Unwinding the Darkness

Unwinding the Darkness

This is last night’s  Christmas Story which I read at the church I pastor, Grace Presbyterian.. It is still very rough and in need of editing, but that’s the way with some Christmas gifts. Consider the typos, misspellings, sentence fragments, and run-on sentences my special gift. In spite of all these, I  hope the story helps point to the joyful  reason and significance of the day. Merry Christmas!

PART 1

Once upon a time in a far away kingdom in which there was no king, there lived a carpenter and joiner named John. He was a entrepreneurial sort and found many ways to make a living which was good and necessary since times had been so hard. He was nice enough to his neighbors but mostly he kept to himself. John lived alone in the large house on the edge of the little town. Because of the house’s size, he often let rooms to those traveling from the big city to coast. The authorities had ordered a counting and a tax to be taken, and so as of late, traffic had increased, and there were always people looking for a place to stay.

John could build anything and was often asked by the town’s people to do so. He had built man of the outbuildings behind the house, he made his own tools, farming implements. He made the plow his ox pulled, the the scythe and blade by which he cut the grain he grew, and he made the troughs out which his livestock ate. He built the cabinets in his kitchen, and he turned the legs of the table at which his guest sat.

On this night, John sat alone on the roof of a home which he and his assistant had worked. He looked up at the stars, and recalled the promises. It seemed that the sky was especially clear this night. “It’s only the dry air,” he thought. “Nothing more.”

And turning back to what was irritating him, he thought, “Where is he? Where could he have gotten to? He said he would be back after lunch.” They needed to finish this job today. A storm was brewing. There was a time when you could count on help. But today? People only look after themselves. And it was a two person job. He had tried most of the afternoon to set joists in the roof, but he couldn’t do it by himself. And that’s also what frustrated him. The irony of needing help and complaining that people only looked after themselves was not lost on him.

PART TWO

It had been many years since there had been a king in the kingdom though from time out of mind, the learned and wise said that a king would one day rule again in the chief city. But since the days of the last king, the land had been run by gremlins and their chief, Faustus who liked to be called, the Doctor. Faustus was not the kind of doctor who worked for an earned degree, nor was he the kind that made things well. Rather he was a gremlin of meaningless titles invented by himself or given by those who curried his favor.

No one remembers electing or appointing Dr Faustus, but ever since the gremlins arrived, they just seemed to always be around and doing things. In fact their ceaseless activity made it impossible to do anything without their presence. And they never slept.

When the gremlins first arrived in the kingdom, they were unorganized. Gremlins, being gremlins, like to steal and take things apart. They came at night and took things or disassembled them so that when the people awoke in the morning, the things that they had been working on during the day were gone or in pieces. Knitting was pulled out, toolboxes emptied, dishes scattered around the house, keys and wallets taken, clothes pulled out of their dressers and left on the floor. No doubt you’ve been surprised to find the sink full of dirty dishes just after you had loaded the dishwasher. Or maybe you’ve not been able to find a matching sock in your sock drawer? The gremlins were the first to steal socks, long before our clothe dryers ever thought of it. These sorts of mischievous pranks were just the beginning and whims of a few. Dr. Faustus organized the gremlins, and they began to work together.The gremlins worked out of sight and tirelessly to take things apart. Eventually it got so bad that people needed the gremlins to put them back together. Dr. Faustus offered, for a modest fee, the gremlin’s service.

The Doctor’s truly wicked work was his invention of a glass which he called a “reductifing glass”. He made and gave each gremlin a reductifier, and they wore it around their necks. Whenever anyone looked at something through the reductifier, he would be able to see (or so they thought) what a thing was. This was very helpful. For if a thing was broken, a gremlin could look at the pieces through the reductifier to see what it was, and then they would be able to put it back together. Invariably they would leave parts out which the reductifier said were not important. Though things worked, they didn’t seem to work just right, and they certainly did not work the way they did before.

More and more the people of the kingdom sought the gremlin’s help who with their reductifiers seemed to make things simpler. They would look at something that was broken and say, “It’s only the light bulb”; “It’s only the battery”; “It’s only unplugged”; “It only needs re-booting”.

