Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Today is my birthday (da na na na na)

Celebrated by taking the ferry over to Edmonds and meeting my parents and sister for lunch. And by leaving the girls with my parents and sister, thus affording Karina and I a quiet trip back home, even stopping by the eponymous Central Market in Poulsbo. Now we get to watch a movie without little ones interrupting us. This, my friends, is my new definition of bliss.

However, I'm realizing there is a problem. For the last weeks I've been so focused on the glory of Christmas, the anticipation of birthdays and New Years, that I seem to have been unaware that there would be anything on the other side of Christmas, birthdays, and New Years. I was so caught up in the moment (carpe diem and all that) that I didn't consider the possibility that there might be 'normal life' on the other side. More sermons to write, sermon series to plan out, newsletter articles to ponder and blog posts to post on my blog, witty comments to tweet and board retreats to plan. I mean, existentially I knew those things were coming. . .but I didn't want to think about them.

Can we all just keep celebrating for a bit longer and ignore the reality around us? That would be my vote. Because, otherwise, I need to go write a sermon.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

All in all

I must confess it was about as perfect as a Christmas season could be. Just enough festive frivolity to keep things exciting, and enough quiet space to rest and reflect on the deeper echoes of the season.

Between Lakebay's Christmas dinner, the Christmas tree lighting with the Down Home Band, the GHPSO concert featuring brass and organ, the Seattle Symphony's Messiah, our Christmas Eve service, and Christmas day itself, it was a time of laughter and wonder and cheer, full of holiday music and merry memory-making.

My three highlights would have to be:
- The GHPSO holiday concert, which allowed me to shine just a bit, sharing my talent on trumpet with many friends and orchestra patrons; it also was sheer fun joining together with other talented musicians to make merry music on a cold frosty night.
- Messiah, which was really a whole night of excitement and celebration with friends - good food, good conversation, laughter, and heart-stirring music played by consummate professionals. A reminder that the best Christmas moments are a mixture of old and new - the centuries-old music of Handel, the modern-day restaurant and hip coffee shop. And also that the truly best moments are spent with people we love.
- Lakebay's Christmas Eve service. It was pure magic. A vision I had months ago, come together in beauty and inspiration and glory. Fun - we sang "I Saw Three Ships," and "The 12 Days of Christmas" (complete with dramatic interpretation); festive (guests were greeted at the door by Cider stewards, we had plenty of goodies); and heart-felt - the candle-lit sanctuary, the beauty of trumpet and cello and clarinet, the ancient story, the excitement of kids running throughout the sanctuary. An a Capella version of Silent Night, sung outside surrounding a blazing fire, tapering off to the sound of church bells ringing into the night. Oh, and the fact that we planned on 35 people, and instead welcomed around 110 or more.

And Christmas day itself was nice, quiet, with family, homemade butternut squash soup, some presents and too many pictures taken. I had fun, but the kids had a lot more fun. . .which made my day complete. 

So, although Christmas has about 9 more days to go, I reflect now and must say this one was up there with the very best. I'm not sure what could have made this one any better. Sometimes Christmas drifts away and I'm left feeling it wasn't quite complete, that something was missing. Not this time. This one. . .this one was good, all the way around.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

Friday, December 25, 2009

My observation, this first day of Christmas

It used to be that parents spent the better part of Christmas afternoon assembling all their kids' new toys. Now it is that parents spend all Christmas afternoon punching install disks into the computer, connecting their kids' new toys to the internet to download the latest updates and patches and games and accessories.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Merry Christmas

Methinks the next few days will be busy, and best spent away from the computer and the internets. So, allow me one last opportunity to invite you to the Lakebay Community Church Festive Christmas Eve Festivities tonight, December 24, beginning at 6:30 p.m.

And let me also wish you all a Merry Christmas, a day full of joy and peace and happiness and food and friends and fun, and may the Spirit of Christ dwell richly in your hearts and your celebrations.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Christmas Poetry

Today's poem is A Christmas Carmen, by John Greenleaf Whittier

Sound over all waters, reach out from all lands,
The chorus of voices, the clasping of hands;
Sing hymns that were sung by the stars of the morn,
Sing songs of the angels when Jesus was born!
               With glad jubilations
               Bring hope to the nations!
The dark night is ending and dawn has begun:
Rise, hope of the ages, arise like the sun,
     All speech flow to music, all hearts beat as one!

Sing the bridal of nations! with chorals of love
Sing out the war-vulture and sing in the dove,
Till the hearts of the peoples keep time in accord,
And the voice of the world is the voice of the Lord!
               Clasp hands of the nations
               In strong gratulations:
The dark night is ending and dawn has begun;
Rise, hope of the ages, arise like the sun,
     All speech flow to music, all hearts beat as one!

