Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Thursday, December 24, 2015

"He has opened heaven's door, and we are blessed forevermore."

"He has opened heaven's door, and we are blessed forevermore."
Carol: “Good Christians All Rejoice” – 14th Century Medieval Latin
            Translated by John Mason Neale

Ever notice how many carols are in 6/8 time? We use “rollicking” and “lilting” to describe the way their tunes dance along. They don’t get much more carefree than this tune! At the same time, its words speak some pretty decent theology!

Most of us may have loved this one as children because it was our one chance to sing “ass” in church and snicker behind our hands! Newer hymnals have removed that euphemism and left us with an unlaughable “beast” in its place.

Today’s hymnline draws a picture for us of what God does as he sets our redemption into motion: he swings wide the substantial doors that once upon a time may have separated humankind from the divine… and sets us on the road from Bethlehem to Calvary to Joseph’s Burial Garden.
Maybe it’s because of the music that accompanies this text, but something Medieval comes to mind… like from the period in which it was written. Heavy, heavy castle doors come into my view – maybe even a drawbridge. And I can almost hear the rumbling as the gates slowly open to reveal all that awaits… those blessings that are ours forevermore… because Christ is born today.

It’s a picture worth conjuring up because anything that can help me ‘see’ what God has done for me in Christ Jesus sticks with me much longer… especially when that sight is accompanied by music!

Sung by an Asian choir

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

"Veiled in flesh the God-head see. Hail the incarnate Deity."

Carol: “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” – Charles Wesley (1707-1788)
Sculpture by Kevin Frances Gray

I told you we’d be back to this one again, and here we are with a little more Wesleyan theology!

The God-head – the Trinity – Father, Son, Holy Spirit – Parent, Child, Presence. However you express it, the God-head is all there is of God… the entirety of his essence. And here, Wesley calls on us to look upon the flesh-encased depiction of all that God is! Skin, draped over the totality of the Divine. Now, that should give us pause!

The incarnate Deity is in our midst, and we should offer him his due: the highest, most-sincere praise. “Hail, King Jesus!”

During these last days of Advent, don’t miss seeing/realizing that incarnation!

Susan Boyle with Choir

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

"Pleased as a man with us to dwell."

Carol: “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” – Charles Wesley (1707-1788)

This is my favorite Christmas carol, so I'm using it today and tomorrow!

Charles Wesley had a way of putting his theology into poetry that still makes sense, long after his pen left the paper. His hymns almost always get at the heart of the gospel, and this one is no exception.

Today's hymnline tells us that Christ was “pleased as a man with us to dwell.” It was his pleasure to step from heaven to earth, to take on flesh, to live among humankind. I don’t think he and the Father had to come to some kind of deal or that he left heaven kicking and screaming.

As the Philippian Hymn says: “Christ, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient…” Taking on human likeness, appearing as a man, humbling himself, obeying, becoming a servant. Emmanuel. God WITH us.

And loving every minute of it – taking great delight in living among those whom his Father had created and placed on the earth.

I, for one, am glad he did.
Amy Grant Sings This Carol

Monday, December 21, 2015

"And all flesh shall see the token that God's word is never broken."

Carol: “Comfort, Comfort Ye My People” – Johannes G. Olearius (1611-1684)
Tune: GENEVAN 42

Catherine Winkworth’s translation of this ancient hymn text grabs me, reminding me that throughout time, God has presented us with signs of his promises: the rainbow in Noah’s day, the pillar of fire for Moses’ troops, the covenant with Abraham, and ultimately revealing himself in THE Sign: the Lord Christ. It is that revelation that we come to celebrate.
The sending of his Son was the ultimate token of his everlasting promise to the people of Israel. At Bethlehem’s manger, God is saying, “See. I keep my word. I always do.” On a nearby hillside the angels echo the sentiment, “Unto you a Savior is (finally) born” – that Savior you’ve been anticipating since the beginnings of the covenant relationship God had with the Jewish nation.

This carol is a great versification of Isaiah 40, opening with the same statement we find there spoken to the prophet by the Lord:  “Comfort, comfort ye my people.” In 40:5, we find the text on which my favorite Christmas chorus from MESSIAH is based: "And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. For the mouth of the LORD has spoken it.” It is from THIS passage that today’s hymnline is lifted; I think you can see the parallels without my going on and on about them!

These two centuries later, we need to be reminded of God’s faithfulness; what God says, he will do – eventually, finally. And even though “Standing on the Promises” is not a song for this season, that’s exactly what we need to continue to do.
Hear the Choir of Conrad Grebel College

Friday, December 18, 2015

"Look now! For glad and golden hours come swiftly on the wing."

