Behold the Christmas Season

1217191847_hdrYears ago, when my wife and I lived in North Carolina, we visited friends down in Charlotte. Because my wife was taking classes there, we got to see these friends a lot.

One weekend, while my wife was in class, my friend and I were driving around and he was singing to what was playing in the car. When I inquired what it was, I hardly knew what would be waiting for me on the other side of it.

Behold the Lamb of God.

It was an album by a Christian artist named Andrew Peterson. I had heard of Peterson before through another friend, but my experience with Christian music was love or hate. I had grown jaded to the lack of artistic expression of many Christian artists who instead seemed to be churning out frivolous mediocrity rather than quality music representing the creativity of the One who had created them.

I don’t remember exactly how it went the first time I listened through the album. Nowadays, the art of listening to albums from start to finish has been lost. Although there has been a resurgence of artists performing albums in their entirety on concert tours, in this age of downloadable music and streaming services, we seem to be eternally on shuffle.

Somewhere between hearing those first notes in that car driving around Charlotte and a few years later, the album had become a staple in my annual Christmas music listening. I couldn’t get enough. I wanted to constantly listen and it was an album that I wanted to last longer (the best kind, in my opinion).

In 2010, just a few years after we had moved to the Richmond area, we heard that Peterson would be coming to perform this album in its entirety. So, we eagerly bought our tickets and waited with anticipation. Little did I know what that would begin, an annual tradition that would be passed on to countless friends to be shared together.

Last night marked the sixth or seventh time of seeing this concert and it has never grown stale to me. Peterson has re-recorded the album, which is probably a blog post in itself, and continues to perform it as this year marks the 20th anniversary of the album. He assembles an array of singer-songwriters from the Nashville area and embarks on a journey every year to perform the album at a concert where the first half is marked by an “in the round” performance by the many artists he has with him and the second half is marked by the performance of the album.

1217192153_hdrIt really needs to be experienced in person to fully describe it. If you have the chance, I would highly recommend it, but make sure to familiarize yourself with the music first. With every additional listening, the album speaks to me more deeply. The brilliance of the writing. The creativity. The cleverness. The musicality. It all comes together to profoundly express the overarching message of the gospel through music and song.

Rarely do I ever experience moments like I experience at a Behold the Lamb of God concert. If I am not moved to tears by the end of the performance, then I’m probably not paying attention. To be reminded of God’s plan through Jesus Christ in such a beautiful and artistic way is truly moving.

So there I stood last night, with my family sitting next to me, sitting ten feet from the stage as those first notes played. And as those notes washed over me and the song cycle was played through, I again was moved to tears until the final moments when Peterson read from Paul’s letter to the Colossians:

15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

As the crowd joined with the performers to sing the Doxology, the performers walked off the stage one by one, leaving just the light shining as the focus moved away from those who had so elegantly weaved this musical story for us and rested on the One for whom this season exists.

It’s not Rudolph. It’s not Santa. It’s not presents. It’s Jesus.

And in those moments, maybe my heart had grown three sizes like the Grinch. Behold, Christmas had come. And in the words of the Grinch, “It came without ribbons. It came without tags. It came without packages, boxes or bags.” And as the Grinch so profoundly thought, “What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store. What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.”

Yes, Christmas means so much more, just like the Grinch realized. And I’m grateful for Andrew Peterson’s creativity for allowing me to remember that through song year after year, both in the comfort of my own home and in the splendor of a concert hall as well.

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‘Tis The Season to be Hopeful

I used to be the guy who started listening to Christmas music in July. I would roll out the Christmas CDs and park them right by the stereo. I would load them in a case to bring into my car. I would pull out the ones that I would listen to regularly and make sure that I got through every single one of them.

That’s kind of what happens when music is your thing and your job. You get caught up in the season and planning takes priority.

Of course, I always used to be the one who was cuckoo for Christmas. But life can sometimes have a way of changing you, of stealing your joy a little.

I’ve had some great Christmas seasons in my past but I’ve also had some pretty crappy ones. The Christmas after my mom died, my dad was in the hospital and acting like he’d lost his mind. It was one of the most surreal and depressing Christmases on record for me.

At the same time, watching my kids grow up and seeing their faces on Christmas morning has been one of the greatest joys that I’ve experienced. If there’s anything that can make me feel like a kid again, it’s Christmas Eve and the experience that comes from having young kids experience the wonder and joy of Christmas.

