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Sermons Story

Christmas Counting

This is a long post, but it recalls a long day which has lasted ten years so far.

This weekend marks the tenth anniversary of my youngest daughter’s T1D diagnosis (aka “diaversary”). Ten years ago, progress to a cure seemed so close that we were told that a cure was within ten years. Many advances and technologies have continued to be developed and released to the public. JDRF continues to be a source of encouragement and inspiration. We certainly would not have weathered the transition from diagnosis to treatment without the very kind support and encouragement of the T1D community. It was and is still overwhelming. My youngest has endured much, and she inspires me.

The accompanying picture is one of my youngest’s stuffed toys which she slept with for many years. You can see how she, as a child, processed and coped with life with T1D as she added an insulin pump inset to the belly of the toy which mirrored the inset which she wears and changes every three days.

Below is the message I delivered the three weeks after her diagnosis at the Christmas Eve service where I minister. You may find it in my collection of Christmas stories entitled, The Night is O’er.

Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. 5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, 8 he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Philippians 2:3-11

I oftentimes fall into the pattern of reducing my life to counting integers–the equally subdivided ticks on a line which quantify the things which I believe important. All this data, this numbering, is meant somehow to bring a predictability and control to my life. I count sermons, days, dollars, compliments, mistakes, peaceful minutes, and miles. On December 5, 2009, I started counting a new line.

It took three days for what I believed to be true to be confirmed. It was forty-five minutes from when my wife picked up our daughter from school until she called from the doctor’s office with the results of two tests which confirmed the diagnosis that our youngest, one of three lovely children, had what 39 other children in the U.S. would be diagnosed with on that very day: Juvenile Diabetes (T1D).

It is eleven miles or twenty minutes from our house to the Wake Forest Baptist Hospital’s Emergency Room, and it is nine floors up Ardmore Tower to room 810 at Brenner Children’s Hospital where we would stay for the next three days. On the evening of the second day, I am nervous, as I prepare to administer my daughter’s fourth injection — her first full day of injections for the rest of her days, and she is nervous. She is nervous because in her mind it counts as a shot. I am nervous because I count it the same, and this is my first time giving one. Her blood glucose is down to 211 from the 305 it was at dinner. I inject her with an insulin called Lantus (one of two types she receives) with one of the new pen-type syringes, one of three ways to administer insulin.

My daughter’s life and her parent’s lives are now divided into threes and subsets of threes. Three meals a day before which she receives a dose of insulin based on her blood sugar level. Three meals a day with one snack in between. We count 180 grams of carbohydrates per day, forty-five grams per meal, fifteen grams per snack. We keep meticulous records of her blood sugar and the times it is taken. This vigilance gives power to the illusion that the accurate and diligent collection of data provides control. Control means safety, and safety means that when I wake up at 2:37 in the morning and am unable to resist going into my daughter’s room to check on her, probably for the second time that night, I will find her okay, and that she will remain okay until I wake her, before the eighth hour to measure her blood sugar and to give her first shot.

Growing up, I had imagined that my membership among the number of humanity would mean that I would one day, count. I had hoped that this addition would add up to success, achievement, and a decent though not ostentatious life — one that would be both moderately enviable and worth emulating.

Over the course of my life, my counting has taken different forms. As a child, I counted presents at Christmas time and meatballs in my Spaghetti-O’s at dinner time. As a teenager, I counted the “hutts” as center for the high school football team before I passed the ball through my legs to the hands of a team mate whom I should’ve counted a much closer friend for the intimacy we shared five days a week for four months each fall. As a college student, I counted years, semesters and class hours till graduation. After graduation, I counted the dollars for an engagement ring which I would give to one whom I counted above all the rest and whom I was counting on saying “yes”. In my first real job as a teacher, I counted down the classes to the end of the day, the days of the week to Friday, and the hours of the weekend till Monday. As a seminary student I was one of a graduating class of ninety or so, who were counting on positions in a church in which they would go to make a difference and whose lives would “count for Christ”. While working in the second of three churches, I would learn to number mortgage payments, diapers, bottles of formula, and doses of Tylenol. I had always hoped that I would count, but I never imagined those things which I would end up counting. And now, I count blood sugar and doses of insulin.