Blow, bugles of battle, the marches of peace;
East, west, north, and south let the long quarrel cease:
Sing the song of great joy that the angels began,
Sing of glory to God and of good-will to man!
               Hark! joining in chorus
               The heavens bend o'er us!
The dark night is ending and dawn has begun;
Rise, hope of the ages, arise like the sun,
     All speech flow to music, all hearts beat as one!

Monday, December 21, 2009


In spite of that horrific episode in Toys-R-Us, the weekend was a festive success; crowned, of course, with Handel's Messiah performed by the Seattle Symphony.

They decided to go with the classic chamber music format, eschewing the bombast of a full symphony. A mere half-dozen violinists, 3 cellos, a handful of viola, two upright bass, all directed from the harpsichord. In addition, they chose to add a lute, which was subtle and yet enriching to the whole ensemble. The brass section was represented by two trumpets; their first appearance was off-stage in the "Glory to God," they then reappeared late in the third section for the grand trio of "The Trumpet Shall Sound," "Worthy is the Lamb/Blessing and Honor. . .," and the spine-tingling "Amen." The four vocal soloists (one a last-minute substitution) were splendid, and the Seattle Symphony Chorale were marvelous, rich in tone and warmth.

In this age of instant access to all sorts of recordings, it's easy to get used to hearing all this music through our headphones or stereo speakers. I was reminded again on this night just how much better, how much fuller, how much richer is live sound, resonating straight from string or vocal chord directly to the ear. And Benaroya Hall is a wonderful place to experience it all. It was truly a magical night, topped off by rousing standing ovations and smiles on the faces of all the patrons who exited.

Add to all that the fact that it was a date, or a double-date, to be accurate; begun with dinner at one of Seattle's more popular restaurants, packed to the walls with holiday diners. It was the night like which I need much more. Good food, good conversation, laughter, holiday decorations and cheer.

And then. . .afterward we were going to meet at a coffee shop before heading our separate ways. But it took longer getting out of the parking garage than we hoped. So a text message to a friend who suggested a French bakery/coffee shop in Bell Town, dodging crowds of hipsters dressed as Santa Clauses, and into the warmth for a cup of coffee and some dessert.

But wait. . .down at the end of the row of seats. . .was that? Could it be? Why, yes, it is! Henry Mark! A friend from college, who I haven't seen in almost 10 years. But there he was, sitting with some friends. So the night was finished with a happy reunion, and another few moments with Robert and Kristen, as well.

So, forget Toys-R-Us and their demonic toys. It really was a great weekend, one full of memories to last for years to come.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

How to Ruin Christmas in One Easy Step

I confess: I broke my cardinal rule against visiting the mall in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Saturday, following our wonderful meeting with Deb Steinkamp to plan out the Feast 2011, Karina and I decided to make a 'quick stop' and grab some last-minute stocking stuffers for the kids.

Toys-R-Us ruined my Christmas.

In three quick moves. Here they are, in ascending order from "sort of ruined Christmas" to "totally annihilated Christmas."

3. The 12 young men (read: 12-14 year olds) who took over the bike/scooter section, jumping on the various wheeled vehicles and riding them throughout the back of the store, running over everybody in their path.

2. The man in the Barbie section, shouting into his cell phone, oblivious to everybody around him. This is what he was saying: "I don't care if you ^#@$^ forgot it - you need to go ^%#$% pick it up! Just drive the %^$#$% over there and tell them you %$#$% need it!"

1. And this, the moment that destroyed Christmas. Right in the line of sight of all who entered the store, right where all the 8-year-old girls would be drawn to it:

Nothing says "Christmas" like introducing your 8-year-old daughter to the occult.

Bah, humbug and all that.

Third Christmas Random 12

The Little Drummer Boy - King's Singers
Winter Peace - Jim Brickman
Carols Sing - Michael W. Smith
Jingle All the Way - Lena Horne
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer - Steve Tyrell
Noel: Christmas Eve, 1913 - John Denver and the Muppets
God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen - The Chieftains
I'll be Home for Christmas - Mindy Smith
This Christmas - Harry Connick Jr.
Merry Christmas Darling - The Carpenters

Bring a Torch Jennette, Isabella - New York Choral Artists
The Holly and the Ivy - Thomas Moore

Friday, December 18, 2009

Book Review: The Bible as Improv

Ron Martoia wants to change how we read the Bible. In fact, he believes, we've been reading the Bible wrong for a while now.

We read it wrong because we often read it as a rulebook. God has certain rules and expectations on behavior, and our Bible reading becomes and exercise in figuring out all those rules and expectations (sometimes they become quite intricate), and then living accordingly.

