One Album, Three Seasons! (Advent, Christmas, Epiphany)

Disclosure of Material Connection: One time when we were in college, hanging out outside Caribou Coffee, I put my hand on Steve’s forehead and started to fake push his head against the brick wall. But I didn’t let go soon enough, so caused him “actual pain,” the same safe words I had to employ another time when I was roughhousing with his friends in the chapel backstage area, and they broke my glasses. I don’t mean to suggest these two events are connected–just that, well… Steve and I go way back.

Disclosure of Material Connection, cont’d: Even at barely 20 he was a ridiculously gifted guitarist, singer, and songwriter. Some of my favorite college memories are Steve Thorngate concerts. Steve may remember most the time Abram Jones and His Loud, Loud Band opened for Steve and His Chair-Sitting Whispercore Corps, but the Steve concert experience I most remember is one he played at (now razed and rebuilt?) Pierce Chapel in Wheaton College. He and his band were loudly rocking an epic rendition of “If I Find You“, and Steve was, as the kids would say, absolutely crushing the major 7 intervals in the melody, as he scraped his pick–top string to bottom string–across an Fmaj7 with the top two strings open, walking the shape up two frets over the same melody, then sitting on an A minor while the melody resolved. Emo Abram was–and still is–in awe of that song. And I believe I may have witnessed its best performance that night.

Disclosure of Material Connection, still cont’d: In recent years Steve has brought his musical genius to bear in the church. There’s a lot of it here. Last year he released an album (digitally and now in CD form) called After the Longest Night: Songs for Advent, Christmas, & Epiphany.


One night as part of my kids’ bedtime routine, I played and sang them Steve’s song “The Thick Darkness Where God Dwells.” I introduced the song by saying, “This song is by my friend Steve.” At that point they’d heard After the Longest Night a few times. Two lines in to the song, I was interrupted by a resounding chorus of, “You KNOW HIM???” and, “Wait, is he famous?”

Steve has foregone the fame that was certain to be his, in service instead to the church. Last Advent I had to try hard not to quote Steve’s lyrics in every sermon. Listening to this album–and dialoguing with him about it over email–profoundly shaped my preaching last Advent, as well as stretched my understanding of light, darkness, and just where God resides.

Here are some highlights of this album:

  • A wide variety of musical arrangements
  • Many-part harmonies
  • FIVE Thorngates for the price of one
  • The melodies are immediately memorable, which bodes well for congregational singing, if you want to try some of these in that setting
  • Speaking of leading these songs with a congregation, Steve has you covered: the album comes with a PDF songbook
  • “The Thick Darkness Where God Dwells” was an early favorite track. For one, I love seeing a song based on such a moving Bible verse. For another, it’s a fresh exploration of themes of light and darkness… more than just light=good=God, dark=bad=devil, but a meaty exploration of what God-in-the-darkness looks like
  • I mean, just check out these lyrics:

    Winter days are so short. 
    In the nighttime keep watch for the Lord, 
    Who reverses our vision 
    With new order that we can’t see. 
    Yet we cry, “Jesus, come! 
    Here’s who needs to be saved; here’s who from!” 
    Learn to trust in the darkness, 
    Where our God of mystery dwells. 

  • Advent, Christmas, Epiphany: they are all here
  • One of the songs is called “The Night is Long (But Not for Long),” which I think beautifully captures the “already-but-not-yet” aspects of waiting

This is Steve’s first full-length album in 14 years, and I hope we’ll get to hear another one in less time. There’s more to say in praise of this musical offering, but I’ll stop there so you can go listen for yourself.

Appeal to Christians Regarding President-Elect Trump

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Head over to appealtochristians.com to see “Appeal to Christians Regarding President-Elect Donald Trump.” I’m honored to be joined by more than 30 Christian faith leaders who have signed the letter. The appeal culminates in this five-point commitment and call to action:

1. We will pray for President-elect Trump, elected officials, our nation, our churches, and each other.

2. Rooted in the teachings of Jesus and the prophets, we will tell the truth about the world around us, and we will speak up for those who have been marginalized and taken advantage of.

3. We will actively resist the temptation to overlook or normalize values, speech, and behavior that are in conflict with what Scripture calls us to.

4. In the name of Jesus, we call President-elect Trump to repentance for dishonoring the image of God in others.

5. We will fix our eyes on Jesus and, by the power of the Holy Spirit, redouble our efforts to honor the image of God in all people and to love all our neighbors as ourselves.

Read the whole thing here, add your name if you are so inclined (you’ll see a link), and share freely.

John the Baptist: Are You Ready?

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Are you ready?

John the Baptist arrives on the scene today, the second Sunday of Advent. Here’s how Luke describes it:

The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

Through the Incarnation of Jesus, God exalts the humbled, humbles the exalted, brings light into darkness, and reverses the fortunes of the rich and poor alike, of those who are ahead and those who feel left behind. What a wonderful promise that we would see the salvation of God in this way!

Even as God himself lowers mountains and straightens crooked paths and makes rough ways smooth, we can look inward to our own hearts and ask, “What crooked ways are here? What mountains have I tried to build so I can climb them and exalt myself above others? Where are my own rough ways?”

Are we ready?

