight as the UPS man stared at the brown gooey splotches on my khakis and wondered how close he should stand to me.  When I was in the dark, I didn’t notice that my raisinettes had melted on my lap.  But when the lights came on, I had to deal with the situation.

Every time we grow spiritually, we move closer to the light.  And every time we get closer to the light, we are likely to see something about ourselves that we find to be unpleasant.  As the power of Christ grows in us, we see aspects of ourselves that we hadn’t noticed before, and we know that they are not right.

And then we have a choice:  we can retreat into the comfort of the shadows and pretend that everything is great, or we can work through the hard stuff and accept the new revelation that the light has brought.

If you follow the popular culture, it’s a no-brainer.  Have a holly, jolly Christmas!  It’s the best time of the year!  Go ahead and buy!  Shop!  Do something wonderful!  Enjoy!  Be happy!  If something is hard, or doesn’t feel good, or makes you wonder – well, slap a bow on it and pretend it’s nothing but smiles and giggles.  There’s no time for introspection or evaluation – just get on board and keep the train running!  If something makes you uncomfortable – don’t think about it!

But the church says it’s not Christmas yet.  It’s Advent.  And in Advent, we wait and we watch, we hope and we pray.  If we see something that is hard, or makes us wonder, or causes us some sense of alarm, we pray about it.  We confess and we repent.  And we choose to grow into and toward the love of Christ.  And we choose to encourage each other to do the same.

In my experience, Advent and learning the love the light and to walk into that light require a couple of things from us.

First, it would seem obvious that each of us can simply acknowledge that the light will reveal some difficult and unpleasant truths about ourselves.  We are all in need of more healing, more grace, more growth.  We all have some ugly and difficult spots.  Yep.  Accept that and move on.

In that knowledge that there probably are some places in your heart and spirit that will be – can I say “less than flattering” or comfortable – that you gather one or two people to come alongside of you and help you digest what that light reveals.

Be patient with yourself as you grow.  As we’ve noted before, it can take an oak tree up to fifty years to produce an acorn.  Move towards the light in the confidence that the things that you find to be difficult about yourself need not always be true.  Believe that in Christ, the light of God is here.  Know that the refiner’s fire and the fuller’s soap are for you.

Malachi and John the Baptist are our friends – our brothers.  Hope, growth, and love are possible.  The covenant still stands.  God is with us.  If there is anything that Advent teaches us, it is that God is always with us.  Take another step towards the light, and give thanks to God.  Amen.

A Heart Condition

Lots of folk think that it’s Advent.  And it is.  But in Crafton Heights, it’s still Stewardship Season (or at least was until December 2).  This year, instead of the traditional “Sermon on the Amount”, we are pursuing a church-wide time of reflection and study called Extravagant Generosity. This four week program includes small group reflections, individual devotions, and suggested sermon themes.  This message was preached on December 2 and was based on 2 Corinthians 8:1-9; 22-24 and John 3:16-17.

HeartConditionHave you ever stopped to think about the power of singular events to disrupt or transform your life?  One day, everything is great.  The next day, you’ve got a broken arm and you can’t dress yourself.

A friend of mine was sick, and so I did what I often do when a friend is ailing: I visited.  We chatted. As the illness progress, I visited once a week, sometimes twice.

And then it became evident that my friend was not merely sick, but that she was dying.  And she was alone.  And before too long I was going to visit my friend four or five times a week, sometimes for four or five hours at a time.  Middle of the day or the middle of the night… It didn’t really seem to matter.  I just tried to be there when she needed me.

If you were to come to me after worship today and say, “Dave, I’ve got a favor to ask. And I’m afraid it’s a pretty big favor.  I am going to need you for 15 – 25 hours a week for the next couple of months”, well, I’d respond by telling you that I think you are nuts if you believe I’ve got that much time on my hands.  I’m a busy guy.

And yet – while my friend was dying – I did that.  And I wish I could have been there more.

You know how that is, I think.  By the grace of God, you know what it is to be generous with your time, or your energy, or your self, or your spirit as you gave those things to someone you loved.

During the summer that my friend died, there was not much fishing.  I can’t remember the television programs that I missed.  I would imagine that I went more than 3,000 miles between scheduled oil changes.

Do you know what?  It didn’t matter.  I was doing something more important with my time and my energy. I was spending it in love.  And I would do it again if you gave me half a chance.

The title of today’s message is “A Heart Condition”.  Almost always when we use those words, we intend them to convey some dire consequences.  “Did you hear?  Bob’s developed a heart condition.”

“Oh, no, what’s going on?”

“Well, the doctors haven’t said much, just that there’s a condition present.”

Well, folks, to be honest, we ALL have a heart condition, don’t we?  I mean some of us have hearts that are in great condition, and some have hearts that are in lousy condition.  But they are all in some condition or other, aren’t they?