In our house this December we’ve been counting the days until Christmas. It all changed on the fifth of those days. Since then, I’ve been thinking of how that first Christmas was replete with counting. When Gabriel first appeared to Mary to tell her that she was chosen to bear and raise the King, of whom the number of the days of his reign would have no end, she neither balked at her own unworthiness nor chaffed at the inconvenience. In humility she both rejoiced and received what was put upon her. You recall that when Mary became pregnant she was only betrothed to Joseph. And when Joseph discovered she was pregnant, he intended to divorce her privately because he was a kind man. Nevertheless, he could after all count, and a pregnant fiancé did not add up. But even while he was still counting what he should do, the Angel of the Lord appeared to him to assure him: Mary was carrying the one who would deliver his people from their sins. Joseph obeyed the command of God to marry a woman bearing a child not his own. The irregularity was plain for all to see. No doubt it was probably assumed that this couple, for whom some may have had high hopes, was not only un-special but also of no account.

It came about in the long line of human events, that Caesar Augustus wanted to count the world so that he might have more money to count. Because Joseph was numbered among the descendants of King David, Joseph and his new wife walked the eighty miles from Nazareth to the ancestral home of David’s descendants, Bethlehem. If you were to return to your home town, you would likely count on some help and a place to stay, but Mary and Joseph were relegated to the inn. Upon finding that all the inn’s rooms were counted full, the innkeeper offered the stable. In this stable, after her numbered days were completed, Mary delivered Jesus, the Son of David, the Son of Man, the Son of God… that he might deliver us.

Now in the fields beyond the region of Bethlehem, there were shepherds. Being good shepherds, they counted their sheep. They were not counting on the Angel of the Lord appearing among them glowing with light so heavy that it almost crushed them. The angel’s first words were, “Don’t be afraid.” He told them of the birth of Christ the Lord, and that they should go to see him. As a sign that this was both special and true, the Angel told them that they would find this king in swaddling clothes lying in a manger. At that moment, countless angels appeared in the dark sky, lit by numberless lights, and sang. They sang of wonder, of triumph, of the turning of the tide, of the good news that the interminable slide into the same ol’ same ol’, the relentless skid further into the ways things shouldn’t be, had been arrested by the stark cry of a newborn in the City of David. These shepherds (those whom the world did not count) marveled that they should be the first to hear this glorious news. They traveled to Bethlehem and saw it just as they were told, they shared with Mary and Joseph all that they had seen and heard, and they went away rejoicing and praising God.

About the same time in another land, wise men called magi, were counting stars in the sky and they counted a new star — a star which foretold the coming of the King of the Jews. These men also, came to see the new born king. Bearing gifts to honor the king, they rejoiced at being among the first number to visit and honor him. St. Luke tells us that Mary counted all these things as a dear treasure and pondered them in her heart even as she treasured the child in her arms.

As I take into account this Christmas (my forty-fourth) the numbered events of Jesus’ birth and the numbered circumstances which I and my family are walking through, I am strengthened by the good news that there was One who did not count.

Jesus himself counted. When he entered the wilderness at the beginning of his ministry, he counted both the cost  and the days of his temptation. As a good shepherd, Jesus counted and still counts the sheep. I’m sure he counted the days he had left with his disciples even as he counted down the Passovers. After being handed over by the religious elite to the efficient and heartless imperial justice, I do not doubt that he lost count of the lashes, the insults, and the blows. How could he have counted the weight of such a payment for such a debt and born the judgment of his Heavenly Father — one whom he never counted as an enemy?

Yet, St. Paul in his letter to the Philippians tells us that Jesus did not count one thing: “equality with God as something to be grasped”. The honor and glory rightly his was not one to be taken, demanded, or expected. Rather, it was to be received and conferred but only after his being born – born to serve and to suffer. In this act of love and obedience we see that Jesus did not count himself above the rest, but he numbered himself among the least: a homeless family with tainted reputation, wandering to the ancestral home of a dried up royal dynasty.

St. Paul tells us, that Christ “made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men”. This means so much more to me this Christmas. I now realize that God in Christ subjected himself to the same body which has a pancreas and the same endocrinology which requires the pancreas to produce insulin so that cells can use glucose. By simply being born that first Christmas, the King of Glory bore the first of many ignominious sufferings. And though his coming to earth may mean many things, it does mean at least this: that he played by his own rules. Though he was greater, he did not count himself above the rest. He did not count himself above me or you or my Maddie. He counted the cost of the humiliation and the suffering and the waiting well worth the price because of the joy set before him.

