Bethlehem, by Zitella Cocke (1840-1929)

Bethlehem
by Zitella Cocke (1840-1929)

Inside the walls of Bethlehem-town
A new-born infant smiled,
And seraphs bright with song looked down
Upon the Holy Child.

Shepherd their Shepherd saw, amazed,
And bowed them to the floor,
Kings on a mightier monarch gazed,
And gave Him costly store.

But she, whose silent pondering
In paths prophetic trod,
Knew she had borne the Holy Thing
Which was the Lamb of God.

This morning on my way to the office I caught Garrison Keillor’s reading of this poem by Anne Porter. This evening I read it to my bride over dinner. We both agree that it is poignant and full of truth. I share it with the hopes that it may feed your soul as well.

Music

by Anne Porter

When I was a child
I once sat sobbing on the floor
Beside my mother’s piano
As she played and sang
For there was in her singing
A shy yet solemn glory
My smallness could not hold

And when I was asked
Why I was crying
I had no words for it
I only shook my head
And went on crying

Why is it that music
At its most beautiful
Opens a wound in us
An ache a desolation
Deep as a homesickness
For some far-off
And half-forgotten country

I’ve never understood
Why this is so

But there’s an ancient legend
From the other side of the world
That gives away the secret
Of this mysterious sorrow

For centuries on centuries
We have been wandering
But we were made for Paradise
As deer for the forest

And when music comes to us
With its heavenly beauty
It brings us desolation
For when we hear it
We half remember
That lost native country

We dimly remember the fields
Their fragrant windswept clover
The birdsongs in the orchards
The wild white violets in the moss
By the transparent streams

And shining at the heart of it
Is the longed-for beauty
Of the One who waits for us
Who will always wait for us
In those radiant meadows

Yet also came to live with us
And wanders where we wander.

“Music” by Anne Porter from Living Things. © Zoland Books, 2006.

The Four Evangelists

The church has carried a love/hate relationship with the visual arts throughout its history with polarities swinging from the veneration of statuary to the destruction of all things that might even hint at idolatry. (This article is an excellent primer for more on this fascinating history.) My protestant roots tended toward the latter, causing me to cast a suspicious eye on any symbol, other than a cross (an empty one, mind you), gracing a sanctuary. My first exposure to “stained glass” was akin to what is pictured here; coloured-window-filmit certainly added some beauty to an otherwise plain space and offered a welcome distraction for a young boy with hints of ADD, but it dared not attempt to communicate something of significance.

This past Sunday I quizzed our solid, and often stolid, Southern Baptist congregation on the iconic representation of the four evangelists and, not surprisingly, they came up empty. By contrast, utilizing only verbal clues, they readily identified the significance of “a blue square with a lowercase ‘f’“. While we are fluent in the iconography of our modern culture we are largely, sadly illiterate when it comes to the rich and meaning-filled visuals that are part of our Christian heritage. Perhaps it is time for us to reconnect with our roots. I, for one, have come late to this treasure trove, and am moved by those who, in an uncertain and difficult world, invested time, treasure, and much creative energy into creating and sustaining the redemption story in visual imagery.

apostlesallfourweb

These four symbols have represented the four gospels across Christian history since the 4th century, and I have only recently become aware of them. There are various interpretations of the meaning attached to these images associated with the four gospel accounts. I turn to Jerome (A.D.347-420), known for his translation of Scripture into Latin, who describes these icons in the preface to his commentary on Matthew:

The first face of a man signifies Matthew, who began his narrative as though about a man: “The book of the generation of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham.” The second [face signifies] Mark in whom the voice of a lion roaring in the wilderness is heard: “A voice of one shouting in the desert: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” The third [is the face] of the calf which prefigures that the evangelist Luke began with Zachariah the priest. The fourth [face signifies] John the evangelist who, having taken up eagle’s wings and hastening toward higher matters, discusses the Word of God.

Is there a place for the visual arts in sacred space? In our image driven society I believe it to be just as important as it was for the early church, perhaps more so. The ancient images are still telling a story to an illiterate people in our modern age. We need images that help us connect the redemption story to our lives. I am praying for a renaissance of Christ-centered, Christ-honoring art that will draw our eyes, and our hearts, to the salvation story. I am also praying that in revisiting the beauty and energy produced by those who have gone before us, we will be reminded of a beautiful redemption story worthy of telling in word, in song, in glass, in oil, and in stone.

Soli Deo Gloria.