In the same vein, we often read is a book full of principles. There is an order to the universe, and if we can read through the Bible and pull all the strands together, we'll figure out the right principles to guide our lives.

The problem is, according to Martoia, the Bible is much more complicated than we like to admit. As Scot McKnight did in The Blue Parakeet, so Martoia opens up a window into all the ways the Bible doesn't fit into our categories of rules and principles. For instance: The Bible has rules for sexual behavior (we like those, even though we don't always follow them). The Bible also has rules about lying and murder. We like those. But. . .the Bible also has rules against wearing clothes made of different types of cloth. And against sowing different seeds into the same field. And we don't usually like those so much. In addition, even those rules about sexual behavior, which we like: we still don't like the full extent of the rules. As an example - how many people today believe we really ought to employ capitol punishment for adultery? Or for homosexuality? Or for disobeying one's parents? So. . the Bible has rules. But we don't think we ought to follow all of them. And the ones we follow - we still think we should alter them. Yet we claim the Bible is inerrant and infallible, Truth for all time. If it is Truth for all time. . .then why don't we do what it says?

In the same way, the principles don't seem to always work out. We pick and choose verses we like, using them as proverbs to lighten our day. All those verses about God blessing those he loves, about obedience leading to reward, about children being a blessing, about God giving us the desires of our heart. But then. . .children rebel, or, worse, they die. Spouses cheat. Christians go bankrupt. Like Job, even the righteous find out obedience doesn't always lead to blessing.

Even then, Martoia would argue, we're doing the Bible a disservice when we think we can grab a promise or admonition given to a specific person (or people) at a specific place in a specific situation a really long time ago, and apply it directly to our lives. We like to quote the admonition to Joshua: "Be strong and courageous!" as if it applied to our life. But Jesus' admonition to the rich young man, "sell everything you have and give it to the poor. . ." - how many people would claim that as their life verse? We love to grab hold of Proverbs 3:5-6, but how many want to abide by that little part in Acts 2 where "the believers sold everything and donated it to the church, so that nobody would be without"? We pick and choose, we read the Bible through lenses that fit our preconceived ideas of "how it should be," without realizing that we then leave lots of parts on the cutting room floor.

Martoia contends that it's wrong to read the Bible as a one-to-one correspondence to today, full of rules and principles we can uncritically apply to our present lives and situations. We must instead realize what it is: a record (or series of records) of people who encountered the living God in their own world, their own culture, their own understanding of reality. God came to each of these people (and peoples) and met them where they were; in the same way, God wants to meet us where we are today. But not by directly applying rules and principles he gave to his people long ago, but by allowing this book, this Bible, to live and breath in our world today. To do that, we must free it from our trappings of rulebook and collection of pithy sayings; we must let it sing and dance to us in new ways.

The book offers two suggestions to help us move forward. The first is reading the Bible as a literary classic. But don't let that title throw you off. He's not suggesting the Bible is simply another piece of literature, a la Moby Dick. Martoia still holds to the view that the Bible is the inspired Word of God, and speaks Truth like no other book. The image of Bible as Classic is more built around the idea of how a classic shapes the reader, and then shapes the culture. Classics reveal truth not so much in pithy sayings or memorable quips - that would be the arena of second-rate gift books. Instead, classics reveal truth through the arc of the story, through character development, through the interaction of theme and action and reflection. We read how Ebenezer Scrooge became a miserly man, and how a fantastic night changed him. We do enjoy some of the quotes from the book, but none of us expect this Christmas to be visited by ghosts; if a troubled man came into my office for counsel this week I wouldn't say, "In A Christmas Carol, Dickens goes home and eats dry bread and cheese - you should do the same, and see what happens." Instead, we look to large themes - abandonment, pursuit of financial success at all costs, societal inequities, faith and hope even in dark times, good vs. evil, redemption - and those themes then fold into our lives, coming in new and fresh ways. We don't copy the book, but we appropriate the ideas and themes into our lives. And we continue to live our lives where the story finishes off.

Which leads to Martoia's second idea: reading the Bible as jazz improv. Jazz music, for all its freedom, follows pretty strict rules. The composer lays down the original melody and harmonic progression; the composer sets up the theme, sets up the 'box' in which the song sits. Usually, the first run-through sticks closely to that original theme, the 'true' melody. As the song moves along, however, the individual musicians take turns riffing solos that project outward from the original. Well-trained musicians know how to incorporate the composers idea and intent, while creating something fresh and new in their current context. To the untrained ear it may sound like a completely different song, but, if it's done well, the solo is actually very true to the composer's ideas and plans. "Good improv is in keeping with the original, but unearths new things within the framework of the original."