Carol: “It Came upon the Midnight Clear” – Edmund H. Sears (1810-1876)

     All ye, beneath life's crushing load
     Whose forms are bending low,
     Who toil along the climbing path
     With painful steps and slow.
     Look now! for glad and golden hours
     Come swiftly on the wing.
     O rest beside the weary road
     And hear the angels sing.
“Heads up!” Don’t put it off. “Look now!” This seems to be a call to immediate response to the sound of angels’ wings… and the words they sing/say.

This stanza of the carol is addressed to all who find themselves beneath the crushing load of life, whose bodies and spirits are drooping under the weight of the struggles. Perhaps these encumbrances are the result of a birth defect or a disease, of their own bad decisions/sins, of the ‘cards they were dealt’ early on in life. Maybe they are overloaded with the problems of others – family members, friends, coworkers. Whatever has brought them to their knees, they feel like they are always on an up-hill trek, that every step is painful, and the progress is slow. I think we get the picture. In fact, it may be a picture of ourselves.

With heads hanging low, we are given hope that the better (glad and golden) hours are ahead because for unto us a Child has been born. Look up… now… and realize it. Be lifted from your bloodied knees to stand again complete. The Great Physician now is near; the newborn King comes to lift up the fallen, heal the sick and restore the weak.

This reassurance came upon the midnight clear two centuries ago, and it rings just as true today. Perhaps it’s just the word of hope we need to hear today.

I had trouble finding a recording that included this pivotal stanza!

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

"So prepare to be the home where such a mighty Guest may come."

Carol: “On Jordan’s Bank the Baptist’s Cry” – Charles Coffin (1676-1749)

I grew up in the Baptist denomination, and none of our hymns had the word “Baptist” in the title! Other denominations, however, often include this hymn about John the Baptist’s announcing the coming of Messiah; as the forerunning cousin of Jesus, that was his calling.

Note: It is important to include the apostrophe after Baptist; otherwise, it sounds like a whole denomination of immersers is wailing on a river’s edge!

The stanza in which this hymnline sits says this in total:
    Let ev’ry heart be cleansed from sin,
    Make straight for God within,
    And so prepare to be the home
    Where such a mighty Guest may come.

Straightening up the house is something we do when we’re expecting guests -- any guests… even regular visitors and family members! That may include hiding some things in the closet, under a bed, or behind the sofa. We want give the best possible appearance, tidied up as well as -we can make the visitor feel welcome – even ‘at home.”

Other carols say, “Let every heart prepare him room,” and “O come to my heart, Lord Jesus, there is room…” But THIS line calls Jesus a ‘mighty Guest.’ I guess that means the same thing as ‘important’ or ‘extra special.’ The mighty Son of the mighty God is looking for somewhere to take up residence.

Unlike our usual visitors – however glamorous or significant – we don’t need to start hiding things! That all-knowing-ness of Christ sees right through any pretenses we may try to create.

So I suppose this is a season of peace, joy, love, hope… and transparency!

Get your house in order! You may be about to have a Zacchaeus kind of day!

Winchester New Tune at the Organ

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

"Then let us all with one accord sing praises to our heavenly Lord."

Carol: “The First Noel” – Traditional English Carol

I love this hymnline that opens the final stanza of a most-beloved Christmas carol because it reminds me that we need to all get together and agree to sing praises! The people of God are rarely in ‘one accord’ on much of anything, but at least we can be when we sing!

At no other time during the year are you going to hear the name of Jesus being piped into the shopping malls. Even when the place of business is trying to be politically correct and playing only the instrumental versions, every shopper knows enough of the carol texts to sing them to themselves. “Christ the Savior is born!” “Our Lord, Emmanuel.” “Glory to the newborn King.” And even the carol at hand which goes on to explain WHY the Christ has come:
“Then let us all with one accord
Sing praises to our heavenly Lord
Who hath made heaven and earth of naught,
And with his blood our lives hath bought!
Noel! Noel! Noel! Noel!
Born is the King of Israel.”

So for the next few days, enjoy hearing your Savior’s name sung (or played) as you shop. Begin humming along…or even singing out loud. Who knows? A flash-mob could break out right there in ladies’ ready-to-wear!

We may not agree on much – we Christian people; but we seem to agree that the Christmas season is a good time to sing! So have at it!

Now, if we could just be in one accord the rest of the year on some other things!

Hear This Carol

Monday, December 14, 2015

"Holy Child... teach us to resemble thee in thy sweet humility."