St. Paul tells us that those for whom such a great accounting has been made, for those who treasure these things in their heart, they will be set free from counting. They are now set free from counting offenses born, rights owed, wrongs endured, successes achieved, victories won and failures lost. Rather, having been counted by the one who did not count, they will be set free from counting themselves so that they might count on Him and count others more important.

I will go home tonight and count. You too, will likely count hours till bedtime or hours till morning. If we are to keep Christmas, this Christmas, and if we are to keep from falling into the mire and false security of those things which you and I like to count on, we must treasure the one who “did not count equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, and being born.”

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Christmas Letters Story

Dust to Glory: A Christmas Story

Advent 2017 was a very special, early Christmas gift for me. In early summer, I met with two young artist who attend the church which I pastor. Adah Freeman and Asher McClain willingly endeavored to engage the vision I had for this year’s Advent season. It was my desire to help our congregation expectantly move forward through Advent by a weekly art installation which would focus us on the Advent themes of hope, love, joy, peace, and glory. It turned out better than I had imagined.

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Asher McClain provided pyrography (wood burnings) which signified each week’s theme. He interpreted the themes masterfully and through them we saw things which he was not immediately aware but which bore the marks of God’s blessing.

Adah Freeman worked tireless hours on the portraiture which were to capture the moment in which each person heard the words, “Where are you?” Whether Adam and Eve, Abraham, Moses, Mary, or the Shepherds, she captured their turn, their raised glances, their surprise, and their wonder.

Lastly, Michael Kuehn, Grace’s worship leader, was inspired by these artists and the opportunity He wrote (was given) lyrics and music which served to beautifully capture the moments which we were seeking to illustrate.

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The following is the text of the Christmas message which I delivered to the congregation on Christmas Eve. Though a little late, Merry Christmas!

The first man and woman lived in the lush green and safe garden of God. They had always been able to see God. When they sought him, they found him. When looked at Him, they always saw the countenance of his holy and loving face. God made everything that was, and he walked at leisure in the midst of the garden enjoying his creation.

At some time, one of God’s creatures came to the first man and the first woman and taught them to use their imagination: to imagine looking down, to climb up out of the dust, to stand tall, to be like God who from his place looked down on all he had made. They imagined and then they did the only thing forbidden them. Looking up they stretched out their hands, stood on their tippy toes, and did the irrevocable thing. They did that for which there is no excuse.

Though the first man and woman were deceived by the creature, their deception had already begun to arise in them. Their desire to be like God was not to emulate or honor him, but to be equal with and independent of him. In that moment after they disobeyed, their eyes were opened, and they would forever look down, not in greatness, but in humiliation and shame. Never again were they able to look up and bear the brightness and countenance of the face of God.

That day God walked in the garden in the cool of the evening and called to the man and woman, ‘Where are you?’ Ashamed and afraid of what they had done, the man and woman hid. They covered their eyes from the face of God. The used the good things which God made and given to them to hide themselves — from God and from each other. If they could, they would’ve stayed in the garden enjoying its comfort and goodness while trying to hide all the while from God. But God loved them too much to let them do that.

Though death was the punishment, they did not die that day, but the curse of death entered the world. And in that, the man and woman saw all the ugliness of their treachery and the ugliness of what they had let enter the world. Since that day, every father and mother has had to tell their children: “You are made of dust, and to dust you shall return.”

God however did not leave them in the dust with only the hope of raising something from the dirt. He gave a promise, that one of the woman’s children, would bear the wound of every wound, and in his wounding he would crush into the dust all the brokenness they had let enter the world and all the brokenness that was inside them but most importantly, the brokenness that drove them to hide from the face of God. In his gracious kindness, he made them clothes to protect them from the wild and unsafe world. And who has ever been wrapped in such protection by such a tailor?

Many children of the first man and woman later, there was another husband and wife. Who, being old as dirt and whose life was as dry as dust found themselves at the end of the line of those who knew God, and their heads looked down. God promised to bless the man and his wife and to give them many descendants so they followed God where he led. In some matters they took things into their own hands and tried to raise for themselves the fruit of God’s promise. Though failing some, they continued to trust God even as they waited long in the fulfillment.