So, too, can we approach the scriptures, according to Martoia. "The Bible is no different. The goal isn't to repeat or recite the Bible. The Bible has to live through the music that I am making in my life. The Bible is being reinterpreted for the moment here and now - a reinterpretation that is happening in continuity with the Bible as originally written but may or may not include any of the same responses the characters in the Bible had."

Recently, I have come across a number of authors making a similar point. What if, they ask, instead of saying "Paul dealt with this situation and came to this conclusion for them, so the same conclusion applies to us," we instead looked at how Paul did theology in his context, and then attempted to do the same thing here. One simple example suffices: Paul declared it proper for a woman to pray with her head covered. While some churches believe that to be a once-for-all regulation, you'd be hard-pressed to find a church requiring women to wear bonnets for the prayer time. And so we are already doing this - we're not taking Paul's admonition to wear hats as new Torah; instead, we' re asking "why did Paul require that? What were the issues? How did he come to his conclusion?" and applying those same ideas to our context. What are the issues we face? How do we see the story arc of the scriptures coming to play in our world? What are the grand themes? What are the original melodies and harmonies, and how to we stay true to the original while creating new ideas today?

It must be said that Martoia continually returns to the idea of community throughout this book. Community fosters growth, it stimulates understanding, but it is also a safeguard against moving too far away from the original. As we read the story in community, as we attempt to work it out in our lives together, we have to use the resources around us, including the community of saints who have come before, and the Literary Experts and Jazz Masters, who have spent much of their lives digging through this Book.

There's obviously a lot about this approach that will leave many people nervous; it certainly feels very unorthodox. But I think, in the end, Martoia sifts through much that is wrong with current Bible reading practices, and offers some helpful ways forward. One of the greatest suggestions he offers is that people need to read the Bible as a whole, reading it all the way through, and reading it in large chunks, in order to see the sweep of the story, to pick up the grand themes. It is true that, to many people, the Bible is a collection of short stories and sayings. Martoia believes we need to be reading entire books in one sitting, and that we do it best when we read those large chunks together. With this I heartily agree; God's people will only be stronger when we read the Bible in its entirety, and when we read it in community, working out the ideas and plotlines and themes and melodies together.

With special thanks to Zondervan for sending me an advance copy for review.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Somebody always has to take it too far

Just when I vow to give up sarcasm and cynicism for Christmas, I have to come across this.

Apparently, some well-meaning people want to help Christians in their attempt at 'putting Christ back into Christmas." So they came up with a Christmas tree with a huge cross in the middle. Not very subtle there. And nothing like having your kids scrambling to unwrap their presents, all with a massive execution device hanging over their heads.

Nothing says "Festive" like a polished wooden cross glaring at you from your living room.

Please. . .somebody turn it off! It hurts too much!

Oh, and if that's not enough, check out these marvelous tree toppers.

Maybe Christians could all wear these instead of Santa Hats? I'm afraid we're going to scar our kids for life. They'll actually be afraid of our Christmas trees.

These are all just wrong on so many levels. Not the least of which is that

There. Felt good to get that out of my system. Now I need to go drink some egg nog to restore my Christmas Spirit.

Oh, but to end on a constructive note: It has long been my contention that we would do a better job of putting Christ back into Christmas if we spent less time and money and energy shouting at people and forcing our views onto them, and more time and money and energy simply being the people of God. Want to put Christ back into Christmas? Then don't spend $300 on a tacky tree. Instead, bake some cookies for your neighbor. Buy presents for your co-workers. Go feed people at the homeless shelter (like one of my friends is doing on Christmas day). Forgive somebody for something they did this year. Make a donation to a worthwhile charity. Visit your mother-in-law. Go caroling. Spend some time at a nursing home. Rake a widow's yard. Call somebody just to say "hello." Smile at people in the store. Thank somebody for doing their job (like the paperboy, the check-out clerk, the police officer who just pulled you over). Let the Light of Christ shine through you into the world by serving others. That's the way to put Christ back into Christmas.

