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.

Christmas in the Middle of Something

image

 

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.

 

advent wreath

 

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.

Alleluia! To Us a Child Is Born!

"Virgin Mary Consoles Eve," Sister Grace Remington, www.mississippiabbey.org
“Virgin Mary Consoles Eve,” Sister Grace Remington, via http://www.mississippiabbey.org

 

Behold, the dwelling of God is with humankind. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them, and be their God.
Revelation 21:3

During Advent our congregation read the book of Jonah, that sometimes-ignorant, sometimes-faithful, always-stubborn prophet who called the wayward city of Nineveh to turn away from their past and accept God’s second chance.

We’re complex people like Jonah. Sometimes we’re even like the people of Nineveh, we don’t know our left from our right, or up from down.

Whether we’ve created our own difficult reality by our actions, or whether others have put us in a tight spot, we all know what it is to live and walk in darkness.

So we look for light. We pray earnestly for second chances. We ask for God’s mercy to come even to lowly folks such as ourselves. We yearn to see God’s justice executed on those who actively work against it.

We grasp about for light, and we long to behold Jesus.

Alleluia! To us a child is born!
Come, let us adore him! Alleluia!

But it’s easy to get confused about Jesus. Not because Jesus is confusing or because God is unknowable. But because we’re an easily confused people.

Having seen so many paintings of a crucified Jesus, young Asher Lev asked his mother whether this was the Messiah.

 

Marc Chagall, "White Crucifixion," 1938
Marc Chagall, “White Crucifixion,” 1938

 

“No,” she says, “He was not the Messiah. The Messiah has not yet come, Asher. Look how much suffering there is in the world. Would there be so much suffering if the Messiah had really come?”

A trenchant critique, to be sure.

Time and again we look for Jesus to come in glory, in power, to right wrongs on a different timetable than God seems to have in mind… but time and again Jesus insists on coming in humility, in squalor, in seemingly insignificant interactions, even showing up in the midst of a fight. He doesn’t eliminate suffering; he gets born right into it, and takes part it in it himself.

Alleluia! To us a child is born!
Come, let us adore him! Alleluia!

Still, some days we’d rather skip past his first coming and go straight to the ending, his second coming when he makes everything right.

We keep wanting him to show up in full majesty, draping white robes behind him, as he smites the naysayers and draws his people out of a dark world and unto himself.

But year after year he keeps being born in a stable, to an unwed mother, next to unbathed animals, with astrologers as front-pew worshipers.

Alleluia! To us a child is born!
Come, let us adore him! Alleluia!

One poet sums it up nicely in four lines:

They all were looking for a king
To slay their foes, and lift them high:
Thou cam’st a little baby thing
That made a woman cry.

Rather than eliminate suffering in his first coming, Jesus participates in it. He takes on vulnerable, imperfect human flesh. He becomes one of the so-called least of these. A child. A poor child.

He doesn’t vanquish the darkness all at once… he’s born into it, and lets loose every now and then with a ray of light, a glimmer of hope. Indeed, for those who have eyes to see it, there is great light coming from the most unlikely birthing story you’ve ever heard.

Jesus was born into this world as it is, not yet as it should be. This is good news for our confused and dark souls. Even our hearts can become a home in which the Christ-child can dwell. Even we can bear Jesus as Mary did and bring him to all the world. Christ has come, a “little baby thing” to dwell with us, as we are, to be our God, to make us his own.

Alleluia! To us a child is born!
Come, let us adore him! Alleluia!

The Episcopal Bishop of Pittsburgh, Bishop Dorsey McConnell, is a favorite preacher and writer of mine. He says it well for all of us:

But the Christ Child has a life of His Own, and He will be born even in as dark a stable as that of my own heart. …I suppose I will just have to let Him have His way….And I know He will have His way with you as well. Whatever you’re afraid of in your own life or soul, just remember: He’s been born in darker places. Give Him so much as a square inch of your shadows, and He will fill you with His light.

Alleluia! To us a child is born!
Come, let us adore him! Alleluia!