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It came to pass that the trust with which they trusted was tested. They had come to call God, God Almighty. God Almighty gave them a son when all hope of having a son was gone. But with such a desired and precious gift, a question needed to be asked. Though they trusted God Almighty could do anything, would they trust him with everything? Having gotten from Him what he had promised them, would they only trust themselves to keep safe the promise? The only way to tell was to ask for the boy back. If God Almighty could be trusted, the man would have to trust him with everything. He would give the boy back to God Almighty, even the son whom God Almighty had promised and given the man and his wife.

For three days father looked down the road. Father and son traveled the dusty road and with the journey the man carried the worry of what was to be done to the place God Almighty would show the father. The father and his son, climbed the mountain, and on that high place, the man looked down upon his son, his only son, and taking the knife, he moved to sacrifice his son as God Almighty had commanded. But in that quick moment, a voice called his name, “Abraham! Abraham!” Thankfully, Abraham did not reply as one may so often do when God Almighty speaks to us. We say, “Just a second! Can’t you see I’m busy?” Instead he looked up and cried, “Here I am!” And so the test was not if he could but whether he would. For who would love another so much that for the sake of that love would sacrifice their one and only son?

Many years later, and many grandchildren later the descendants of the man and wife went down to another land where they blessed many people and saved many lives.

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Eventually the people of that land looked down upon the descendants of the promise. The people of the land enslaved the descendants, and forced them live in dirt and water and straw where they made bricks for a great king, Pharaoh, who with those bricks and on their backs built great cities and buildings that reached to the skies. These were buildings upon which people would look up and marvel and the king’s wealth and power, and they would think of him as a god. The descendants of the promise though, did not call upon him as god. For even as they heads were laid low, they raised their voices to God Almighty, “Deliver us!’

God Almighty heard their cries for relief and deliverance and he sent a child. This child was hidden and laid down in an ark and set to drift upon the waters of the Nile river where he was found by one of the king’s daughters. The daughter of the great king drew the baby boy out of the water and drew him into society and prestige, but God Almighty was drawing him into another story. He was drawn out of hiding, drawn into violence, and drawn away to exile to wander midst the dust of the desert as a shepherd. Burdened with the calling but broken by failure, the man’s countenance was drawn low, and he looked down.

One day when he looked up and saw a fire in the midst of a bush, but the bush did not burn. When the Lord saw that he had turned aside God Almighty called the man’s name. God Almighty gave the man his own name, I AM — or “The LORD”. The man was very afraid, and he doubted whether he could be used and whether even THE LORD could use him. The Lord, promised the man that he would use him as he desired, and that he would lift his eyes. The Lord said to the man, you will know that everything I’ve told you is true, when after doing what I send you to do, you will come back to this very place where I will lift up your head, and you will look up, see me, and you will worship me. The Lord did this and so many things for the man and the descendants of the promise. They came to know so many things about the Lord, they knew his name. And for the man he drew out? That man spoke with the Lord as one talks to a friend. Eventhough the man talked with the Lord as a friend speaks with a friend, he never saw the Lord’s face. For who could see the face of the Lord and not be crushed by the weight of that glory? Or bear the joyful radiance of his holiness? And though many were delivered from the rule of the great and wicked king, a generation died and returned to the dust of the earth before their children saw the land of their promise.

And many years and generations later, a messenger from above, one of the servants of the Lord named Gabriel, came to a young woman in small town far away from the center of her people’s world.

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The young woman no doubt had her head down doing her chores, which probably involved moving dirt, preparing what the dirt had grown, and avoiding the dirt. Needless to say, she was doing the everyday things an everyday person does. Gabriel surprised her when he spoke high words, tall words of honor, “Greetings favored one, the Lord is with thee!”

The young woman was confused and surprised and amazed. She could not understand why this messenger would come to her, she who only fourteen, she had no influence, she was as humble as the earth.

Gabriel said,”Don’t be afraid, Mary, God’s grace is yours. See, you will conceive and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. For as written, “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

But she couldn’t see it. Looking down, she asked, “How, can this be since I am a virgin?” And the messenger told her, that the Holy Spirit of God will in power overshadow you, and the new creation shall begin. For the child born to you will be called holy and Son of God. Even now, your cousin Elizabeth in her old age, Elizabeth who has born no children, carries a son. For nothing will be impossible with God. And the young woman, bowed her head — not in shame but in willing honor, in gentle humility, and she said, “Let it be unto me as you have said.” For what does the Lord give except that for which no man can take credit.