Carol: “See Amid the Winter’s Snow” – Edward Caswall (1814-1878)

This hymnline prayer comes from a carol we don’t all know well… if at all. Here is the first stanza:
            See amid the winter’s snow,
            Born for us on earth below,
            See, the gentle Lamb appears,
            Promised from eternal years.

For now, I’ll zero in on this later stanza:
            Teach, O teach us, holy Child,
            By Thy face so meek and mild,
            Teach us to resemble Thee,
            In Thy sweet humility.

The request to learn to resemble Christ catches my attention. We bat around so many other terms like reflect, mirror, imitate, etc., but this is what I want personally: to resemble Christ. When someone looks at my life, I would love to bear a resemblance to the One I call Lord.

Most of us resemble one (or both) of our parents; we say that we “take after them” either physically or in our actions. The way we laugh may be the exact replica of our mother, or we may have the same voice inflection of our father. In my part of the country, they would say that I’m the “spitting image” of my daddy… but that I’m my mama all over again. I’m happy with that designation and recognition. I remember one time when a perfect stranger came up to me and said, “You’ve got to be Raymond Huff’s son” – just by looking at me.

Wouldn’t it be a wonderful thing if someone walked up to you during this Advent season and said, “You’ve got to be a child of the King.” – not because you look like Elvis, but because you act like Jesus… you are Christlike in the way you approach every detail of your dealings with others.

Admittedly, we don’t act-out our Christian faith to BE noticed, but we must admit it comes as a blessing when someone DOES notice and says so.

Are you teachable? Is humility something you want to learn? If so, this is a good time of the year to study the life and teachings of the One who is displayed in stable-beds all around us. Watch him… emulate him… glorify him by being a resemblance of who he is!

Julie Andrews sings this carol (but not this stanza!)

A Norwegian setting of the full text

Friday, December 11, 2015

"He comes to make his blessings flow."

Carol: “Joy to the World” – Isaac Watts (1674-1748)

We have innumerable blessings, you and I. It's an inexhaustible list. Do you see how those blessings pile up? That’s a blessing in itself!

This Isaac Watts carol is really a re-versification of Psalm 98; if you read that Psalm, you’ll see the parallels. Today’s hymnline follows the phrase, “No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground.” In place of the infestation of these negative aspects of life, “He comes to make his blessings known (as) far as the curse (of sin) is found.”

There are many reasons Christ came; we could grab a legal pad and start making another list! But one of them is to replace the curse of sin with the blessings of himself – so that his blessings might flow into and through our lives… for our own edification and for those around us who may still be up to their necks, strangled by the thorns of sin and sorrow.

It is a shame when a blessing comes into our lives, stops there, and goes no further. “Paying it forward” was a Biblical principle long before it was a movie or a common catch phrase. As the blessing pile higher and higher, we become hoarders… yea, even Scrooge-like!

Let me give us another challenge for the Advent season: Because he comes to make his blessings flow, let’s pass along every blessing we possibly can. Let’s take up the blessing industry and be about our Father’s business!

Lord Christ, may every blessing that flows into me flow out of me into someone else. Amen.

Hear Choir from George Fox University

Hear Dolly Sing This Carol (with Stella on the Front Row!)
Sorry she doesn’t sing this stanza.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

"Bind all peoples in one heart and mind. Bid envy, strife and quarrels cease."

Carol: “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” – Latin Hymn

This plainsong Advent carol is one of those prayer hymns we’ve discussed already. In this one, we singers are not only asking Messiah to come; we are also making several requests of him upon his arrival and the establishment of his Kingdom:

1) Come and cheer our spirits.
2) Disperse the gloomy clouds of night.
3) Death’s dark shadows put to flight.
4) Bring order to all things.
5) Show us the path of knowledge and lead us in that path.

In the final stanza, we encounter today’s hymnline. We plead for true camaraderie of all peoples in compassion and in thought. “Bring us together,” we pray. “Give a sense of cooperation and agreement. Help us to accept one another’s differences and make those differences work for the good of the Kingdom.”

To do that, the envy, strife and quarrels need to cease. Our praying continues, “Emmanuel, now that you, O God, are with us, call a cease-fire between the warring factions worldwide.”

I know this carol has some definite Jewish overtones – the people of Israel are renewing their belief that Emmanuel shall come to them. As Christians who are confident that Messiah has already made his appearance on this terrestrial ball, we make all those same requests listed above, and we, too, seek commonality of passion and theology; we, too, have had it with the disagreements that arise within the church out of anger, envy and strife. Except for the instigators, nobody likes a good church fight!

