The Feast of Stephen

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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.

 

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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

 

 

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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.

 

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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?

 

3,304 Lives Lost Today

 

If these were people of color, or people of no color,

If these were convicted criminals, mentally disabled, or physically handicapped,

If these were women, gays, white men, black men, whores, thieves, or druggies in rehab (again),

If these were derelicts, outcasts, or homeless,

If these were deaf, mute, or blind,

If these were liberals, conservatives, SJWs, clingers, communists, capitalists, fascists, socialists, or some other “ists”,

If these were Black Panthers, KKK-ers, gangbangers, thugs, or bikers,

If these were Native Americans, Latinos, Middle Easterners, Asians, or Caucasians,

If these were Amish, Catholic, Muslim, Jew, Buddhists, Evangelicals, or Atheists,

There would be an unquenchable outcry for justice;

An unrelenting effort to bring an end to the horror;

An unapologetic condemnation of lives callously taken;

A collective shudder as we considered the loss of life.

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But these are not those.

Those can speak.

Those can raise a fist in defiance.

Those can hold a sign in protest or call a press conference.

Those can raise funds to fight the injustice.

Those can gather together for mutual support and help.

Those can stand shoulder-to-shoulder in the face of certain slaughter.

All of those, acceptable or disagreeable,

Can.

These cannot.

Are these less because they cannot?

Are these despised because they cannot?

Are these voices not to be heard because they cannot?

Are these considered “not” because they cannot?

How shall those who can respond to these who cannot?

*One that cannot is aborted every

26 seconds
137 every hour
3,304 every day
23,196 every week
100,516 every month
1.206,192 every year

in the United States alone.

(Source: Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life)

 

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”

Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

This famously unbalanced egg-head’s hubris led to his equally famous fall leaving “all the king’s horses and all the king’s men” the unpleasant task of bearing off his scrambled remains. It is astounding that it came down to words and their meaning. Humpty’s closing statement is quite telling, “which is to be master – that’s all.”

In an equally tragic, though much less fictitious, act of hubris, a committee of 9 decided for all under their jurisdiction just what particular words would mean, namely, “marriage.” Humpty’s question of who will be master has been answered for us and we are left with a swirling morass to be be sorted out with no clear understanding of just what words now mean. Already a Montana man has petitioned for the right to “marry” his second wife without severing his relationship with his first wife. It is a curious, if dreadful, thing to watch a society cast off from it’s foundational moorings trying to steer the ship with neither compass nor rudder.

Words have meanings and yes, those meanings often change and evolve. However, those words which seek to grapple with core issues of existence have a surprisingly stubborn and “sticky” sense about them. “Marriage” has been, and I suspect, will continue to be, one of those words. I have read with great interest the various attempts to discredit the notion of “traditional marriage” (an unfortunate pairing of words). All have pointed out the wide variety of familial arrangements throughout history, yet without exception they fail to acknowledge that the basic, and most widely entered into, relationship of EVERY society in the history of mankind has centered around the pairing of one man and one woman.

All of which leads me to offer you, my reader, a brief exercise utilizing a simple internet search. Using your preferred search engine seek out the relationship between the Greek concepts of hubris and nemesis (two of those “sticky” words that have found their way into our vocabulary). Yes, words have meaning, even if we have difficulty discerning just what it is they mean. As Alice tells Humpty after reading his marvelous poem, Jabberwocky,

“It seems very pretty,” she said when she had finished it, “but it’s rather hard to understand!” (You see she didn’t like to confess, even to herself, that she couldn’t make it out at all.) “Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas—only I don’t exactly know what they are! However, somebody killed something: that’s clear, at any rate.”

Yes, Alice, “somebody killed something” but it remains to be seen just what that something was. Here’s to “all the king’s men” who are tasked with cleaning up the unfortunate mess.

 

 

Some Wisdom from Os (Guinness, that is)

“Every age is fooled by its own fashions, and it is time to subject this modern idolatry of opinion and numbers to decisive Christian thinking…Legalization of any practice, and then its normalization through numbers, need never mean a revaluation of what we know to be wrong because God says so, simply because the majority opinion now hold it to be right. Ten million ignorant assertions, even when magnified and accelerated in a hundred million tweets and “likes,” still never add up to truth and wisdom, or what is right and good.” -Renaissance: The Power of the Gospel However Dark the Times.

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