Now for some of those problems which seem inexplicable, “It’s only…” are relieving words. But “It’s only…” began to creep into the people’s conversations in other ways. Though gremlins knew how to take things apart and though they knew how some things worked, the people of the kingdom began to believe that Dr Faustus and his gremlins were wise and knew what a thing was.

The people began to ask the gremlins to use their reductifiers to look at their problems and people and their surroundings. Curious and troubling questions which required a lot of counsel and wisdom to answer, question which left one asking, “I wonder why that happened?” or “I wonder what they are really like?” or “I wonder what causes that rainbow?” or “I wonder what made light to play that way in the morning or evening?” These questions in which people of all ages used to delight and think about began to be replaced with, “Its only….” “It’s only water vapor.” “It’s only the sun.” “It’s only an optical illusion caused by the curvature of the earth.” “It’s only…” came to be their favorite expression.

“Look at the beautiful sunset!”

“It’s only light passing through the atmosphere.”

“Look at the beautiful blue sky!”

“It’s only ozone.”

“Look at the beautiful fall leaves.”

“It’s only the breakdown of chlorophyll in the leaf.”

Hearing “It’s only….” over and over again eventually made one think only in those terms. Soon everyone was saying it. A statement of right or wrong was answered with, “It’s only your opinion.” A question of true or false was answered with, “It’s only a figure of speech….” In this way even the promises began to be questioned.

There were many promises written in The Book and spoken by the Witnesses. There were the promises of: a Word that would explain all questions, of a Redeemer who could reach every person, of a Judge who would silence every oppressor, of a Deliverer who could unlock any prison, of a Light that could illumine any darkness, and of a King who would unite all people. These were the promises of which many continued to hope, but many now said, “It’s only a metaphor”, or “It’s only a comforting story”.

In this way, Dr Faustus controlled the people and imprisoned them and was able to do so without the walls of a prison and even in such a way that the people did not even know they were in a prison.

PART THREE

Even though things were very bad in the kingdom without a king, there were still those who believed the promises and did not go to the gremlins for answers; these were the Witnesses. The Witnesses believed that that the King was coming, and that his coming was drawing closer and closer. From town to town they traveled, and they shared with anyone who would listen about the coming King.

Three years ago, at this time, a strange guest came to the town and stayed in John’s inn. This Witness said that very soon the King would come and that he would come to this very town. John responded saying, “It’s only ‘Witness-words’, the talk of dreamers and prayers,” said John to the visitor, but the visitor responded,

“To say that something, ‘is only…’ is not to say what a thing really is. The promises are true, you shall see.”

And then the Witness began to speak as if making a pronouncement. He said,

“The King who is coming will rest first to this place.
His first voiced cry in this town shall speak
The esteemed of his Kingdom will first see his face

When he raises the lowly, strengthens the weak.

And then he chanted the words of the old promises in a song. It went something like this,

A King is coming whose reign and reach
Will gather the nations making them one;
Whose words thought foolish, the wise shall teach;
Whose humility, outshine the sun.
His tender hands gather and soft shoulders bear
By his own strength and power;
The weight of the world’s worries and care;
When he comes, do not miss the hour.
Upon his brow you’ll see his crown;
His gaze shall pierce and see;
He ascends his throne midst a rabble’s renown;
Shall bless from the life-giving tree.
Make ready for the King who brings the light
Unwinds darkness, when he enters the night.

When the Witness finished, a great tiredness overtook him, and he fell asleep in his chair. Pausing for a moment, reflecting on what the Witness had sung, John said irritatingly, “It’s only a lot of words and empty wishes!”

After the Witness left, John found that he couldn’t keep his the words out of his mind. What if the King were coming here? In all reality there was no place else in the little town for anyone to stay except for his house. Surely the King would have to come to him. This was his opportunity. John began to prepare, and he began to imagine, “What if the King and he got along? What if the King liked him and liked the things he could do?” Surely this would be his ticket into bigger and better things.

John set aside one room in the home for the King. Taking the best wood he had stored in his workshop, John made a table upon which the King could have his meals, He made an accompanying chair that he imagined a throne. John also made a bed upon which the King could rest from all his hard work. Hours and hours he spent on the furniture, turning and carving and joining the wood.