Only months later, the young woman and her husband made a ten day journey to the home of their ancestors, for the Empire who ruled and the governor who kept the people underfoot determined there should be a tax. The town to which they traveled was called, House of Bread or Bethlehem. Because there was no room, they found shelter on the dirt floor of a stable with the animals.

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There were in the region outside of Bethlehem shepherds watching their flocks at night. It was their lot to try and make for themselves and their families a living from the earth. They were well acquainted with earth and its dirt. Some despised them and said that was exactly what they were: dirt. These shepherd-wanderers knew the earth’s dirt and dust from rocks and boulders to clods, loamy soil, and parched earth. They knew high meadows and watered valleys. They knew desert canyons and barren hill country.

The shepherd’s hands were calloused and dirty with work. Some were born into the life. Others were driven into the work by circumstance, necessity, or servitude. Some chose it by process of elimination, for they could not abide village life let alone city life. They needed the space and could stand the roaming and threats of the wilderness more than the closed in life of the city and the social and relational wounds.

This night was a night like many other nights: long and boring. Some nights were long and boring only to be interrupted with desperate minutes of fear and danger. Tonight seemed to be more of the previous. The stars in the night sky seemed to hang. They twinkled and moved in their fixed courses across the sky.

There was tingling sensation and then standing before them was a messenger. The brightness of his appearing in that night drove them back. As the glory of the Lord shone around them; they fell into the dust. The weight of the light and the goodness of the one who stood before them overwhelmed and then brought into focus all their hopes and fears. Their hope being to be able to bear this glory and walk in it — upright, joyful, clean of their soiled lives. Clean of what had been done to them and clean of what they had done and thought and wish they’d done. And with the awareness of that hope came the rushing of fear, that that for which they had longed, that for which was the root of all their longings would be lost to them forever. Fear of being really seen and known. Fear of being undone by this gaze of goodness.

On their knees, looking down, looking away, covering their eyes, shaking with fear and self-recrimination, they heard the kindest, most welcome word. This one of blazing light said, “Do not be afraid. Look here, I bring you good news, the greatest most joyful news which is not just for a few but for all people.” And at this their attention piqued.

Slowly they raised their heads, glancing at the others, trying to comprehend. “For all people?” was the word, but did it mean even for us people? Good news for us?

And the messenger continued, “Yes, to you! To you is born this very day, in the city of David a Savior, the Messiah, God’s special king, Christ the Lord?”

“But how can this be? How might we know?”

Here’s how you will know you are seeing this good news: if you seek him tonight, you will find a baby and this baby will be wrapped in swaddling cloths. And he will be lying in a manger.”

And then, like lightening, like a flash that didn’t fade, came the Light. It was as if the ceiling of stars had been torn open, there was singing and praising. The worship which was always taking place in the presence of God, God Almighty, the I AM, the Lord, that worship spilled like water, like waves crashing in flood, poured into the world — the world which God fashioned even as his own Word spilled into the world of his sustaining. The rising cry was, “Glory to God in the highest! Glory! and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” They stood bathed in the most lovely light, hearing the most beautiful sound, a song, the song, and it felt to them, that they had entered into the loving, worshipful heart and center of the universe. There they stood, still, looking up, no sound but the sound of the choir, and no words, but the words of their song.

Just as the tide rises and floods in rolling, increasing waves, the tide which had flooded the world receded into stillness and quiet. The night returned, the messengers departed, and the shepherds perception of the music became gradually lessened, but their skin still tingled, their faces still flushed, and their hearts remained full, and their minds were bright and clear. Almost with one voice, they said, “Let us go to Bethlehem to see!” Without delay, they went in search of the sign.

When they arrived in Bethlehem, they searched. The town was busy with travelers and the work of evening. The shepherds heard of a gathering at a stable where a mother had travailed through the day and night to deliver her child. The shepherds searched and found the mother, Mary, and her husband, Joseph. Again a wave of marveling washed over them, for what did they see? They saw the very sign of which they were told. A baby lying in a manger. How strange, this child wrapped in this swaddling robe and held up off the dirt floor of the earth by this wood frame and laid in that from which creatures feed, bowing their heads to receive the good food and grain which sustains through the long, cold winter of waiting until the high summer of mountain meadows and green pastures.