But as much as I still love Christmas, I think that I’ve grown up a little bit. I’m not talking about growing up like the kid in The Polar Express. I think. I can still hear the bells, but the “why” of Christmas has become so much more important to me and, frankly, I’ve begun to look at Christmas in context with why I celebrate it as well as why it’s important in the grand scheme of things.

Last week was the first Sunday of Advent and it passed me by. I don’t think that I forgot it, maybe I just ignored it, but it hit me on the second Sunday of Advent just how important it was. I was speaking on the second Advent of Jesus and recalling the first Advent of Jesus. It all seemed to be that much more weighty and important to me.

During Advent, each Sunday has a theme: Hope, Joy, Peace, Love. I can’t help but think about those and this pas Sunday, I was thinking about hope. Hope is the thing that propels us along when it seems like there’s nothing left. Hope is what keeps us going when everything inside and outside of us is telling us to just give up. Hope is the thing that keeps us looking around the corner, checking the mailbox, waiting for that phone call. Hope is what keeps us going when everything seems impossible.

Hope is one of the only reasons why I’m still here. In the midst of pain, in the midst of loss, in the midst of uncertainty, I have hung on to hope. When it seemed that darkness would overcome, hope remained a candle that penetrated the darkness.

That’s what this season is to me. It’s a reminder that although God seemed silent, something happened to keep hope alive, to breathe new life into all those places that seemed dead and lifeless. God seemed silent until he came to dwell among us, and even as he lived and eventually died, hope still hung in there, albeit by a thread.

And then he rose. Death had not won. Hope was alive.

Christmas time is always a reminder to me that when it seems that things are the darkest, there is still hope. It may not be realized in my time, it may not even be realized on this side of eternity, but hope is there, waiting patiently for us to believe and trust. We may not understand. We may not be happy about waiting. But hope remains.

We’re coming to the two week mark to Christmas. As I look at all that those two weeks hold, it’s a little overwhelming to me. I’m afraid that I’m going to blink and those two weeks will have passed without me fully understanding the significance of these moments.

A Different Kind of Christmas

Christmas 2018As we gear up and move into our pre-launch stage for starting a new church, it has kind of been like the calm before the storm. While I’ve been in full gear building relationships, looking for service opportunities in the community, raising funds, and doing all sorts of various things related to the new church start-up, I’ve also stepped back in some areas.

I started playing piano for my dad’s church when I was about 15 years old. This was the first time in 30 years that I had no church responsibilities on Christmas Eve. That meant that my family and I drove to church together on Christmas Eve, that we sat together during the entire service, and that we were able to spend the entirety of Christmas Eve together without me being pulled in one direction or another.

Even before Christmas Eve, the season felt different to me. Usually, I pull out my Christmas music in July and start the planning and preparation. My mind is thinking about Christmas long before the calendar turns to December 1st. But those responsibilities were not on my plate this year. I’ve been focusing on the church plant since September and I knew it was coming before that, so a lot of the responsibilities that I would normally have held had been passed off.

I’ve always struggled to maintain focus, the Advent season is no exception to that. As much as I try to move gently into the season, slowing down and deliberately entering into it, the pace always seems to pick up and before I know it, the season becomes harried and hurried.

While December started out somewhat calm, it quickly turned when there were a number of deaths to people close to me. Funerals followed and before I knew it, I had forgotten what Advent was all about My focus was still on Jesus throughout those funerals, but it moved from his first Advent to his second Advent, when he will come again. The same themes of Advent, hope, love, joy, and peace, were still there, they just seemed to be focused differently.

But that’s life, isn’t it? The same lessons lie beneath the surface, we just apply them a little differently depending on the circumstances.

The one thing that felt lacking for me was wonder. That’s always been the thing that has captivated me most. Christmas has always been a wonder-filled time of the year to me. I’ve always approached it with a childlike wonder, getting caught up in the magic and wonder. Sleep was elusive to me because of the excitement that I had.

But this year was different.

As I stop to think about what it is that made the biggest difference, I think it has to do with expressing my hope and wonder around the season.  I wasn’t leading musical worship. I wasn’t preaching a lot. I was blogging a little. But overall, the usual avenues to express my hope around the Advent season were lacking for me this year. I think that’s what made it feel so different. I didn’t anticipate that.

Christmas and Easter have traditionally been the most well-attended days that churches experience. To not have significantly participated in one of those just felt incomplete.

As incomplete as it may have felt, it was also an incredible gift. There had never been a Christmas Eve since I’ve had children that I haven’t had to do something. My children had only known a hurried father on Christmas Eve, not one who could focus on them.