As part of a denomination that has suffered its fair share of disagreement – especially in recent years – this prayer carol takes on a fuller significance. When I pray this carol, I mean it: I beg the Good Shepherd to come to enfold all his children who find themselves at war within the flock.

For all of us, conflict is on display worldwide. For some, the conflict may be within their community, their family, or even within themselves. Wherever they are found, may the struggles stop and reconciliation reign.

In the refrain, we are called to rejoice in the promise that Emmanuel continues to come to our rescue. Ultimately, we will enjoy a worldwide heavenly peace. Meanwhile, we keep on prayer-singing!

Great rendition by a cappella men’s group
(does not include this stanza!)

Big choral arrangement that uses this stanza

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

"O how much God gave to us that day."

Carol: “The Birthday of a King” – William Harold Neidlinger (1863-1924)

“’Twas a humble birthplace, but O how much God gave to us that day.” That’s how the second stanza of this carol begins. It gives us some contrast between the humble birthplace and the glory of redemption. It almost puts us back to list-making and/or blessing-counting; the implication is that what God gave to us at Bethlehem is beyond calculation… and indeed, it was… is.

Most of us know the familiar refrain of this carol –
            “Hallelujah! O how the angels sang.
            Hallelujah! How it rang!
            And the sky was bright with a holy light,
            ‘Twas the birthday of a King.”

- but like many hymns and carols, we sometimes miss out on what the center of text gets at.

This hymnline ought to stick with us for this day in Advent as a constant reminder that the blessings continue to roll down from that first-century event… and we stand to benefit from all of them. Better than waiting to open the mysterious packages underneath our Christmas trees, being open to and appreciating all that God does for us makes the Christmas season more meaningful and lightens our darkened days with a holy light, reminding us that “It’s the birthday of my King."

Hear the Nashville Singers

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

"If you take good heed to the angel's word, you'll forget your flock, you'll forget your herd."

Carol: “Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow” – African American Spiritual

“Fear not, for behold I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the City of David a Savior who is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you: you shall find the Babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.”

Most of us know this angelic message ‘by heart,’ having heard it read from the KJV for most of our lives… at church and at home. After the Lord’s Prayer, 23rd Psalm, and John 3:16, this may be the most quotable scripture!

To summarize what the angel told the shepherds:
- Don’t fear.
- This is good news.
- This news is for everybody.
- A Savior is born.
- Go find the Baby!

If we heed that message, we are likely to put everything behind us and move forward to seek out the King of kings and to enjoy a lifetime of following after him.

In the case of the shepherds, forgetting the flock and the herd would mean letting go of their livelihood – at least for a short time while they scurry into Bethlehem.

Some people are genuinely called to give up their career to follow an inner urging to give themselves completely to some ministry or mission opportunity; and that’s a wonderful thing. However, ALL of us may need to step away from our work-load for a brief time to center our attention on the manger Child. From another carol: “All ye beneath life’s crushing load whose forms are bending low…” Our occupation may occupy so much of our attention that we are bent low by the stress; we may cater so much to the income-producing portion of our lives that we simply have no time to rise up and follow the path of peace… and find the restful hope promised even in this life to those who whole-heartedly seek Christ.
As much as is possible, let’s forget some of the stuff that is weighing us down – maybe it’s our vocation – maybe it’s something else. Let’s take heed to the angel’s word, rise up and follow our spiritual siblings to find anew the new-born King.

The King’s Singers

Monday, December 7, 2015

What sweeter music can we bring than a carol for the sing the birth of this, our heavenly King?"

"What sweeter music can we bring than a carol for to sing the birth of this, our heavenly King?"
Carol: "What Sweeter Music" - Robert Herrick
Various Tunes

Okay, here is one more carol to consider as we move out of the caroling season. Epiphany seems to call us to move on toward Lent; however, it won't hurt us to spend one more day closer to the manger than the cross.

I just love this hymnline... or caroline! Is there any sweeter music in all the year than the carols of this season? Is there a more appropriate way to herald the birth of the King of heaven and earth? I doubt it. Many, many traditions have changed over the past several hundred years, but music -- singing in particular -- has always been central to the festivities... and this is one tradition I am happy to promote!

Yes, I know you're saying, "Yes, but he's a musician. He's done music all his life." You're right, but I think I would still love Christmas music even if I understood nothing of what I was hearing.

I've told everyone that when I retired from the full-time music ministry, I had done 41 Christmases -- and that was enough. It was sort of a joke, but there is some truth to the fact that people who conduct music put a whole lot of energy and creativity into the months between September and January. But all 41 years (and three interims since) I have fallen into my chair exhausted... but supremely fulfilled because I've tried my very best to bring the sweetest possible music to the ears of the Baby Jesus... and hopefully to the ears and lives of people in my congregations.