For a while, John and the townsfolk were attentive, and watchful for the coming King. But as weeks turned to months and months turned to years and the King still had not come, the people and gremlins settled back into their routine. The people thought the word must have only been a rumor. They even began to disbelieve that there had been a Witness. And so the people and John returned to their lives, and Dr Faustus and his gremlins continued to steal, to charge, to take apart, and reductify.

PART FOUR

The young teenage girl and her husband had come looking for a place to stay only last month. John had no room in the large house, in fact he made provision for others who seemed more important with hopes of gaining favor with the influential. This couple was only a poor family. A teenager and her older husband had come to town because of the tax and the counting. Since all the rooms had been taken, there was no place for them to stay. They were after all, only poor out of towners, and she pregnant. What was that about them being married eight months ago? Hmmm. No wonder there wasn’t a place for them among their own. John allowed them to stay in one of the outbuildings where the livestock were allowed in for the night. The young teenage girl, found ways to help. Her husband helped too, and he was quite a hand with hammer and a square which was good because John had several building projects in town with which he could use some help.

John was away on the other side of the village working to repair a leaky roof and ceiling. His tenant husband had stayed back with his wife after lunch but said that he would send him some food later. The gremlins had obviously been at work filling the gutters with leaves and taking out shingles, and so the roof was soft with water and rot.

You know how the work is. Sometimes when you send help home, that’s when things fall apart. And when you’re expecting some food to be sent back, it never comes. So, John found himself at a home with the ceiling repair opened up to a hole in the roof. John paused for a moment to sit and and eat his leftover sandwich.

Even as he looked up and saw the stars and the constellations, something caught in his heart and couldn’t say, that it was only the hunger, or only the peaceful evening. There was something more stirring in him. The stars reminded John of the promises and what the Witness had said, that “one would come and unwind the darkness.”

From a long way off he saw a company of men walking toward town and talking loudly with each other. When they came into view, he could see they were hill-men, shepherds in the hills beyond town. Whatever the reason for their return, could not be a good one. Wolves had been on the prowl lately and growing more bold in their attacks. No doubt some trouble was afoot.

John gathered his tools and went to find out what was going on.

Calling to the shepherds, John asked if there was anything the matter. One shepherd said, “Only if a Bright-Witness with a flaming sword was the matter!” John looked puzzled and the shepherd replied, “We have been visited by a Bright one, a Messenger who has said that the King has come and that we should go see him.”

“Why would he want to see the likes of us?’ says I.

And the Messenger says, “This is good news for all people not just the wealthy, the good, the put together or the accomplished — for all people.” And the Messenger said we should go and see.

John was stunned, could he have missed it? All the months of preparation and the years of waiting. He couldn’t even remember if he had any room, let alone whether he had kept the King’s chamber available.

John followed the shepherds back into town, and they led John to his own house. Had the King come already? What of the husband and his wife, couldn’t they find time to send him word? No doubt they were pressing their own advantage with the King. John had thought better of them, but they’re only people and people look out only for themselves.

John went through the house looking for the King, but he could not find him. In fact the house was empty. Where were his tenants? When he came back to the front door, the hillmen were gone. Running around back John found the shepherds and his missing tenants who were gathered around the entrance of the shed.

There in the midst of the circle lying on a pallet, lay the the teenage girl with a baby boy, and the father looking worried and exhausted.

The young girl took the nursed infant and wrapped him in cloths and laid him on a bed of barley wheat which filled the manger. There the baby furrowed his brow and cried out for whatever reasons babies cry, pursed his lips and fell asleep.

One of the shepherds said, “See, it is just as we were told. This is the sign fulfilled. The King is come.” And they worshiped the baby in the manger.

But John, thought, “They’re only a poor couple displaced by the census and tax, and this is not a King, it’s only a baby

PART FIVE

And so it happened just as the Wanderer had said. John had made the bed upon which the King rested and where he first voiced his wishes and received his esteemed guests.

And all of a sudden the “It’s onlys” gave way to wonder and confusion and amazement. How could this be the fulfillment of the Wanderer’s words? How could this baby’s frail arms reach to gather the nations? How could these tender shoulders bear a kingdom’s burdens and cares? How could this baby king, who cannot even speak, who doesn’t know any words, give answer every question? How could these small hands unlock every locked door?