Friday, December 11, 2009

2nd Christmas Random 12

Personent Hodie - David Willcocks and the Choir of King's College
Jingle Bells - Bing Crosby
God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen - Nat King Cole
Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly - Philadelphia Brass Ensemble
Rejoice (O Come, O Come) - Jim Brickman
The Wexford Carol - The Chieftains
Christmas Time is Here - Vince Guaraldi Trio
Silent Night - Sufjan Stevens
Silent Night - Kathleen Battle/Wynton Marsalis

Happy Xmas (War is Over) - Sara Mclachlan
The Boar's Head Carol - The Kings Singers
The First Noel - Azusa Pacific University Choir and Orchestra

Wednesday, December 09, 2009


We gathered last night, coming in from the frigid arctic cold, bringing our instruments - trumpets, trombones, horns - to prepare for Saturday evening's Holiday Concert. The sanctuary was lit and warm, a haven from the dark winter's night outside. The music was festive, it was fun, from high baroque of Telemann to jazz versions of We Three Kings and Let It Snow. For three hours we blew duets and quintets, we hammered out chords and complex rhythmic structures, we site-read and we rehearsed. For three hours, Christmas music flew from our lungs, our fingers, our instruments into the open space of the church sanctuary. For three hours we made music, and it was good.

Then to pack up the instruments, return chairs and music stands to their proper locations, to say goodbye and to head out into the dark and the frost, to drive home past houses lit with twinkling lights, past parking lots full of pine trees waiting to find a home, underneath a heaven of sparkling stars, finally realizing that Christmas time is here. I know - Advent is a season of waiting. But I'm through waiting. Christ has already come. I'm in a mood to celebrate.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Cold in the Woods

A month or so ago, Karina put a cast iron pot out on the deck. I'm not sure why, but that's beside the point. A few weeks ago it filled up with rainwater. And there it's been sitting ever since.

Yesterday I walked out onto the deck to discover the water in the cast iron pot had frozen solid. All the way from top to bottom. And that the kids' red wagon, also filled with rainwater, was frozen solid. Even the driveway is frozen in that way that makes it say 'crunch, crunch' as you walk over it.

A few days ago I was splitting some firewood, and found a large termite queen - a thumb-sized grub. After showing it to the family, I left it on top of a log, thinking a bird might come along and appreciate a free lunch. That grub is now frozen solid. Sort of a grub-sicle, if you were a bird.

It's cold out here in the woods. Too cold to get to that yard work, the final clean-up of the garden, the chopping up of the tree we pulled up from the gully last month. Nights are cold, in spite of the roaring fire I build in the wood stove, and the electric blankets. I took Pepe out for his nightly business on Monday night and had to run back inside, as that piercing wind cut right through my winter pajamas.

It's cold here in the woods. Although the sky is clear, a piercing blue; the stars are certainly twinkling at night. The cold is beautiful in its own austere way. I'm not complaining. The stark winter beauty is a magical opposition to the extravagance of summer that surrounded us such a short time ago. I can finally see the holly tree, loaded with bright red berries, a reminder that Christmas is upon us. We all snuggle more closely together, thankful for the warmth of proximity.

But it is cold. With predicted snow by the weekend, possibly. And it seems awfully sudden. Fall just sort of came and went, and now the deep-freeze of winter is at hand, for a month or two or three. In two weeks we'll reach that equinox, that 'longest night of the year,' and then we'll be back on the downside to spring, and summer beyond.

It all comes too quickly. So, for now, I'm simply going to put on that scarf and those gloves, and enjoy the cold. So long as I have my cup of coffee, I'm good to go.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Once More about the concert

Seasonal organ and brass, arias and sing-along music highlight Dec. 12 concert

            The Gig Harbor Peninsula Symphony Orchestra (GHPSO) announces its annual Holiday Concert program for 7 p.m., Saturday, December 12, at St. John’s Episcopal Church, 7701 Skansie Avenue in Gig Harbor. The festive event includes popular local organist Jeff Orr, a brass quartet, soprano Meg Daly and a seasonal sing-along.  
            “Our program will feature soprano Meg Daly, offering selected arias from Handel’s “Messiah” and the return of Jeff Orr,” states GHPSO Artistic Director Louie Labayen. “Orr will present Charpentier’s Te Deum along with other festive music for organ and brass that will feature GHPSO brass musicians Manny Garcia and Dan Whitmarsh on trumpet, Vince Young on French horn and Paul Casely on trombone.
            A suggested donation of $5 per child, $10 per adult and $25 per family will benefit the orchestra but admission is free. Childcare will also be available by donation. Refreshments will follow the performance.
            The GHPSO season of “Musical Interludes” will continue with the annual with the Valentine’s Concert on February 13, built around Mozart’s Grand Partita. St. John’s Episcopal will also host this event.
            Labayen notes that GHPSO’s new season, like those of many orchestras across the country, is one contracted by current economic factors, looking to reinvent their community programs and test new models for sustainability. Committed to keeping the music alive in Gig Harbor, Labayen spent the summer planning what was possible with reduced funding and fewer musicians.
            GHPSO, founded in 2005 to bring great music on a professional level to the Gig Harbor, Key and Lower Peninsula areas, is a 501(c)3 non-profit. The group receives significant sponsorship from the Gig Harbor Arts Commission, HarborStone Credit Union, MultiCare Health System, St. John’s Episcopal Church and other private donors. More musicians and volunteers are sought.
            For more information on GHPSO, call (253) 238-6035 or go to

Friday, December 04, 2009

Toward a Theology against Christmas junk

Arguably one of the more important moments in human history is the Incarnation. The coming of God into this broken, shattered world. The love of God transformed into human flesh, in order to know the sorrow of our days, the joys and pains associated with human life, and, in the end, to overcome all that, winning the ultimate victory for all his children.