Seriously, folks: "What sweeter music CAN we bring than a carol for to sing the birth of this, our heavenly King?" That's not a hypothetical question, by the way!

Friday, December 4, 2015

"The wrong shall fail, the right prevail."

Carol: “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882)

This carol based on a poem by a great American author is the favorite of many, and it’s easy to see why thoughtful singers would appreciate this text.

This hymnline follows the declaration “God is not dead, nor doth he sleep.” Though written in 1863 during the Civil War years, before the “God Is Dead” movement attributed to the writings of Nietzsche in 1882, Longfellow made this argument for the existence and activity of God, refuting what became known as theothanatology.

Earlier in the carol, Longfellow’s head-bowed despair had brought him to the conclusion that peace does not reign in society because hate is so strong that it derides the concept of “peace on earth goodwill to men.” Interestingly, the belfry’s pealing brought him renewed hope that the promise spoken to the shepherds is still a possibility.

Those of us who have a positive outlook and are possessed of a hope that is steadfast and sure seem to constantly arrive at the conclusion that good will always prevail over evil – that in the final analysis, right trumps wrong.

May the ringing of bells during the next few days bolster our confidence in this abiding truth. May the song of the angels resound in our heads even during trying, stressful, even warring times. In this modern secular culture, the sense of the sacred may be waning; however, it is up to us believers to speak a word in favor of the survival of God once made manifest in a manger, now illustrated through our very lives.

Andy Williams Sings This Familiar Carol

Thursday, December 3, 2015

"O hush the noise, you folk of strife, and hear the angels sing."

Carol: “It Came upon the Midnight Clear” – Edmund H. Sears (1810-1876)

[In light of the continued mass shootings that occur around us nowadays, carols like this one become increasingly profound. This post is from two years ago, but it is worth re-sharing.]

People of strife – those who stir up trouble wherever they go: I think that’s to whom this hymnline is addressed. We know people like that, and we all hope we are not one of them! Sometimes these are overtly hostile, picking fights, bullying their way through life. Others are much more subtle – the passive/aggressive types who on the surface seem so positive, kind… even compassionate; however, they are constantly plotting ways to get their own way.

Noise-makers are only fitting for New Year’s Eve parties. Human noise-makers are out of place just about anywhere they show up.

We know of times when warring nations have called a total truce during this holiday season. The most famous of these is the one when all was truly quiet on the Western Front on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day 1914 during World War I. They say enemy troops were crossing the battle lines to greet one another with hugs and handshakes… even tears. Some actually exchanged trinkets.

This hymnline calls the conflict-makers to cut it out, at least for these holy days. Instead, let the troubled souls hear the angels call for “peace on earth” and “goodwill to all.” Wouldn’t it be great if these were heard, heeded and applied… and that even the most localized strife (spousal abuse, child abuse, imposed mental anguish, etc.) would be quieted and peace might reign where strife has run rampant?

With the disciples at the upper room table, we must ask, “Is it I, Lord?” If the answer is “yes,” we need to hush the noise and hear the words of the Christmas angels.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

"To show God's love aright, she bore to us a Savior."

Carol: "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming" - 15th Century German

We are in the season of Advent. In most of our churches, we will light candles each week as we make our way from darkness to light… make that to THE Light! Choirs will process, lessons supporting each week’s theme will be read from the Old and New Testaments -- and someone needs to stand and say “Let the anticipation begin!” (Okay, yes: I saw  THE HUNGER GAMES film series and read the books!)

If no one at your church makes that proclamation in the service, say it to yourself… on this and every day from now until Christmas Eve. Anticipation is a great motivator… and not just with ketchup bottles!

In this wonderful, beautiful fifteenth century hymn set to a sixteenth century tune, we find today’s hymnline. She (Mary) brought forth her Son in order to show God’s love appropriately – showing fallen humankind how God’s love acts! Like the rest of us, she couldn’t make that kind of exposure on her own. You and I are called to show God’s love aright, also. No archangel showed up at the foot of our bed, but a messenger of God – his Spirit – came and set us onto the path toward kindness, compassion, mercy… and, of course, love.

Though we don’t bring Christ into the world physically as Mary did, we DO display him through our lives to people who walk in darkness – when half-spent is their night.

This Advent season, let’s set as one of our major goals showing God’s love aright – properly, authentically.

Let the anticipation begin.

Hymnlines - Hemlines: Get it?! :)

Hymnlines - Hemlines: Get it?! :)