Christmas in the Middle of Something

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And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

—Luke 2:8-15

Where were you the first time you remember hearing about Jesus? Or if you can’t remember a “first time,” what are some early memories you have of encounters with the God who came to earth? And just as important: how and where and in whom have you seen Jesus these last few weeks, days, and even hours?

The shepherds were just minding their own business, really. They were “keeping watch over their flocks at night.” That phrasing has become virtually poetic to us now, so tied is it to this beautiful story. It’s merely a preamble to the glory of the angels and of the Lord, a glory improbably made manifest in a “baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

But this is also just like saying, “They were at work when God’s glory found them.” Or, “They were standing at the sink washing dishes when the Lord’s invitation came.” Or, “They were fixing a chain on a bicycle when Christ came to them.” Or, “They were practicing their caregiving role when they caught a sudden glimpse of God’s great love.”

No matter how well saturated we are with Scripture, no matter how solid our Christology, no matter how long we’ve been following Jesus, we simply do not know all the times and places where Christ is going to meet us. Chances are he will come to us while we’re in the middle of something else.

Encounters with the living God can be intense. But just as Luke is keen to point out Mary’s obedience to a seemingly bizarre call, he is eager to show us the willingness of the shepherds to drop their staffs (and leave their sheep momentarily unattended? or bring them along?) to “go… and see this thing that has happened,” which God told them about.

Christ has come to earth! He came in the form of a servant, taking on human likeness. Christ will come again! He will come in a glory that will surpass even that of the “great company of the heavenly host.” Christ comes to us! He comes and visits us each day in myriad ways, big and small, obvious and subtle, extraordinary and mundane.

Like these shepherds who were surely caught off guard by the interruption, may we have the willingness to see Christ whenever and however he comes to us. And may we hasten to the places where he is today, running to his feet, bowing down, and worshiping him.

 

The above is adapted from an Advent reflection I wrote as part of a devotional our church’s Deacons prepared for our congregation this Advent.

Advent: At Least It’s Not Lent!

If branding and marketing tag lines had been a thing when Advent found its way into the church calendar, the church of the late sixth century could have used: “Advent: At Least It’s Not Lent!”

It’s true—December just feels more exciting than February-March, and the four Sundays of Advent seem to get to the point more efficiently than what can seem like the 40-day slog of Lent. Besides, who’s ever heard of fasting from sweets in the weeks leading up to Christmas?

But both Advent and Lent share an important—if at times challenging—characteristic: they offer us church folk a chance to carve out deliberate spaces to look inward to our own spiritual state and outward to the person and work of Jesus.

 

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We remind ourselves in Advent that we live in a waiting room of sorts. We have the fortunate lot in life to not have to wait for the coming of Jesus to earth—we know it happened and we still have the eyewitness accounts! But, ah… that second coming. No one knows when it will be. Even Jesus-on-earth said he didn’t know the hour.

So we wait. And wait. And wait. Each Advent that comes and goes is a poignant reminder that the kingdom is (still!) not yet fully present among us.

But that’s no reason to give up hope and stop waiting. On the contrary, we wait all the more eagerly. Luke 12 says:

Be dressed ready for service and keep your lamps burning, like servants waiting for their master to return from a wedding banquet, so that when he comes and knocks they can immediately open the door for him. It will be good for those servants whose master finds them watching when he comes. …You also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.

To our waiting we add watching and making ready.

The master has not yet returned, and our lamps too often dim when we forget to tend to them in the rush of other commitments. This Advent, may we keep our lamps brightly lit, persistent in our waiting, watching, and making ready for the coming of our King.

 

The above is adapted from an Advent reflection I wrote as part of a devotional our church’s Deacons prepared for our congregation this Advent.

The Rain for Roots CD Winners Are…

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The forthcoming Rain for Roots Advent album is phenomenal. Read more about it here.

Today I’m posting with the results of the giveaway contest my review post included. I’m pleased to congratulate the two winners, Ruth Ohlman and Elisabeth Kvernen! Nice one!

(I will be in touch with both of you via email to make sure the CD gets sent to the right place.)

In case you’re curious… I didn’t count duplicate comments, but did count one entry for a comment and one additional entry for a comment that said a person shared on Facebook or Twitter. There were 59 entries total. I used a random number generator to pick.

 

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Thanks to all who commented! There were a lot of really meaningful reflections on Advent that folks shared, and I only wish I could more fully engaged with each of them, but I read them all and loved it. Rain for Roots has some pretty great fans.

And thanks again to the good folks at Rain for Roots for sponsoring the giveaway and–more importantly–for writing, recording, producing, and releasing this fabulous record for a season of waiting.

Rain for Roots’s Waiting Songs for Advent (and CD Giveaway)

 

Cover Art by A. Micah Smith
Cover Art by A. Micah Smith

 

Rain for Root’s Waiting Songs releases November 10. You can pre-order it here now with a 20% off discount using code WotW.

Also, Rain for Roots is performing an online/streaming concert to celebrate the album’s release, about which you can learn more here.

Finally, there are a few more days left to enter to win a physical copy of the CD, courtesy of Rain for Roots. I’ll randomly select two winners from comments made at this link. For one entry, simply answer the question, “What is Advent to you?” For a second entry, share a link to that post on Facebook or Twitter, and come back to the comments to tell me you did. I’ll announce the two winners Thursday.