Of all the facets of this Incarnation, which we celebrate at Christmas time, one of the most crucial is its timelessness. Christ came at a specific time and place, and yet his life was lived laterally across time; the atoning effect of Emanuel goes back to the first humans, and carries forward to this day. We not only celebrate his coming 2000 years ago, we also celebrate the way he still comes today. We join in with saints of old and, should God tarry, with saints yet to come, all gathering around the stable in the manger to worship in silence and awe that this little one is Divine, has come to face terror and rejection and sorrow and death, all out of love for us. We stand on the hillside with the shepherds, our silent night shattered by the arrival of angels, we travel with the magi across the hills and deserts to find our God and worship him. This story is the story of all Christians throughout history.

Part of its richness is found exactly in this timelessness, the way it has played out across the centuries. Christians in the dark ages, early Christians in Ireland and the European continent coming in from the snow to feast around the board before a roaring fire whilst minstrels retell the story; Christians who first gathered to hear Handel's glorious retelling as "Messiah," Christians who gathered in the new country called America to celebrate the Christ-mass, the worship of Light of Lights come into the darkness. Some of that history has made its way down to us, in the form of ancient text and music ("Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence," Bach's "Christmas Oratorio," Dickens "A Christmas Carol," many of the songs we sing and traditions we keep), which adds to the timeless nature of the event. We worship with the words and tunes and stories that have been told by Christians for centuries, for thousands of years.

It seems to me, then, that Christmas is best kept with this timelessness in mind. With this sense of reaching back for the best that has been handed down, and creating timeless additions to carry forth into future generations. The best Christmas music, story, liturgy, art, movie will speak the story in ways that resonate today, while acknowledging the history that has come before, and with the hope that future sons and daughters will find them meaningful and Truth-telling.

Which is exactly why I find my soul disturbed at so much of the Christmas production today. It is all so transitory, so 'in the moment,' so throw-away, so temporal. It rejects the glory of the past and ignores any long-term effect in order to make a sale.

Over the last few years, we've received a number of Christmas gifts that do lean toward the timeless nature of this season. I'm thinking even of "Elf" and "Polar Express," both of which are modern re-tellings of the child-like wonder necessary for belief and joy, both give a nod to our shared history, both have a quality that promises to age well.

And yet, so much of the celebration is NOT that. Too much is "cute" in the moment, but has no lasting power. Too much sells out for cheap humor that mocks the tradition, or attempts to put the tradition into packages that simply will not last. CDs like "WOW Christmas Music 2009!" that will be in the $1.99 rack in two years, that will be listened to for a year or two and then thrown away. Cheap plastic Disney-esque production albums that are all too filled with "today's sound!" (think Jump 5) that nobody will care about in three more years. Cheap plastic lawn ornaments that go up this year but fall apart while stored in the closet over the summer. Movies that use The Story as a marketing gimmick, but really have nothing to do with its soul.

I guess what I'm getting at is this:

When I stand in the music section at Target, considering whether or not to purchase a new Christmas CD (and you know I buy a couple every year), one of the questions I always ask is "will I still want to listen to this 10 years from now? 30 years from now? Will this last, a la Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole? Or will this simply be kitschy in a few years, a la Britney, Christina or the Beach Boys?"

When I stand in the Christmas store looking at decorations and ornaments, I find myself asking "when I'm an old man, will this have meaning, sentimental value, will it still be beautiful? Or will I find myself saying 'what was I thinking?'"

When I go see or purchase a holiday-themed movie, does it have lasting value? Does it carry forth the traditions and history while having a message still for today - even like "It's a Wonderful Life," or "Charlie Brown's Christmas?" Or will it eventually end up in the cheap DVD pile at our church rummage sale in a couple years?

In other words, the things I add to my life as part of the celebration of this day - do they make it eternally richer? Or are they simply glitz and gaudiness that offer a cheap thrill in the moment (think the 10-foot tall Homer Simpson inflatable front-yard thing)? Do they bring a depth that recognizes and honors the season? Or are they shallow trinkets that give the impression of "Christmas," but remain hollow and empty and destined for the trash heap?

