Friday, December 29, 2017

“You came not in a splendor bright as monarch, but as humble child.”

Carol: “Creator of the Stars of Night” – 9th Century

In my years of doing full-time music ministry, two of the choral pieces I often used at Christmas concerts were “No Golden Carriage” and “How Should a King Come?” The texts of both dealt with Christ’s arrival being unlike that of most kings: little fanfare, no big public celebration, no fancy clothes, toys or parades.

This line from a truly ancient advent carol gets at the same theme – the child of humble beginnings. We use that phrase a lot to describe great politicians and business-people – those who “pulled themselves up by the bootstraps” (whatever that means) and became great leaders and visionaries. So it was to some extent with Jesus.

His rise to leadership and greatness was by divine design… prophet-foretold, Israel anticipated. Those prophecies and expectations were for more of an earthly-kingly entrance and a much more dominating (even militant) reign. Surprise! God would have none of that. From the very beginning, he was destined to save his people through peace and goodwill according to the angels who created the only fanfare.

Humility vs hubris. It’s a conflict we still encounter. We see it in our leaders… even among ecclesiastics. Worst of all, many of us have a similar war raging within us: Am I going to maintain the Christlike characteristic, or will I be sucked into the worldly vortex of pride? We are too often drawn to the spotlight of arrogance, egotism and self-importance, rather than the shadows of servanthood. Service is often trumped by superiority… even among those who call themselves an FOJ.*

During these weeks, we do not gather around a fancy, linen-pillowed cradle; we don’t race to peek through the windows of a golden carriage to get a quick glance at the most-recently-born ruler; we don’t have camera crews posted outside hospital doors to alert us of the birth of the next monarch. No, we gather around straw-filled manger replicas. And I think we all like it better that way.

Once again, God knew what he was doing!

                                                                                                                             * - Follower of Jesus
This carol chanted by solo voice

Thursday, December 28, 2017

"Word of the Father now in flesh appearing."

"Nativity" - El Greco
Carol: “O Come, All Ye Faithful” – Latin Hymn (Various Translators)

This is one of the few carols (or hymns for that matter) that has no rhyme scheme. Have you ever noticed that? It doesn’t lessen the impact. As a hymn-writer myself, I’ve spent many hours counting the exact syllables and trying make things rhyme; but when the various translators of this carol worked out the details, they didn’t find assonance to be important.

This carol seems to fling wide the gates of Bethlehem and invite us humans in, encouraging us to come joyfully and triumphantly to see this thing which has come to pass. Angels are invited to once again sing their “glory to God in the highest” refrain. In the final stanza (in most hymnals), we sing, “Yea, Lord, we greet thee,” or in modern English: “Yes, Lord, we welcome you!” That may be MY favorite moment in the carol. And the thought continues with, “Jesus, to thee be all glory given” because you are the “Word of the Father now in flesh appearing.”

Today’s hymnline is a versification of the John 1 passage: “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory…” I doubt we can truly look upon the holy in any way BUT adoringly… with adoration.

Today and every day and night throughout the year, let us come adoring Christ the Lord – the One who comes filled to the brim with grace and truth. After our adoration, let’s allow him to fill us with both those attributes. If we would do that, our 2017 would be a whole different year.

Celtic Woman Singing This Carol

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

"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!

A Norwegian setting of the full text

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

"Oxen lowing, little knowing Christ the Babe is Lord of all."

Carol: “Infant Holy, Infant Lowly” – Polish Carol paraphrased by Edith M. G. Reed (1885-1933)

This has been one of my favorite carols since we included it almost every year in the Christmas Pageants at First Baptist Waxahachie back in the late 70’s and early 80’s. It’s one of those arrangements that no one ever said, “Do we HAVE to sing this again this year?” because it significantly ministered to the choir every time we sang it. Still does, I’d bet!

Today’s hymnline reminds me that way too many people who are onlookers to the Christmas season are totally unaware that Jesus is Lord. Like those cows in the stall next to Mary and Joseph (according to the carol, at least!), these folks observe the season with their partying, decorating, gift-giving – maybe even church-attending and carol-singing -- but know blessed little of the true Center of the celebration. Little do they know that the One whose birth we commemorate moves on from a wooden cradle to a rugged cross in order to redeem fallen humanity.

Without cramming it down their throats, we need to gently remind those who observe the season as not-so-innocent bystanders that Christ the Babe IS Lord. The simple long-standing statement of faith, “Jesus is Lord,” may be all we have to say… nod, smile and walk away.

