Friday, December 23, 2016

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth Ministers of Music with whom he is well pleased

It’s the day before the day before Christmas, otherwise known as December 23. It’s also a Friday, which is my “day off”, but really, how can a pastor relax the day before what must be the ecclesiastical equivalent to the Superbowl for us? I’ll spend today doing laundry (down to my last pair of underwear), tinkering with my sermon, getting as much rest as possible... And reflecting on the fact that no matter how stressful Christmas Eve is for me, it could be worse. I could be the Minister of Music. 

Sometimes I delude myself into believing that people come to worship on Christmas Eve to hear my sermon. They don’t. I could have the best sermon I ever preached, or neglect to preach at all and I’m not sure if it would matter to most people. That’s not why they come. They come for the music. 

The faithful who have been worshiping with us throughout the month of December, patiently enduring the Advent season while hopefully waiting for what comes next, have more than earned the right to cut loose with Christmas carols. After all, they’ve been hearing Christmas music at Walmart since before Halloween, so it’s high time they get to enjoy it at church. And for those who skip Advent, maybe don’t even know what Advent is, it’s the music that lures them into a pew on a frosty winter night to experience the mystery of the Incarnation once again. 

I suspect a church musician could succumb to the stress of this night and call in sick if they had time to think about it. Instead, they push through, one stanza at a time, looking forward to crossing the finish line when they’ll be able to breathe again. I honestly don’t know how they do it; I stand in awe of them. 

Joy is our Minister of Music at Ascension. (Really, that’s her name. How perfect is that?) On Christmas Eve she will be leading the children of the congregation in their Christmas musical at 4:00. They’ve been working on it for months. This is our best attended worship on Christmas Eve and you’ll need a shoe horn to get in. No pressure there. Then, for the next two worship services, at 8:00 and 10:30, she will be working with a brass quintet, timpanist, handbells and Senior Choir. How does she juggle all those groups on the same night? Of course, she’ll also be poised for action from the organ bench throughout, ready for every cue, prepared for variations with each hymn, leading the congregation through the liturgy, without even a moment to let her mind or her hands wander, from beginning to end. 

I can hardly get my head around what that must be like and wouldn’t trade places with Joy for a bazillion bucks. Well, that’s not exactly true. The fact is, I couldn’t trade places with her because I could never do what she does. Few people could, and even fewer than that could do it as well.

I know that when most people worship on Christmas Eve they are unaware of all the work that was involved in making the sacred portion of their Christmas celebration possible: a janitor who cleaned before they arrived, the office staff who printed the bulletins, people who prepared the altar, decorators who tied the bows on the wreaths and decided just where to place the poinsettias, a choir that is rehearsed and ready to sing, ushers greeting them at the door… A team of faithful people, many of them invisible to people in the pews, comes together to make Christmas Eve worship happen.

Of all those who make our Christmas Eve worship possible, the ones who have put their heart and soul into the evening above all others are our church musicians. Try to imagine what your Christmas worship would be like without them, and be glad you won’t have to experience that. As you're recognizing those who share gifts with you this Christmas, don't forget to thank your church musician. 

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Radiant beams from your holy face

Preparing this week for my first Christmas Eve with the people of Ascension, I have a sense that I need to experience this holy night with them before I can really feel like this is where I belong. And yet, there's another side to Christmas Eve that's so familiar to me that it doesn't really matter a rat's patootie where I am. On this holy night, I am transported to a holy place.

I’m talking about that transcendent moment in our worship that always seems to come crashing over me like an emotional tidal wave. If you’re a pastor, you probably know what I’m talking about. It’s that kairos moment when I stand behind the altar holding a lit candle in my hand, and I look out into the nave of the church, which is lit by hand-held candles like mine. With all the other people worshiping, we are creating a great sea of light shining in the darkness. And the words we sing squeeze my throat so tightly that I can hardly get them out:
Silent night, holy night!
Son of God, love’s pure light
radiant beams from your holy face,
with the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord, at your birth,
Jesus, Lord, at your birth.

It’s a moment like no other. And here’s the thing about it that just blows me away. I get to experience this blessed moment from a different vantage point than the rest of the congregation. From where I stand, behind the altar, I look out into the congregation and behold teary-eyed faces looking back at mine, each one illuminated by the small flame of a candle. I wish everyone in the congregation could have the opportunity to experience this as I do. I also wish I could hold onto this moment that rushes by so quickly that I can never fully absorb it.