 

 

The Feast of Stephen

rembrandt_steniging_stefanus_grt
The Stoning of St. Stephen, Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn

For most of my life December 26th has simply been “the day after Christmas.” One of the downsides to being raised Southern Baptist is our collective ignorance of the Christian calendar and its telling of the salvation story through the annual rhythms and changes of the seasons. Many, if not most (by a wide margin), of my Baptist brethren have no idea that there are annual observances beyond Christmas and Easter, and we are the poorer for it. While I don’t anticipate donning seasonal regalia or doggedly following a liturgical calendar, I do find myself increasingly mindful of the rich, deep heritage of worship and remembrance we have as believers. Case in point, December 26th.

I am fascinated by the fact that the church calendar places the feast of Stephen, the first Christian martyr (See the story in Acts 7), on the day following the celebration of Christ’s birth. It is an arresting juxtaposition. Why place this sobering story of death side-by-side with angels, and shepherds, and magi coming to worship? Can we not at least let the babe lie in the manger for awhile without the specter of death? Frankly, it seems out of place. Yet it is not.

While my Baptist heritage kept me mostly in the dark about all things liturgical, my privileged place in the world, as an inhabitant of the United States of America, has shielded me from the stark and difficult realities of believers in much of the rest of the world. My greatest fear the day after Christmas is that my children may beat me to the last piece of Hummingbird cake. This picture of Syrian Christians worshipping amid the rubble of their church paints a very real, and very different reality.

 

syrian-chirstians-in-aleppo
Christmas Mass in St. Elias Maronite cathedral in Aleppo, among the ruins caused by the four-year-long strife. (@Maher_mon via Twitter)

 

Suddenly the Feast of Stephen makes more sense. It seems the early church understood the necessity of reminding believers of a startling truth; coming to worship the babe in the manger is fraught with danger.

As much as I would like to be like the magi who worshipped, left their gifts, and went back to their star gazing, the Feast of Stephen reminds me that this celebration of Immanuel may cost me my very life. It may cost you yours.

Merry Christmas.

Jesus answered, “Will you lay down your life for me? –John 13:38

 

 

Church on Christmas Day? Yes, Please!

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

These familiar words will be sung in churches all across the world in just a few days. As I consider the startling conversation that has sprung up around the issue of whether or not to have church services on Christmas morning I find myself humming these words. Apparently some pastors are calling off Sunday services to allow families unfettered time to indulge their materialistic gorge-fest of wrapping paper and ribbons, complete with batteries and return receipts, rather than provide them the opportunity to do more than offer lip service to “what the season is really about.” The tired bumper sticker, “Jesus is the reason for the season!” probably needs to be removed from the family vehicle if we chose to celebrate His birthday by not showing up for the celebration.

Granted there will be some with legitimate reasons not to attend a service celebrating the singular event in human history, God becoming flesh, but to think that on this day, of all days, the church doors would be closed is simply stunning. Some will, no doubt, point out an overcrowded travel schedule for the day, while others will be doing their best to shake off the lingering effects of too much to eat and too much to drink the night before. Some will wonder if dragging the kiddos away from their toys will be a possibility and others will discover that the “requires some assembly” sticker was being generous in its estimation of the difficulty involved.

There will always be plausible reasons to stay away, but why would you? What if you missed it because you were too busy? What if the event of all events happened and you found something better to do? What if it happened and you were simply so caught up in your own comings and goings that you missed it?

I am eternally grateful to my friend Carol Douglas for introducing me to The Adoration of Kings in the Snow, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1597, and I share it with you here in the hopes that it will speak to you as well. You will have to do a bit of searching to find the babe and the wise men for there is much going on in this busy little town; there is water to be drawn, horses to be packed, commerce to be transacted, burdens to be borne, and other sundry, and certainly worthy, projects to be undertaken. The great tragedy is that so many miss the point. So many miss the child. And they still do.

 

the-adoration-of-the-kings-in-the-snow-1557
The Adoration of Kings in the Snow, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1597

 

This Sunday I anxiously await the gathering of the faithful as they come to adore. Perhaps we will hear the faint echo of angel voices raised in celebration or catch a glimpse of awestruck shepherds, and maybe, just maybe, if we will cease our strivings for a moment, we too will see the Word made flesh, full of grace and truth (John 1:14). “O come let us adore Him!”

A new (to me) Christmas Hymn

 

Ambrose of Milan (A.D. 339-397), stands as an important character from the history of the earlImage result for ambrose of milany church. I was dimly acquainted with this remarkable figure, as he was the first leader of the church acknowledged to have won a victory over the state during the reign of Theodosius, (you can read more about him here.) however, I was completely unaware of his prolific hymn writing until a short, few days ago.