Maybe it's because I just turned forty, and I'm looking for things that add meaning and depth to life. And yes, I'll admit it, I have a singular vision for Christmas, and don't have a lot of patience for people who try to tell me otherwise. I'll own up to that.

But in the end, our world has enough of the plastic facade, and desperately needs something with more substance. Perhaps if we, those who know the true story behind it all, we who still live in the hope of the Incarnation - maybe if we began seeking depth and meaning over trite and cheesy, maybe then we'd have something to offer the world now, and the world to come. Maybe if we took Christmas a little more seriously, even in its joy and celebration, we'd really show the world what the "true meaning" of Christmas is all about. Perhaps in our own hearts we would feel more grounded, more at home in this place. Perhaps if we rejected all that tripe that passes for Christmas entertainment, the depth and mystery of Christ's coming would shine through all the brighter into the darkness around us.

Christmas Random 12

O Tannenbaum - Nat King Cole
The Jesus Gift - Azusa Pacific University Choir and Orchestra
Santa Claus is Coming to Town - Dave Brubeck

Happy Holidays - Manhattan Transfer
Silver Bells - Mindy Smith
It's Christmas! Let's Be Glad! - Sufjan Stevens
Ole Santa - Dinah Washington
River - Sarah McLachlan
O Come, O Come Emanuel - Philadelphia Brass Ensemble
We Three Kings - Jim Brickman

Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming - Brass Mosaic
Myn Lyking - David Wilcocks and the Choir at Kings College

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Joining the Manhattan Conversation

The ripple effect of the recent Manhattan Declaration continues to grow across the blogosphere. In case you missed it, the MD (full version here) was released as an "Historic Declaration of Christian Conscience," issuing a "clarion call to Christians to adhere to to their convictions," and informing "civil authorities that the signers will not - under any circumstance - abandon their Christian conscience." Penned by Chuck Colson, Dr. Robert George and Dr. Timothy George, it was originally signed by more than 125 Orthodox, Catholic, and Evangelical leaders. Thousands more have signed it since.

The MD begins with a historical overview of the Church's social consciousness, including the many times they have "defended the weak and the vulnerable and worked tirelessly to protect and strengthen vital institutions of civil society. . ." It then goes on to list the three big issues they call all Christians to support:

1. sanctity of human life
2. dignity of marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife
3. rights of conscious and religious liberty

As is to be expected, reaction has been mixed, with some hailing this as a historic new day, while others, Christian and non-Christian alike, see it as a bit more troubling.

Fred Clark calls it "Fatuous Foolishness." He categorizes it as "wince-inducing misplaced self-importance and lack of perspective," making the case that "Their own awesomeness is a topic the authors address with relentless relish."

Hugo Schwyzer calls it a scandal, full of "smugness and cheap grace." He concludes that it "is an exquisite example of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called 'cheap grace.' Those who sign it, embrace it, and live out its call can comfort themselves with the thought that when they campaign against same-sex marriage and women’s health, they are doing the most important work in all of God’s kingdom. Changing how they spend, how they travel, how they eat — the really challenging things — are rendered irrelevant by comparison. This is a scandal and a shame to the body of Christ, and deserves bold and prophetic repudiation."

Brian McLaren says it's more of the old adage, "doing the same things and expecting different results." He takes serious issue with Colson's argument that these three are THE top three issues all Christians should be worrying about.

Scot McKnight has publicly endorsed it. And the comment stream following that endorsement is an education into the varying underlying beliefs and opinions of a whole host of people, Christian and otherwise.

John MacArthur chose not to sign it, stating that it doesn't present the gospel clearly enough; in addition, it doesn't recognize the "fundamental conflicts of doctrine and conviction with regard to the gospel and the question of which teachings are essential to authentic Christianity." In other words, since it includes Catholic and Orthodox leaders and scholars, Evangelicals ought to stay away.

John Stackhouse calls it a "waste of everybody's time." In fact, he says it is "strangely useless." He argues that it "gives no clear direction about what anyone is supposed to do once they have read it." Furthermore, he states that "it is not clear to us that such declarations, and the outlook that prompts them, really increase non-Christian willingness to respect conservative Christian concerns, let alone to seriously entertain any proclamation of the Gospel."

That's probably enough of a sampling for today, don't you think?

So, joining the ranks of Stackhouse, McKnight, and MacArthur, here's my opinion on the matter.