And with a turn, John felt something open inside him. John drew near to the mother and baby. She could could see in John’s face the wonder and worry, and she nodding and place her hand on the baby’s head. John looked upon the baby and saw his tiny, perfectly formed features, the pursed lips and tiny nose. He reached to touch the baby’s tiny fingers with his forefinger and he felt the softness through his calloused dry fingers. And taking the baby’s hand, those tiny fingers clutched his fingers and held on.

THE LAST

It has been many years since the King arrived in the kingdom without a king. And many years after his arrival that same King cried out again speaking words which overturned the wise. On another day he would rest upon wooden frame and his hand would grasp our callousness even as he slipped into darkness. He came and did so, so that we could be gathered in and held together in his love which reached out from beyond the stars to pass through the darkness into new morning.

Tonight, even as we remember the reach of his accomplishments, we remember the King who came to world of “It’s only” to unwind its darkness and shine his light.

Photo by Hazel Kuehn

The Night is O’er

My book, The Night is O’er: A Collection of Christmas Eve Stories is available on Amazon. The Night is O’er contains many of the Christmas Eve stories delivered at Grace Presbyterian Church‘s Candlelight Services.
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The Night is O’er was originally published on Grace Presbyterian Church

The Night is O’er was originally published on Grace Presbyterian Church

The Night is O’er was originally published on Grace Presbyterian Church

The Night is O’er

The Night is O’er

My book, The Night is O’er: A Collection of Christmas Eve Stories is available on Amazon. The Night is O’er contains many of the Christmas Eve stories delivered at Grace Presbyterian Church‘s Candlelight Services.
screen-shot-2016-10-18-at-11-13-00-pm

Gaudete Sunday

Today is Gaudete Sunday. During this Advent Sunday’s readings is the scripture from Philippians 4:4 “Rejoice in the Lord always, I will say it again, Rejoice!” In it we remember the message of the Angel of the Lord and the Heavenly Host as they announcement to coming of the Messiah, “Fear not because I bring you good news of great joy!”

I recently came across a 16th Century Christmas carol entitled “Gaudete” which is a rejoicing song about the coming of the Messiah.

Here is the text with a loose translation.

Gaudete, Gaudete!
Christus et natus
Ex maria virgine,
Gaudete!
Rejoice, Rejoice!
Christ is born
Of the virgin Mary,
Rejoice!
Tempus ad est gratiae,
Hoc quod optabamus;
Carmina laetitiae,
Devote redamus.
Now is the time of grace
That we have longed.
Let us sing songs of joy!
Let us render devotion!
Deus homo factus est,
Natura mirante;
Mundus renovatus est
A Christo regnante.
God was made man;
Creation marvels.
The world was renewed
By Christ who is King.
Ezechiellis porta
Clausa pertransitur;
Unde lux est orta
Salus invenitur.
The closed gate of Ezekiel
Has been passed through;
From where the light arises
Salvation is found.
Ergo nostra cantio,
Psallat iam in lustro;
Benedicat Domino:
Salus Regi nostro.
Therefore let the assembly,
Sing in the brightness of dawning;
Let it praise the Lord:
Greetings to our King.

I love the language and what I think is a reference to Ezekiel 46. The imagery captures the true worship led by the King in the Restored Kingdom in which the Eastern gate is not only opened to the direction of the dawn but also to direction of those who are in captivity in Babylon. The passage reads:

“Thus says the Lord GOD: The gate of the inner court that faces east shall be shut on the six working days, but on the Sabbath day it shall be opened, and on the day of the new moon it shall be opened. The prince shall enter by the vestibule of the gate from outside, and shall take his stand by the post of the gate. The priests shall offer his burnt offering and his peace offerings, and he shall worship at the threshold of the gate. Then he shall go out, but the gate shall not be shut until evening.”

I also love the imagery of light — a light that is not mere inner illumination or enlightenment but is of a cosmic dawning that banishes darkness.

At any rate, I first came across Steeleye Span’s version of the carol which climb the music charts in England in the 60’s. Here’s their recent anniversary edition.


And a much more polished version by another choir here:

Why is Christmas December 25?

Today is Annunciation Day. You can read the account of Gabriel’s announcement to Mary in Luke 1:26 and following.