Those gathered with the couple and the child marveled at all that the shepherds told them. Speechless they looked up and listened and wondered with questions again and again.

But the mother, Mary, noted it. She saw it in all that had happened to her and was promised to her that this was the way of it. She saw it in herself, the glory seeping in through her own fears of the future and the wounding glances and side-words which she overheard or even louder in the silence when she entered a room. She saw it in Joseph who was hurt and fearful of the betrayal and the fear of a damaged reputation for marrying the maiden. She heard it in Elizabeth’s voice who, being beyond hope of ever having a child, had delivered a son, and now she sees it in these shepherds. The glory seeps in through the brokenness. Just as the glory rushed into this world on these broken shepherds — dirty and dusty with work, but clean and clear with understanding. They told anyone who would listen, and recounted to one another over and over again of all that they had seen and heard, and whom they had seen.

For all who heard and received the glory which poured into the world through promise and long-purpose and now poured into the dust of the world? There was hope, love, joy, and peace. For them, and for us, the glory and praising and wonder, does not let go. It may swell and recede, but the glory remains.

Michael Kuehn has collected his songs into an EP entitled, “Here I Am!” which you purchase on Bandcamp HERE.

Where Are You Album

Portraiture © 2017 Adah Freeman
Pyrography © 2017 Asher McClain
Music © 2017 Michael Kuehn Music
Story © 2017 Randall Edwards

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Categories
Christmas Letters Story

A Christmas Letter

Here’s a Christmas letter from a friend. Merry Christmas!

Dear Randy,

I hope this letter finds you doing well. Anna sends here greetings, as do Amy, Angie, and Amanda to your children.

Lately, I have found myself in the malaise of the holiday season. I began with such high expectations, but I’ve followed by too little time to make good on the plans, and so I’m caught in the trap of resenting having so little but expecting so much – again. It’s the same trap every year.

As I sit down to write you, Friend, a line from the carol, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” which I heard on the radio earlier this evening while running errands has lodged itself in my head. You know the line: “…the hopes and fears of all the years….” I think I begin each new holiday season with hope, but rarely apprehend the fears. By the time I apprehend the fears, the dread of impending disappointment drives me deeper into the sadness of yet more missed opportunities.

“Hopes and fears,” when I was kid, captured Christmas. I was hopeful and fearful – at the same time, though I thought what the carol was referring to was Christmas presents. “Would my parents get it right?” I always tried to be clear and specific. One Christmas I hoped for a laced, leather, Wilson JV5 football — the one with the half striped ends? I feared getting the “pleather” knock-off. A football was a football wasn’t it? Not in this case. I didn’t care about budgets, availability, globalization or the commercialization of Christmas. I hoped that I would get that football, and I feared that I wouldn’t.

“Hopes and fears” seem so different now. I look at Amy, my eldest, and I am full of hope and fear. How can I tell her that the place which she somehow imagines that I am – probably some variant of ‘arrived’ is a place for which I am still looking. I look at my teenager, and I know what she doesn’t yet. That she’ll always be Amy. That her hopes and fears – though they may grow and be refined, will always be her hopes and fears — that her goal to ‘become’ what she thinks is ‘adult’ is merely ‘aged adolescence.’ She thinks I’m arrived, but I’m just an old teenager. How do you look your eldest in the eye who is so full of hope for what her life will hold for her by means of satisfaction? How do you encourage her optimism and pursuit of happiness and all the while you know that there are things of which someone should be very afraid. It may be the frailty of life or it may be something insignificant. I’m sure that whatever causes her to seek counseling, will in some way be connected to my hopes and fears. Hoped choked out by industrialism in the workplace or the comodification of product or the commercialization of society – whatever it is, my hope for my daughter is subsumed by my fear of disappointing and disappointment, and so, I give the wrong football, the wrong stereo, the wrong clothes. Because I can’t hear through my hopes and fears, I miss the hope and fear in my daughter’s voice. That’s the way it happens. Gradually, I move towards the t.v. or the computer or work or the yard or the bills. Gradually, she moves towards her room, towards the phone, towards the computer. Contact comes only when we pass one another on our ways to those things which we do to keep the hope alive and fear at bay.