This will be a mystical moment for me. I won’t only see the faces of those physically gathered in the candlelight. I'll see other people as well, including my daughter Gretchen, her husband Jon and sweet baby Nick, who was with me last Christmas Eve but will be in New York this year. I'll see my son Ben, too, although it's been a while since he was with me on a Christmas Eve. And in the sea of candlelight, I'll catch a glimpse of every face I have ever seen illuminated from that vantage point, from every congregation I've served over the past 40 years. They'll all be there. Folks from St. Martin's in Marine City, Michigan, where I interned. The dear people of Trinity, Jamestown, North Dakota, my first parish. All the congregations in Ohio where I spent Christmas Eves along the way: Trinity in Carrollton, Emmanuel in Kilgore, St. Paul in Waynesburg, Advent in Uniontown. And my church families in Charlotte, NC: Advent and Holy Trinity. I'll be seeing them clearest of all on Saturday night. I'll look out into the pews and see Mitchell, Bobbie, Sandy, Roy, Laura, Bailey, Joseph, Ruth, Tom, Linda, Sheila, Steve, Ryan, Ron, Bill, Corky... They will all be there, all the saints who have had such a profound affect on the person I've become. I know it will happen because it's happened to me so many times before.

This year, I'll be seeing new faces in the candlelight--the faces of my family at Ascension. Some of them I've come to know well in the few short months I've been here. Others are still relatively unknown to me. And yet, I know that as each year passes and I look out at them on Christmas Eve, our stories will intertwine, and I'll grow to love them more deeply.

In that radiant moment on Christmas Eve, the people of Ascension will never know that, when I look at them, I see them standing beside so many other people I love. I suppose if they read this blog they may think of it, but I hope that, like me, they'll be caught up in their own radiant moment, as we're being washed with the light of "Silent Night."

Let me assure you that I’m a relatively sane person. I don’t see people who aren’t there. I will see these people because they are there. The light of God that shines in my life has come to me through these blessed people who have been a part of my life. I’m looking forward to being with them again this Christmas Eve, even if only for that brief, holy moment.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

A shoot from the stump of Jesse

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse… Isaiah 11:1a

I came to serve as pastor with the people of Immanuel Lutheran Church when I was in my early 30s. It was a real eye opener for me since I’d never been in a small, rural church before; I learned about a whole different culture.

They were so small you had to wonder how they were still around. When I got there, on a typical Sunday, 7 people were at worship. On a good Sunday, there were 14. In my time with them, we saw that number gradually creep up to something like 40 on a good Sunday, but still not enough to support a pastor.

Fortunately, they were yoked to a healthy-sized congregation that was in a nearby town. So on Sundays, after I preached at Immanuel, I hopped into my car and drove 9 miles, winding through the hills, to preach at the other congregation I served in town. That was the church with Sunday school rooms, and offices, and bathrooms. Unlike Immanuel.

Immanuel was like a large barn inside, all one big room. And there was no running water in the building.

They shared a cemetery that was between them and the Methodist church and the graves came so close to the building that they couldn’t dig a well there. At least that’s what I was told.

We had an outhouse against one of the outside walls of the building. On one side of that wall there was a toilet and directly on the other side, stood the altar. That never seemed to bother them the way it bothered me.

During my time with them, we only had one building improvement. That was when the Council took up the matter of the toilet paper falling onto the ground, and they came up with a brilliant solution to the problem. Someone brought in a contraption to hold the toilet paper, otherwise known as—a coffee can. It really didn’t matter a whole lot though, because I noticed that whenever someone needed to go, they ran down to the little corner store, which thankfully was open on Sundays.

We made do without running water. When we had a church dinner we used the hall at the volunteer fire department down the road.

I really grew to love the people of Immanuel. I couldn’t imagine all they’d been through over the years. And somehow, they never gave up. They were a beacon of hope sitting on that little intersection of two roads winding through the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. If ever someone in the community was in need, they were right there with a meal, clothing, a caring hand. These are the kind of people Jesus was talking about when he said, “You are the salt of the earth.”