Additionally, Biblical Archeology Review posted a helpful explanation as to why the birth of Jesus Christ is celebrated on December 25. Many have, sadly, bought into the quasi DaVinci Codesque conspiracy theories that Christians were trying to co-opt, ruin, or take over Saturnalia or Sol Invictus. Neither is true. Rather, the birth of Christ is remembered and/or calculated because of Annunciation Day, March 25. For those who ask why Annunciation Day? Their question is answered when they count nine months from March 25th.

Here’s a portion of the article on why December 25.

The December 25 feast seems to have existed before 312—before Constantine and his conversion, at least. As we have seen, the Donatist Christians in North Africa seem to have know it from before that time. Furthermore, in the mid- to late fourth century, church leaders in the eastern Empire concerned themselves not with introducing a celebration of Jesus’ birthday, but with the addition of the December date to their traditional celebration on January 6. 

There is another way to account for the origins of Christmas on December 25: Strange as it may seem, the key to dating Jesus’ birth may lie in the dating of Jesus’ death at Passover. This view was first suggested to the modern world by French scholar Louis Duchesne in the early 20th century and fully developed by American Thomas Talley in more recent years. But they were certainly not the first to note a connection between the traditional date of Jesus’ death and his birth. 

Around 200 C.E. Tertullian of Carthage reported the calculation that the 14th of Nisan (the day of the crucifixion according to the Gospel of John) in the year Jesus died was equivalent to March 25 in the Roman (solar) calendar. March 25 is, of course, nine months before December 25; it was later recognized as the Feast of the Annunciation—the commemoration of Jesus’ conception.Thus, Jesus was believed to have been conceived and crucified on the same day of the year. Exactly nine months later, Jesus was born, on December 25. 

This idea appears in an anonymous Christian treatise titled On Solstices and Equinoxes, which appears to come from fourth-century North Africa. The treatise states: “Therefore our Lord was conceived on the eighth of the kalends of April in the month of March [March 25], which is the day of the passion of the Lord and of his conception. For on that day he was conceived on the same he suffered.” Based on this, the treatise dates Jesus’ birth to the winter solstice.

Why is Christmas December 25?

Today is Annunciation Day. You can read the account of Gabriel’s announcement to Mary in Luke 1:26 and following.

Additionally, Biblical Archeology Review posted a helpful explanation as to why the birth of Jesus Christ is celebrated on December 25. Many have, sadly, bought into the quasi DaVinci Codesque conspiracy theories that Christians were trying to co-opt, ruin, or take over Saturnalia or Sol Invictus. Neither is true. Rather, the birth of Christ is remembered and/or calculated because of Annunciation Day, March 25. For those who ask why Annunciation Day? Their question is answered when they count nine months from March 25th.

Here’s a portion of the article on why December 25.

The December 25 feast seems to have existed before 312—before Constantine and his conversion, at least. As we have seen, the Donatist Christians in North Africa seem to have know it from before that time. Furthermore, in the mid- to late fourth century, church leaders in the eastern Empire concerned themselves not with introducing a celebration of Jesus’ birthday, but with the addition of the December date to their traditional celebration on January 6. 

There is another way to account for the origins of Christmas on December 25: Strange as it may seem, the key to dating Jesus’ birth may lie in the dating of Jesus’ death at Passover. This view was first suggested to the modern world by French scholar Louis Duchesne in the early 20th century and fully developed by American Thomas Talley in more recent years. But they were certainly not the first to note a connection between the traditional date of Jesus’ death and his birth. 

Around 200 C.E. Tertullian of Carthage reported the calculation that the 14th of Nisan (the day of the crucifixion according to the Gospel of John) in the year Jesus died was equivalent to March 25 in the Roman (solar) calendar. March 25 is, of course, nine months before December 25; it was later recognized as the Feast of the Annunciation—the commemoration of Jesus’ conception.Thus, Jesus was believed to have been conceived and crucified on the same day of the year. Exactly nine months later, Jesus was born, on December 25. 

This idea appears in an anonymous Christian treatise titled On Solstices and Equinoxes, which appears to come from fourth-century North Africa. The treatise states: “Therefore our Lord was conceived on the eighth of the kalends of April in the month of March [March 25], which is the day of the passion of the Lord and of his conception. For on that day he was conceived on the same he suffered.” Based on this, the treatise dates Jesus’ birth to the winter solstice.