During this season, why not simply say to folks (cashiers, salespeople, bank tellers, etc.), “It’s my Lord’s birthday, you know.” I have the feeling more of them will respond with a “Mine, too” than with a snarl of disapproval. There are more of US out there than we know.

Wouldn’t it be great to come to the end of the season and there be no one in our path who is oblivious to Christ being the Lord of all? I guess we’ll have to do our part to see to it that is the case!

From Choir of King’s College, Cambridge

Mack Wilberg’s Popular Arrangement

Monday, December 25, 2017

"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

Sunday, December 24, 2017

"Love's pure light radiant(ly) beams from thy holy face with the dawn of redeeming grace, Jesus..."

Carol: “Silent Night, Holy Night” – Joseph Mohr (1792-1848)

While you join in the singing of familiar carols this season, I hope you will enjoy the experience; but even more, I want to be sure you get the message from each one.

A pet peeve of mine is the way we rip apart the meaning of the Christmas carols by breathing at the wrong place: this is one of them. We tend to breath between “love’s pure light” and “radiant beams.” We may do that because we don’t realize that in the translation from the German, we ended up with an adverb that does not end in ‘ly’! Before this sounds like a grammar lesson, the phrase should mentally read like the hymnline at the top of this post, realizing that love’s pure light is radiantly beaming from the holy face of Christ.

And those beams are like the ones that peep over the horizon at the rising of morning sun – it’s the dawn of redeeming grace. God provides us with lots of graces: sustaining grace, fortifying grace, comforting grace, etc.; but THIS is the beginning of grace that redeems us! We get our first glimpse of that redemptive possibility in the face of Bethlehem’s Baby.

This entire stanza is addressed TO Christ; that’s why there’s a comma after “Son of God.” So as we sing this, we’re saying, “Jesus, there’s a pure light emanating from your holy face, and in that light we can see the genesis of grace that redeems.”

As you sing this carol or hear it piped into the shopping mall… or Wal-Mart!... realize what it is saying, and rejoice in that knowledge. For those of us who believe Christ to be the Son of God, this should be one of our very favorite hymnlines during the season!

from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir

PS – Not wanting to get off my soapbox on this breathing-in-the-wrong-place thing, another place we miss the meaning is in the first, most familiar stanza. Read the whole line to yourself without breaking: “All is calm all is bright ’round yon virgin mother and child.” Around that virgin mother and her child, everything is calm and bright. Makes so much more sense, don’t you think? I’m stepping off my soapbox… for now.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

“Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we.”

Carol: “O Holy Night” –Translated from the French by John S. Dwight (1813-1893)
Tune: CANTIQUE DE NOEL (Adolphe Adam)

This carol by a French poet and French composer was translated into English by an American Unitarian music critic just before the Civil War. That’s the background; now to the heart of the carol.

I thought this one was appropriate for this blog since it includes the word “hymn.”

One of the reasons I have a lot of trouble doing hymnlines regularly during the Advent/Christmas season is because so many traditional carols simply deal with events and characters from the first Christmas; you can only expound so much on angel appearances, magi arrivals and over-crowded cities with hay-filled cattle stalls.

“Sweet… joy… grateful” – wonderful words that sum up this season, don’t you think? We join in a grateful chorus to express our hymns of joy… our SWEET hymns of joy. Nothing saccharin about this kind of carol-singing… no Splenda, only splendid music! There is, in other words, no substitute for music that bubbles forth from the lips of children and child-like adults who celebrate their faith through song.

Queued at the register at Target, bustled about in the shopping mall, harped on by some church Scrooge: in all these situations, I hear the voice of Hedy (my mother) saying, “Now Ronald George, you be sweet.” Mustering all that is within me, I try to obey that long-ago-spoken directive.

Need a lift during the next seven days? Raise a song. Lift a carol. Be grateful. Be sweet!

A grand chorus sings this carol

Friday, December 22, 2017

"How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is giv'n."

Carol: “O Little Town of Bethlehem” – Phillips Brooks (1835-1893)

This is one of few “standard” Christmas carols written by an American. There are lots of contemporary ones, of course, but of those we’ve sung in church for years, this one is sort of unique – not being from the British, French or German traditions!

I absolutely love this hymnline because it describes so very well how Christ continues to enter the lives of humankind, just like he did in Bethlehem’s barn.

How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is giv’n.
So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven.