First, I agree with the underlying premises behind these three points. I believe as a child of the Giver of Life I am called to an ethic of life, of recognizing that all of life is a gift of God. We do live in a 'culture of death,' and Christians need to be working harder at affirming and supporting a life-giving way, from conception to the grave. I also believe in a scriptural ethic for marriage as the life-long union of male and female, and have pointed out elsewhere that I believe anything less than that is damaging to society. And I believe, as a Christian, that it is important to behave in a way that is consistent with my conscious, just as I believe it should be for people of other belief systems.

What I do find troubling, though, is a phrase that seems to be quickly brushed over.

While the whole scope of Christian moral concern, including a special concern for the poor and vulnerable, claims our attention, we are especially troubled that in our nation today the lives of the unborn, the disabled, and the elderly are severely threatened; that the institution of marriage, already buffeted by promiscuity, infidelity and divorce, is in jeopardy of being redefined to accommodate fashionable ideologies; that freedom of religion and the rights of conscience are gravely jeopardized by those who would use the instruments of coercion to compel persons of faith to compromise their deepest convictions.

In other words, "Yes, we need to be concerned for poor and vulnerable people, but that's just not as important as abortion, gay marriage, and freedom of religion."

Which, in at least 2/3 of this issue, seems contrary to the gospel. In fact, the religion that Colson et al want to practice is supposed to be made up of caring for the poor and the vulnerable, not in making public pronouncements about social concerns, nor in fighting for government recognition. When I look at the story of Jesus laid out in the gospels, when I read stories of the early church, they didn't publish papers and issue policy statements regarding the 'sinful ways of those pagans;' instead, they reached out in compassion to the poor, to the widows, to the orphans in their distress. This very document lays claim to that story:

. . .we claim the heritage of those Christians who defended innocent life by rescuing discarded babies from trash heaps in Roman cities and publicly denouncing the Empire's sanctioning of infanticide.  We remember with reverence those believers who sacrificed their lives by remaining in Roman cities to tend the sick and dying during the plagues, and who died bravely in the coliseums rather than deny their Lord.

And yet they now interpret that heritage as fighting gay marriage and demanding religious freedom. I think they got that part wrong.

Is 'fighting for' traditional marriage a good cause? At its root, I would say yes. But I would also say we need to be really careful about what we mean by "fighting." Public declarations such as this probably won't do much to win the hearts and minds of those in the other camp.

Is 'fighting for' religious freedom a good thing? I suppose so, although I don't see it as a cause championed in the scriptures. For thousands of years the church has survived and thrived in places lacking in religious freedom. It seems the greater question is not "how do we maintain the freedoms we've loved," but "how do we live as the people of God no matter the circumstances in which we find ourselves."

Is 'fighting for' the sanctity of life a good thing? Absolutely. And the one place in this document that I heartily endorse. But even here there is a shortfall; the document explicitly addresses abortion and end-of-life issues. Yet it remains silent on the larger concept of a culture of violence surrounding this culture of death. We live in a land in which the economy spends billions on exporting violence, we are currently involved in two wars, our entertainers regularly fill our lives and minds with images of death, rape, mutilation, and torture, all in the name of 'fun.' I don't think you can divorce the abortion discussion from the larger pool we're all swimming in, as if it is its own unique discussion. So long as we use violence as a draw to movies and television shows, so long as we use tactics of alienation and affinity to sell products to consumers, so long as our first response to attack is to fight back, so long as we keep selling the message that "it's all about you!," we will never win the hearts and minds of people with our call to affirm life.

So, to conclude. They meant well. They have offered us a great discussion starter. But their declaration on our behalf that this is The Definitive Statement smacks as a little bit of posturing. And their insistence that fighting for religious freedom is more important than looking after the poor and the vulnerable is simply wrong.

To that end, I'm choosing not to sign. But see me standing on the floor enjoying and engaging the discussion, rather than simply dismissing the MD.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

If you're looking for something to do. . .

On Saturday, December 12, at 7:00 p.m., the Gig Harbor Peninsula Symphony Orchestra will be holding its Christmas concert at St. John's Episcopal Church in Gig Harbor. The concert will include arias from Messiah sung by Meg Daly, organ solos by Jeff Orr, and quite a bit of brass music, including duets and brass quintets, featuring GHPSO's brass section: Manny Garcia and Dan Whitmarsh (that's me!), trumpet; Vince Young, French Horn, and Paul Casely, trombone. There will also be a holiday sing-along, giving the audience a chance to participate.

Admission is free, although there is a suggested donation of $10 per adult, $5 per student or child, or $25 per family.

For more information, including directions, check out the GHPSO website.

In addition, this Sunday (12/6) is the annual tree-lighting and visit from Santa in Key Center. I'll be playing there with the Down Home Band, so stop by and say hi.