Ambrose was the veritable “Chris Tomlin” of the early church and, blessedly, some of those hymns have been preserved for us. You will note the startling lack of repetitive phrasing and the rich theological content of this hymn. I post it for your enlightenment and Christmas enjoyment.

 

Come, Thou Redeemer of the earth,
And manifest Thy virgin birth:
Let every age adoring fall;
Such birth befits the God of all.

Begotten of no human will,
But of the Spirit, Thou art still
The Word of God in flesh arrayed,
The promised Fruit to man displayed.

The virgin womb that burden gained
With virgin honor all unstained;
The banners there of virtue glow;
God in His temple dwells below.

Forth from His chamber goeth He,
That royal home of purity,
A giant in twofold substance one,
Rejoicing now His course to run.

From God the Father He proceeds,
To God the Father back He speeds;
His course He runs to death and hell,
Returning on God’s throne to dwell.

O equal to the Father, Thou!
Gird on Thy fleshly mantle now;
The weakness of our mortal state
With deathless might invigorate.

Thy cradle here shall glitter bright,
And darkness breathe a newer light,
Where endless faith shall shine serene,
And twilight never intervene.

All laud to God the Father be,
All praise, eternal Son, to Thee;
All glory, as is ever meet,
To God the Holy Paraclete.

So, What Are You Reading Lately?

A pair of recent conversations and a few memorable exchanges (one even included the surprise gift of a couple of books my friend had been reading!) have cemented for me the lasting impact and import of this simple, but sticky, question, “What are you reading lately?” It is a question which I routinely ask people in the course of conversation and it has led to numerous worthy recommendations for future reading as well as untold conversations full of fascination and information. However, it has also elicited the always startling response of, “I don’t read much.”

The numbers are in, and it does not look good. In fact, it appears that we may be on the verge of a self-inflicted age of “literate illiteracy.” While we are busily catching up on the latest Facebook gossip, or attempting to squeeze that 160 character quote down to 140 characters, our ability, and even our desire, to attend to something more complex than the latest clever meme making the rounds has alarmingly atrophied. As one New York Times writer opined in January of this year, “[According to a Canadian media study conducted by Microsoft] we now have an attention span shorter than that of a goldfish.”  According to recent Pew Research 1 in 4 Americans did not read a single book in the last year and, worse still, 1 in 3 American men have not picked up a book in the last 12 months! The numbers sink even further for those with low incomes and no college education.

Reading is a gift which allows me to freely converse with ancients like Augustine and Isaiah. Through this marvelous facility I am able to pick the brains of brilliant and not-so-brilliant thinkers of our age like Hawking, Wright, or Dawkins (I will leave it to you to discern the brilliant/not-so-brilliant divide). Because of reading I have travelled to real places I will never put my feet, like the summit of Mt. Everest with Jon Krakauer or the South Pole with Sir Ernest Shackleton. Additionally, I have wandered the fantastical paths of Middle-earth and Narnia and crossed galaxies with Asimov and Herbert. The potential poverty of my life without reading is staggering to consider.

So, to the question again, “What are you reading lately?” I would truly like to know. Give me your best and most recent reads. Let’s share the love of great stories and the pursuit of worthy thought with one another.

In the spirit of transparency, I offer you my current reading stack:

The Nathaniel Drinkwater series by Richard Woodman. This series of nautical adventures is more robust that Horatio Hornblower and not so esoteric as Jack Aubrey. If you need to spend some time on the high seas, Nathaniel Drinkwater is a fine companion.

The Napoleon of Notting Hill by G.K. Chesterton. I am reading everything by Chesterton I can locate. He is eminently quotable and has a pithy wit. He would have an immediate affinity and command of social media were he living today.

The Collected Poetry of Robert Frost. His voice continues to stir something good, and pure, and simple, and profound in me. I commend a “Walk Through Snowy Woods” as you peer down “The Road Not Taken” and perhaps consider the business of “Mending Wall” with Mr. Frost.

Enduring Salvation: A collection of sermons delivered by Dr. Paul Vernon Bomar. Dr. Bomar served Siloam (the church I pastor) at the turn of the century from the 1800’s to the 1900’s. The opening line of the introduction is the following endearing quote from Dr. Bomar, “People ought to have religion enough to attend church regularly and sense enough to stay home in bad weather.” The sermons did not disappoint and challenge me to carry on the good work that others have done here before me.

How about you? What are you reading lately?