In this text, the word “so” means “in the same way.” In other words, God gives out his blessings in the same way he sent Jesus into the world: silently.

When redemption is poured into our lives, it is indeed a silent process. WE realize the warming, but the person sitting right beside us is totally unaware that it has occurred. In the same way that Christ was quietly ushered into the world (pre-angelic hosts at least!), that same Christ by his Spirit is escorted into waiting, open hearts. No fanfare. No earthquake. In great tranquility.

In governmental parlance, we often talk of the “peaceful transfer of power.” In church-speak, that is what actually happens: the power of God is peacefully transferred into our lives. How silently the wondrous gift is given.

Be silent for a few seconds before you read on.

It was in that kind of silence that Christ first entered your life. I hope that is as precious to you as it is to me. On the other hand, unless we tell them, the person right next to us won’t know it happened. A silent act can be communicated by a verbal witness.

Hear Child-Singer Connie Talbot Sing This Carol
Seems appropriate to hear a child sing this one!

Thursday, December 21, 2017

"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
Meanwhile back at my favorite carol 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!

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

"Pleased as a man with us to dwell."

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

This is my favorite Christmas carol. 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

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

"O rest beside the weary road and hear the angels sing."
Carol: “It Came upon the Midnight Clear” – Edmund H. Sears (1810-1876)

If you're a regular reader of my blog, I cycle this one through every year about now... because it gets true-er!

This one is for all of you who are just worn out from Christmas shopping, party-going, church-concerting --who need a rest period… a time out… to regroup and get back into the spirit of Christmas.

Have you even noticed when you’re at Big Lots picking up those gifts for the most-special people on your list, the expressions on the faces of the shoppers are not like they always appear in old movies and Old Navy commercials? Shopping centers are nothing like those happy sappy songs we’ve sung in our Christmas programs over the years; it’s hard to find shoppers rushing home with their treasures singing “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”

That’s too bad, but it’s a part of our culture that we’re not going to be able to change, so we just accept it and join the flow of jam-packed hallways in the local malls. I also find that shopping online wears me out, too!

Take a load off. Find a bench. Put away your shopping list. Listen to the holiday music being piped in or performed live by the local elementary school choir. Take a deep breath. Settle. Maintain. Be quiet. Rest amid the hectic rush and listen to the whisper of God’s message of peace on earth with goodwill to all. Imagine angel voices singing gloria in excelsis Deo.

Allow the slowing down moments of the season to be cathartic for your weary soul. Listen for the brush of angels’ wings, see the glory of God on each face… because surely the presence of the Lord is with us in this place. Emmanuel.

Today’s promise to yourself: I will rest beside the weary road and hear the angels sing.

(It’s hard to find this stanza on an online recording!)

Monday, December 18, 2017

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

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

“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!

Friday, December 15, 2017

“His law is love, and his gospel is peace.”

Carol: “O Holy Night” –Translated from the French by John S. Dwight (1813-1893)
Tune: CANTIQUE DE NOEL (Adolphe Adam)

When the grown-up Jesus said, “Love one another,” it was not a suggestion; it was a command – a law, if you please. He had every expectation that his followers would live up to this directive.

With our government’s laws, for most of us these have become second nature. Because we were taught them in driver’s ed, the laws of the road stuck with us: we observe the speed limit (for the most part!), we signal before we turn, we maintain a safe distance behind the car in front of us, etc. We are instinctively law-abiding citizens; following the rules has become one of our characteristics.

So it should be with this mandate from Christ. “Truly he taught us to love one another. His law is love, and his gospel is peace.” When loving our fellow-humans becomes our inherent behavior, we will have begun to obey this law, and in turn, we will have become more Christ-like. In reality, we will also be happier people because we will be living out the gospel of peace.

We have our orders. It is our duty as an FOJ* to follow through.

This Carol Sung by Michael Fawcett

                                                                         * - If you’re new to this blog, that’s a “Follower of Jesus.”

Thursday, December 14, 2017

"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 flow (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.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

"Ye who long pain and sorrow bear, praise God and on him cast your care."

Hymn: “All Creatures of Our God and King” – Francis of Assisi (1182-1226)

All of us deal with pain now and then (physical and otherwise). We all encounter periods of great sorrow. There are some, it seems who bear pain and sorrow continuously, rarely escaping the two specters that loom about them. I experience a certain level of pain and sorrow for people like that, trying to identify with their station.