Well, around the time I joined them, there was some new energy at Immanuel and they decided that they needed to have a Sunday school again. So, they formed a few class areas along the perimeter in the nave and then they went out and found some children. Most of them were relatives. Suddenly, we had 12 children in the congregation.

We needed to have something more for the kids, so I asked Elaine, the organist, if she would be willing to play for a children’s choir if I directed it. She thought it was a grand idea.

I figured, if we can get half of these kids to come to choir, that would be 6 and that’s enough kids to make some music. So we invited them to come and went to our first rehearsal, not sure what to expect. Do you know how many kids showed up? 12. Every single one of them. They ranged in age from 4 to 13, and they were all there every week.

The first time the kids sang in church I saw a few people in the congregation crying. And it wasn’t because they sounded absolutely dreadful... Seriously, it was hard to pick out the tune they were singing. But what they lacked in musicality, they more than made up for in enthusiasm. I’m sure they could hear them singing at the Methodist Church on the other side of the cemetery.

As Christmas approached, I was rehearsing several songs with the kids to sing on Christmas Eve. On one of them, I decided it would be cool to have a solo verse, but I wasn’t sure who to ask. We had never actually listened to the kids sing individually. So Elaine and I did a quick line of a song with each of the kids to hear how they sounded. The first one came to the piano to sing and the poor thing couldn’t match a pitch. It was awful. Elaine and I cast a knowing glance at one another that said, “Not this one.” And then the next one came to the piano to sing and it was the same thing. One by one, they sang for us and not one of them could match a pitch. Not even close. They weren’t sharp, they weren’t flat—they weren’t anywhere in the vacinity. Each time Elaine and I are looking at one another our eyes are getting wider and wider. How was this possible? It defied the law of averages. No wonder they sounded so terrible.

Finally, Brandi had her turn, and she sang every note, perfectly on key, loud and clear. Hallelujah!

Immanuel had not had a Christmas Eve service in decades. It had been so long that they had resigned themselves to the fact that it would never happen for them again. So as the weeks of Advent went by, the excitement grew. I didn’t know what to expect.

That night, 75 souls from that little community gathered to celebrate the wonder of “God with Us.” The children’s choir sang three joyfully cacophonous songs. When we came to “God Tell It on the Mountain”, seven-year-old Brandi stepped forward and sang with the voice of an angel.“Down in a lonely manger, the humble Christ was born, and God sent us salvation, that blessed Christmas morn--.” The other kids came in on the chorus, singing their hearts out, “Go Tell it on the Mountain, over the hills and everywhere, Go tell it on the Mountain, that Jesus Christ is born.” 

The congregation erupted in thunderous applause. I looked out into the pews and saw tears streaming down their cheeks. Everyone lost it. Even the big burly men were crying big burly tears.

This little motley band of kids who couldn’t sing a tune in a bucket was, for them, a shoot growing up out of an old, dead stump.

That’s the thing about the image of the dead stump. One would never expect it to give forth life again. It’s a stump of utter despair. When Isaiah spoke these words he was speaking to a dead Israel. God said he would cut down the tallest trees and the lofty would be brought low and that’s what he did. The trees, the people, had been cut off.

I’ve known that kind of despair, and maybe you’ve been there, too.  I can’t help but think of the people who live in and around the Smoky Mountains and the devastation they’re living through even as we worship here in this place of warmth and safety today. I think of people of Alleppo and Mosul. People enduring the North Dakota cold at Standing Rock. I think of those who feel their country has abandoned them after the election: Muslims, people of color, immigrants, the disabled, the lgbt community, victims of sexual assault. I think of parents who have lost their children to senseless acts of violence. Those who grieve the loss of someone they can’t imagine living without. Little congregations like Immanuel who don’t know if they’ll survive until next Christmas.

In times of despair, we search for signs of hope. God’s promise to us is not grand in its scope. The prophet doesn’t promise Israel that she will rise again. The shoot will not become a mighty cedar. It wouldn’t be what the people were expecting.

Later, Isaiah writes: “For he grew as a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.”

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse… fragile, yet tenacious and stubborn. It would grow like a young plant out of dry ground. It would push back the stone from the rock-hard tomb.

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse. Can you look at that old dead stump and see it? Can you see God’s promise of hope?

 Preached at Ascension Lutheran Church, Towson MD Advent 2, 2016