“Hopes and fears” captures what I thought it would be to be married. Christ’s first advent meant presents, but Christ’s second advent meant the end. The thought of Jesus coming on the clouds, though something which we as college Christians were to look forward, left us with a certain air of ambivalence. In particular, what if Jesus comes before I’m married. Hope and fear for me as a college student could be summed in one way: a guilt free sex. Not merely was it guilt free, but it I just new it would somehow be wholesome and unbridled. Little did I realize that ‘hope and fear’ would almost characterize every interaction of our marriage. Anna’s hopes and fears and my hopes and fears seem to collide weekly: I’m not around enough; she’s too tired; I’m drained by work; she’s drained by child rearing. I hope that we fear less these days, but maybe we’re just too tired to be afraid. And our hopes? We’ll I’d to settle for absence of daily disappointment.

Hear I am, mid-life, climbing the career ladder which I’ve dutifully climbed. I got the MBA, I put in the extra hours, I relocated my family for the promotion, and have I arrived? All I can think sometimes, is “Is this it?” Have I peaked?” I love what I do, yet I can’t help but think that anyone could do it. “Hope and fear.” I had hope of making a difference of leaving my mark, but I’m afraid that I, myself, have become a commodity – just one product out of many products. I have hope of creating a work environment that is safe and wholesome for those work for me, and yet I’m afraid that my leadership failings leave me vulnerable to those who would climb over me for my position or are more likely just biding their time to make the jump to something bigger and better. I hope to be good at work, but I’m afraid that I’m merely being put up with – sort of a relational welfare recipient. I imagine my superiors saying, “He’s not our first choice, but what else is he going to do?” I want to be so good at it that if feels like it will kill me to fail. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to work somewhere else doing something I didn’t care so much about.

We’re headed out of town to my parent’s for Christmas. Before we get out of town, it seems like I’ve got a dozen or so things to do. My life seems to be consumed with a dozen or so things to do. Mandy, our youngest, broke the kitchen faucet this afternoon. How does a three year old break a kitchen faucet?

I’ve no real problem with plastic, but these faucet cartridges? It goes against reason. Turning a valve off – i.e. a faucet in a sink — is about tightening. Tightening is about torque. Torque is about pounds of pressure. These new kitchen faucets don’t use valves, they use switches. No torque is needed; you just turn it off. Nevertheless, my kids push and twist the faucet valve (which is really a switch) and break the cartridge. And so with water running in the kitchen sink, I’m out on Hanes Mall Blvd in Christmas traffic trying to find the replacement cartridge while my wife and daughters are at home decorating the Christmas tree so we can have a tree before we go out of town, come back exhausted, and pack it all away. Is this the Christmas we had hoped for? Me, coming home hopeful of finding peace but falling into chaos, flying off the handle at Mandy. Anna, sensing an onslaught of a tempered rage rant attempts to mediate the awful chasm between brute beast and offspring. This was not the Norman Rockwell Christmas picture: Defiantly protective wife, fearful children scattering for cover in other rooms and the Daddy: a compilation of Ebenezer Scrooge, the Grinch, Darth Vader, and Sauron. Getting out of town will be nice. I hope we can survive it.

I think of that Christmas years ago, and I wonder if getting out of town was the same for Joseph and Mary. Newlyweds, taxes, oppressive government, family business, sketchy pregnancy, out of town trips – did they have any hopes and fears? Anna and I’ll load up our van for our seventy-five mile trip to our in-laws, they most likely walked that distance. In order to encourage my wife’s labor she had to walk a hospital’s corridors. What do you think walking 75 miles would’ve done? Mary on a donkey? That’s Sunday School and picture books, the Bible doesn’t say anything about riding. Mary walked to Bethlehem. She walked uphill. But even if they had a donkey, you know how it always is. The man at the stable looks the donkey over and says, “She’s got a lot of miles on her; I don’t know if she’ll make it.”