Some people who are dealt pain and sorrow daily respond by becoming angry and difficult. Others retreat into their own shell and reclusively try to deal with their dilemma. The ones which always surprise me, though, are those who rise above the difficulty to be people who praise their Maker in spite of where they find themselves. These are the folks who neither complain nor boast but genuinely throw themselves on the mercy of God… who cast all their cares upon the One who controls all of life – the good, the bad, and the ugly.

When one of these saints finally loses their struggle – whose long pain and sorrow is turned to eternal health and joy – we celebrate their final healing, their moving at long last into the face-to-face beholding of their Savior.

During these weeks of preparation for Christmas, be more aware of those who have long suffered pain and borne sorrow for many years; if you get the opportunity, encourage them to cast that care upon the Savior whose birth we are about to celebrate.

If that person is you, O praise him! O praise him! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

Accapella Setting

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

"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 during this season.
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

Monday, December 11, 2017

"Let loving hearts enthrone him."

Carol: “What Child Is This?” – William C. Dix (1827-1898)

A carol that begins with a question, winds its way through the manger scene, speaks some theology, calls forth the magi (and us) to bring him gifts honoring his arrival, and in most editions, ends with this line: "Let loving hearts enthrone him.”

We all have to ask ourselves during these weeks leading up to Christmas who we think this is? We find ourselves with the very adult words of Jesus ringing in our ears: “Who do people say that I am?” That leaves us wide open for answers like these: the One who ushers in the most profitable merchandising season every year, the do-gooder of Galilee, the man who healed people and preached a lot. Ultimately, we are faced with the second half of that inquiry: “Who do YOU say that I am?” Hopefully it doesn’t take us long to agree with Peter’s assessment that this baby is the Christ, the Son of the Living God.

He was that from the beginning, you know – not just after he began his adult ministry. You might say he was that from the VERY beginning, but for sure I think we would all agree that from his first earth-breath, he was the Son of Jehovah.

With it’s repeated “This, this is Christ the King,” in many ways, this carol could serve as our ‘confession of faith’ during the Advent season.

May those of us who love our Christ put him in his rightful place… on the throne of our lives. From there may he rule not only in December, but all year long.

Josh Groben Sings This Stanza First!

This Carol on Guitars

Friday, December 8, 2017

"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 upon the establishment of his Kingdom:

1) Come and cheer our spirits.
2) Disperse the gloomy clouds of night.
3) Send death’s dark shadows away.
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

Thursday, December 7, 2017

"All the reach of heavenly art, all the pow'r of music bring."

Hymn: “Praise the Lord Who Reigns Above” – Charles Wesley (1707-1788)
Common Tune: AMSTERDAM

Leave it to Charles Wesley to write a hymnline like this one… nestled within other great statements about who God is, what God does, and what God deserves. THIS line deals with the latter.

I’m teaching an Introduction to the Fine Arts class at Dallas Baptist University, and I absolutely love where my semi-retirement has taken me: into a college-level classroom on a Christian campus to talk about one of great passions – art! One of the things I emphasize with these students is that all art forms CAN be used to honor God. This hymnline supports that argument – that all the farthest reaches of heaven-given artfulness (or talent) can be called upon to praise the Lord who reigns above and keeps his court below.

My students think I’m just way too passionate about the arts. At every chapter, they hear me say, “Now this may be my favorite art form!” I AM passionate about the arts because they are lasting examples of creativity – God’s creative energy passing through the hearts, minds, feet, hands and mouths of his created ones.

Music is a powerful art. It is common to every race and every culture. Wesley encourages us to apply that innate power of music to the unbridled praise of God.

Today’s hymnline ends with the modifying phrase, “… the music of the heart.” In order for music or any art form to be acceptable worship, it must come from the innermost depth of who we are. It must be a sincere, humble offertory. It must not be a self-aggrandizing display of one’s talent.

Many of us enjoy and appreciate the arts. Humanity's creative expression through the arts is one of the ways we are made in the image of God. It behooves us then to offer them back to God to honor him. I think he enjoys it when we do.

“All the reach of heavenly art, all the pow’r of music bring.” And I say, “Bring it on!”

Jakarta Oratorio Children’s Choir Sings a Setting of This Text

The AMSTERDAM Tune Sung by a Frequently-Breathing Soloist

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

“Sing with blest anticipation.”

Hymn: “’Tis the Church Triumphant Singing” – John Kent (1766-1843)
Common Tune: AR HYD Y NOS

We talk a lot about “participatory” worship experiences: everybody jump in there and participate vigorously! What if we promoted “anticipatory” worship?