Why is Christmas December 25? was originally published on Grace Presbyterian Church

A Victorian Christmas

I’ve known Charlie and Ruth Jones (aka Peculiar People) for almost 20 years. Since they moved to Greensboro from Nashville, about 3 years ago, I was able to attend their N.C. performance at their home on S Elm St. My wife and I had a great time, and I thought that my friends would enjoy it.

Since then, as I’ve thought about the show, the time period (Victorian England), the main character (G.K. Chesterton-who was himself a journalist), it occurred to me that the show fit perfectly with Korner’s Folly. Charlie and Ruth’s heart to see Christians engage and be engaged by the arts and the Korner’s love the arts along with their desire to engage the community with the arts seemed to line up. So, in mid-October, I invited Charlie over to visit the Folly and asked him to consider bringing his show to Kernersville. Charlie was really taken with the house and the Korner’s story: their love of the arts, community-mindedness, love of hospitality, and he was also taken with the house itself; it charmed him. We spoke with Bruce Frankel about the possibility of having the show at the Folly and how we could use the event to be a blessing to the community. Bruce was very helpful and accommodating, and we were able to set a date.

Personally, this event allows opportunity to introduce others to this wonderful home and a wonderful ministry. I have a heart both for the Folly and for the ministry of Family Promise. Victorian Christmas brings together a number of things I love: Charlie and Ruth, G.K. Chesterton, the Folly, Family Promise, music/poetry/the arts, and my friends whom I know would enjoy the evening. Additionally, the enjoyment of the company of others enjoying themselves and each other feels particularly like giving a gift. So much of Christmas becomes a trap about all the stuff. This evening reminds us of what is precious: one another and particularly the one whom G.K. Chesterton devoted his life to following: Jesus Christ.

The evening is set at Christmas in the London home of G.K. Chesterton. As people arrive the Folly they will be welcomed and introduced to the Folly and invited to tour the home before the show and see all the Christmas decorations as well as enjoy the charm of the home. At about 7:30 people will be invited to the second floor Reception Room where we will join the Chestertons and their friends for a Christmas party. The evening is interactive, and the audience is invited to join the Chestertons in singing carols and playing games. Throughout the evening the Chestertons share their talents by reciting poetry and telling stories. Additionally, a story is unfolding among the characters themselves as they celebrate Christmas. The evening is very engaging is appropriate for primary ages and up. During the evening, we will invite people to make donations to Family Promise of Forsyth County as well as acknowledge opportunities to support the preservation of the Folly.

There are a number of reasons why we need to support ministries like Family Promise. Firstly, the ministry is about homelessness, and we are in the coldest part of the year. I cannot imagine a family trying to survive sleeping in car in a parking lot somewhere; that doesn’t need to happen.

Secondly, Christmas reminds us of the blessing of hospitality. In this age of ‘entertain-me’, that is, the culture we live in causes us to expect high-quality, competent entertainment and service in whatever we participate in. It is good to be reminded that we are called serve others by opening our lives and homes. Because of the high level of expectation and the pressure to succeed, I believe we shut down and shut out others because fear failing at “entertaining”. “Entertaining” sounds so burdensome. Why not merely be open to receiving others warmly? I think that is what hospitality is about, and the warmth of community and fellowship is certainly what we should be about as we celebrate God drawing near to us. Over and over again one reads and hears that this is the loneliest time of year. I think this is very sad.

Lastly, the first Christmas was about hospitality. The Word who made this home for us and placed us in it, came to visit and he was not received so warmly. Additionally, Mary and Joseph were refugees of sorts in a home which was occupied by enemies. They were not received by family or even the inn, but relegated to the stable. The care of those in need was very close to Jesus’ heart and the community which he established. Family Promise has more which it is doing, but the primary ministry is to offer hospitality to homeless families. We have the means through our resources: financial, abilities, time, and building space to alleviate significant suffering in the lives of others. It would be a tragedy to repeat the unkindness to Jesus himself by continuing to neglect those whom we might help.

The event is Tuesday, December 14 from 7-9pm. Resevations and tickets may be purchased by calling Grace Presbyterian Church, 993-3384 x12 or at the church office from 9-Noon, Mon-Friday.