Image by Stuart McMillen.  Used by permission of the artist.  http://www.stuartmcmillen.com

Image by Stuart McMillen. Used by permission of the artist. http://www. stuartmcmillen.com

I was talking about this with my friend Adam Simcox, who regularly rides his bike up Noblestown Road from the West End.  I commented on the cardiovascular workout that must be for him.  He does it several times a week.  If I were to go out there and try it, my heart would just explode, no questions asked.  You’d be scraping me off the pavement along with that landslide.

But Adam’s heart is conditioned for that trek.  He has the capacity for it, and I don’t.  Why?  Because he’s trained.  He’s practiced.  He’s exercised.

What is your heart condition?  What is the condition of your heart?  Note – I’m switching metaphors here.  Instead of wanting to know how much blood your aorta can handle, I want to know something about your heart’s capacity for love, or devotion, or sacrifice, or giving.  What kind of shape is your heart in when it comes to those things?

When I’m talking about my physical health, I could order an EKG, and that would give some indication as to the strength and timing of the electrical signals that operate my cardio system.  But what can I do to ascertain the capacity of my heart for love, devotion, or sacrifice?

One way to look at how I love is to consider how I give.  The gospel lesson for today tells us about the gift of God in Jesus Christ.  “For God so loved the world…that he gave his son.”  God valued the world enough to give the world the thing that was most precious to himself.

Or Paul, writing to his friends in Corinth, helps them to administer a little heart exam on themselves. He makes a direct connect between their ability to give with their capacity to love.  People love, says Paul, and it somehow leaks out through their wallets.  People feel passionate about something or someone, and they can’t help but respond by trying to meet the needs that are present.

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I’m afraid to tell you that America’s got a heart condition.  And when I say that, I mean it in the negative sense.  There’s a real problem out there.

How do I know?  Well, take a look at the tests.  In 1933, the average American gave away about 3.3% of his or her income.  In 2011, that percentage dropped to 2.6%.[1]

Migrant MotherPeople who were living here two generations ago and who were not burdened by things like indoor plumbing or smart phones or reliable refrigerators or television or air conditioning or SUV’s or air travel…were more generous than we are today.  In case you’ve forgotten, 1933 was the heart of the “Great Depression”.  1933 is the time to which politicians always point and say, “We can’t let it get that bad again…”  And yet, our brothers and sisters eighty years ago found a way to give 27% more than we do.  Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that we have found a way to give 27% less than they did.

And that, my friends, is a problem.  We are diminished when we lose our capacity to act on or in the love that we have received.  We are not as healthy, not as in shape, as we could be.

Fortunately, the scriptures also contain a therapy program for those of us who have developed heart trouble.  It’s generosity.  It’s deciding to love more today than I did yesterday.  To give more this week than I did last week.

I hope I’m not beating a dead horse here, but let me ask what I believe is an obvious question: why do we give?  Because we love.

Why did I visit my friend so often while she lay dying?  Because I loved her more than I loved my fishing, my gardening, or my television viewing.

Why should I make my income available for the Lord’s work?  Because I love God and the people of God more than I love whatever toys that money might purchase.

Those of us who have been reading Practicing Extravagant Generosity were struck by a line in Monday’s reading:

 Name one person you admire and respect because of all they keep for themselves.  Name someone you consider generous and spiritually mature who constantly complains about giving, or who always seeks to give the least amount required.  Largeness of spirit leads to an eagerness to give our utmost and highest. (p. 72)

As I apply that line of reasoning to my own life, it occurs to me as I look back on the first half of my life, it’s never occurred to me to think, “You know, I wish I’d have spent more time on Sudoku puzzles…I really wish I had put a lot more television shows on VHS back in the 80’s…My life would be a lot better if I had more stuff lying around the house.”  I just don’t think those things.  I don’t wish for that.

But there’s not a day that goes by wherein I don’t wish that I’d have done more for my dying friend…or for hungry Malawians…or for scared and lonely children.

hands of loveBecause I have a heart condition.  And I’m trying to grow.  To grow in my ability to love.  And to grow in my ability to give.

And today, because I love you, I want to invite you to join me in working on this heart condition that I think we share.  To join me in looking for ways to improve our heart health, and to enlarge our capacity to show and to share the love that we have received.

It’s not going to be easy for anyone.  And the truth is that it’s going to be plain miserable for you if you spend a lot of time and energy comparing yourself to me or to the person next to you.  You measuring yourself against someone else’s ability to be generous today might be like me comparing my ability to ride a bike up Noblestown Road with Simcox’s ability to do the same.  In all of our heart therapy, we have to start with where we are and work to grow to being where we need to be.

The question is not, “Can I be Dave or Adam or Bill Gates?”  The question is, “Am I being my best self?  How can I take one step towards growing in my ability to share the outrageous love of God with those around me?  What steps can I take to improve my heart health?”

Most of you should have gotten an “estimate of giving” card in the mail this week.  If you didn’t, you’ll see them on the tables in the back of the room.  Let me encourage you to find one and to fill it out.  To pray, and then to give.  To pray, and to grow.  To pray, and then to love.

I can promise you that you will not regret it.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.