Have you ever thought about anticipation being a blessing? Well, it is. We have been blessed with the gift of anticipation... and we emphasize that during the Advent season.

Those who believe in the providence of God approach every aspect of life with a sense of expectation – expecting the hand of God to lead them through the day and the eye of God to be ever-watching, protecting, overseeing their every move… for their own good and the good of the kingdom.

Indeed, we anticipate the Kingdom which is yet to come, promised to us beyond this earthly journey; but if we only anticipate THAT reality, we miss out on the everyday provisions – those which surround us on THIS trek.

The next time you sing – corporately or alone – do it with a sincere hope of that which is yet to come your way… far in the future AND close at hand. It is that kind of anticipatory worship that truly keeps us going, confident that God is at work. Go ahead: “Sing with blest anticipation.”

This hymn tune played at the organ

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

"Fix in us thy humble dwelling."

Hymn: “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” – Charles Wesley (1707-1788)

You probably don’t know that I was an art major when I first entered Carson Newman College in the fall of 1967. I had a decent ability to draw things.

When I was being artistic, after completing a section of a charcoal drawing or have worked in pastels, I took a can of spray fixative, shook it to hear that little ball bang against the can, and generously covered the possible-masterpiece so it would not smear if accidentally touched while I continued to work on it. The process is called “fixing” the artwork.

We are only three phrases into the singing of “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” when this hymn-line crosses our lips, and because it is so early-on in the hymn, it may not register in our brain what it is we are singing.  When I speak these words on the nine assigned pitches, I have a flashback to my art-major days… of being sure I am either outside or in a well-ventilated room in order not to inhale the fumes from the Krylon aerosol can. This was BEFORE people actually wanted to inhale fumes like these!

In the hymning of these words, I am asking God to cover me in such a way that my faith might not smear – or that the distinct lines of my belief system might not become indefinite or undefined.  That he might take up residence in my life in such a way that these cannot be disturbed.

Other hymns use the word “seal” to mean the same thing, (e.g. “Here’s my heart, O take and seal it…”) but I’m glad Wesley chose “fix” – a word with which this artsy person can identify!

Ever since we came to him in faith, God – the ultimate artist – has been drawing his nature across the sketch pad of our lives.  Everything he has inscribed there has given us the possibility to be more like him… more like his Son… more Christ-like. I, for one, do not want any of that to be messed up or smeared by anything or anyone who would like to make my Christian experience anything less than beautiful.

God is making a masterpiece within us. That’s not self- aggrandizing – that’s the truth! And we want to be sure that beauty is preserved… or fixed… unlikely to be damaged. That preservation is more likely to occur if Christ is allowed to take up full-time humble residence at the center of our lives.

“Fix” can mean to repair something that is broken or not working properly; but in this case, it means to keep it from needing to be repaired!

This Hymn Sung by St. Olaf Choir

Monday, December 4, 2017

"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 to 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 think 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

Friday, December 1, 2017

"Who, from our mother's arms, hath blessed us on our way."

Hymn: “Now Thank We All Our God” – Martin Rinkhart (1586-1649)

Here is one more hymn centered on being grateful/thankful/appreciative... then we'll move on to Advent.

Our God “who, from our mother’s arms, hath blessed us on our way with countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.”

"Migrant Mother" Dorothea Lange
Generally speaking, our mothers are our original caretakers. Good mothers become for their children the very representation of who God is and how he treats us. This hymnline helps us get that perspective, reminding us that from our first breath, God has blessed us with innumerable  love-gifts… and those love-gifts continue, no matter how many years we may be removed from those mother-cuddled hours.

We believers are richly blessed as we make our way through life, and we need to count those blessings. The danger is that we might begin to consider our blessings as routine, not noticing the little things with which God seasons our life.

On Thanksgiving Day, most of us had some of the richest, best-seasoned dishes we’ll have all year long. Those old family recipes on grease-spotted note cards seem to hold back nothing from the spice rack when it comes to food preparations for this holiday. Even then, we think to ourselves, “This tastes so much better than food tastes throughout the rest of the year,” but we likely give no thought to WHY that is true.

Let’s not overlook those blessings with which our God spices up our life… those small zests added to our mundane existence. We cannot truly be a blessing to others until we realize how blessed we are.

NOW, let’s all thank our God with hearts and souls and voices! NOW!

Sing along with this hymn

Hymnlines - Hemlines: Get it?! :)

Hymnlines - Hemlines: Get it?! :)