Did you ever notice that they went to Joseph’s hometown, and he had to stay at an inn? I wonder what that was all about? Maybe it was just a little too scandalous having that Galilean cousin who got married “quickly and quietly” with his new pregnant wife at the house. You know, the neighbors will talk. Maybe it was just a little too stressful to stay with the family. Regardless, there was no room in the inn, and they ended up staying in the garage with the transportation and food – transportation and food that, well, you know, pooped. Hopes and fears? I bet that was some honeymoon — some peaceful, family vacation. I’m having a meltdown because of a stupid faucet, and the pressure of living up to some serene suburban Thomas Kincade Christmas painting where I’ve spent too much money — again, tried to do too much Christmasing — again, got too caught up in the production – again, and forgotten Christmas.

While out this evening, I was listening to the radio. ‘SJS was playing Bing Crosby’s version of “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” The serenity and peace of a “deep and dreamless sleep” is something I’d love to have. Was it really that serene in that stable on that night? Our little town is anything but. We’re not a peaceful little town whose tranquility is answered with the advent of the Prince of Peace. Rather, our little town is the picture of “tooth and claw.” I’m driving down the busiest street in Winston trying not to be killed by the hopeful yet fearfully panicked parents and friends trying to find just the right thing or at least something with which to settle. And all their “hopes and fears” are being frustrated by an angry Dad whose advent seeks a plastic cartridge to repair a stupid faucet whose engineering testifies to the mystifying wisdom of a design and marketing committee. I’m not a Prince of Peace; I’m a Prince of Pieces and that’s what I’m going to.

The “hopes and fears of all the years” – the words stick in my head. While running errands this evening, I wondered about “hopes and fears.” Joseph and Mary’s “hopes and fears” as they journeyed to their hometown only to be turned out to the stable. No, celebratory birth with family present, offering help, waiting expectantly for news. Instead, an exhausted, transient, young, hopeful yet fearful couple – one displaced couple out of hundreds probably – and one mother having her baby in a stable because there was no where else to go.

Driving back home as “the silent stars go by,” I thought of my wife and daughters. I look up at those stars, and I think about our “hopes and fears.” Our hope that the deepest longings of our hearts tells us that there is something for which we have been created that we have not yet experienced and the fear that I may never experience it are answered in the birth of this little baby born in a stable.

“Yet, in thy dark streets shinneth, the Everlasting Light…”

Sitting in my car, in my driveway, I was bathed in light. I realized that I actually want that for which I have been (and always am) so afraid: to be real. To just be Gary. I want to own my brokenness, my desperation, my anger, my fear, my drivenness, and my hope. What’s so bizare is that I can be most of these all at the same time. I don’t want hiding in the shadows of dark streets. I want shining. I want Everlasting Light. Talk about hope and fear. There’s something about seeing that takes courage. I hope I can take it. I have help though, because at Christmas, we have God’s answer to our hopes and fears. On that night 2000 years ago, God didn’t come to His ungrateful, chaotic family as angry Parent, but as a baby. By coming to us as a baby, I think, God is saying, “Come to me with your hope, but don’t be afraid.” I wonder if I can live that out with my family, my employees, and my friends? Will I live believing that in Jesus my hopes and fears are answered, secured, and waiting? Will I be so patient, that my wife and daughters can come to me – unafraid with their hopes and fears? I hope. I hope.

O little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie;
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by:
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The Everlasting Light:
The hopes and fears of all the years:
Are met in thee tonight.

I am afraid this letter has gone on too long, but I hope that you too experience that Everlasting Light this Christmas. And so, a Merry Christmas to you, and the family.

Your Friend,
Gary


This piece owns a debt to Garrison Keillor who first drew my attention to “O Little Town of Bethlehem”

All content copyright, unless noted otherwise, Randy Edwards, 2001-2006. All rights reserved.

 

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christianity Christmas Letters poetry Story

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

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Books Sermons Story

"This intolerable calling…

This intolerable calling requires courage and humility. It requires a life full of God. It also requires that the preacher become as wise as possible. Even an expository preacher has to become a kind of sage, a person who is conversant on the range of biblical topics and who can speak on them to healthy spiritual effect. In this calling, the Bible itself is the preacher’s first teacher. His experience of life helps a lot. So does the preacher’s wide reading of fine writers—storytellers, biographers, poets, journalists. Reading them tends to make the preacher wiser, which is perhaps, beyond sheer delight, the principal reason for doing so.

Cornelius Plantinga on a preacher’s reading diet.

(HT: Andy Jones)