In general, full-time vocational ministry can feel like way more than a full-time job. It’s hard to contain everything to a nine to five time frame. Tragedies, births, and other significant life events into which pastors are called seldom take place within allotted hours.

To have a breather at the busiest time of the year to gear up for the adventure ahead was truly a gift. Yes, it was a different kind of Christmas for me, but different isn’t a bad thing.

As I gear up for what is ahead, I am certain that there will be a whole lot more different things happening in the months ahead. I am excited to see what happens and just like this Advent season has been a time of waiting for and anticipating the celebration of the birth of Jesus, there will be a lot of waiting and anticipation as we gear up towards launching a new church in the Fall of 2019.

In the meantime, Merry Christmas. I hope that your day has been filled with the things that make this day special. Regardless of whether it’s the same as it’s always been or it feel different this year, I trust that the true meaning won’t get distorted as we celebrate the greatest gift that God could ever give us.

Passing Hope

Monday 12.04James Taylor famously quipped, “The secret of life is enjoying the passing of time.” Much better to enjoy the passing of time than regretting it, I guess.

I go through seasons of reflection and introspection, sometimes it’s dependent on circumstances, other times it’s dependent on the literal seasons of the year. It seems that the approach of the Christmas season makes me notoriously reflective. It hasn’t hurt that I’ve experienced some loss recently as well as observed the losses of others all around me.

Entering into the Advent season, I’ve never been a traditionalist in the sense that the four themes of Advent always seem to get jumbled in my mind. Part of that might be my aversion to be told what to do while the bigger part of it may very well be my own affinity for falling into repetitive traps that suck the significance and meaning out of seemingly poignant experiences and traditions.

Hope. Joy. Peace. Love.

While I’ve avoided the prescriptive approach to these themes, my preparation this year has me second-guessing that approach, or anti-approach. It seems to me that hope is the logical and, dare I say, perfectly appropriate theme to begin Advent.

It’s easy to lose hope. It’s easy to lean on false hope. Finding hope with staying power is more elusive and difficult. Where the people of God were at the time of the birth of Christ was a place of desperation, where hope had become elusive, maybe even completely lost and abandoned. The silence of God has a way of doing that to us, removing our hope.

But I learned a new word last week, a word coined by J.R.R. Tolkien years ago called eucatastrophe. It’s defined as a sudden and favorable resolution of events in a story; a happy ending. I wonder if the significance and poignancy of a eucatastrophe is made greater based on the length of time that has built up before it finally arrives.

If the eucatastrophe Jesus’ first arrival on Earth was significant after God’s centuries of silence, I can’t help but wonder how much more significant Jesus’ return will be after God’s millennia of silence.

But hope is found before the eucatastrophe ever comes. In fact, hope builds in the anticipation and the waiting for the resolution and the happy ending. Without that building anticipation, hope can’t exist. Without the tension of conflict and the longing for anticipation, hope cannot exist.

Ironically, Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.” The why of our lives gives us hope we need to endure the how of our lives. Hope propels us, it sustains us, but it’s not just any hope, it needs to be permanent hope, long-lasting hope, everlasting hope.

So, that’s the question that I pose as I enter into this season of Advent. Where do I find hope? Where am I looking for hope?

I know that I need hope but I fear that my impatience for it can drive me to settle for cheap alternatives and substitutes. Hope can sustain us through our impatience but it can also be diminished if our impatience gets the better of us.

Advent is a season of waiting and anticipating, of hope, joy, peace, and love. As I enter into it, my prayer is that my desire for resolution will not be too quickly quenched by cheap alternatives of hope but that instead, I find hope in the one place that this season is really all about.

 

Hopeless Romantic?

I’m not sure just what it is, but every single time my kids have a school program, I’m trying to hold back tears.

EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. 

Fall. Winter. Spring. It doesn’t even matter what time of year it is, I’m like a basket case in my seat as I watch my kids do things that surprise and amaze me, that make me smile and cry all at the same time 

It’s not like these programs are tear-inducing programs. No hint of Hallmark here, but somehow or another, they still find ways of hitting me right in the chest.

Maybe some of it has to do with the fact that during every single program, at least once, I am wishing that my mom and dad were there. But I think it goes way beyond that. I think it stems from the fact that there is pride (not the bad kind) that wells up within me as I see my kids doing things that make them stand out. How can a mom or dad NOT be proud of their kids when they’re doing what kids should be doing? 

I’ll be honest, it’s an emotional time of year for me anyway. All it takes is one song to throw me back about 30 years. I’m transported to my childhood home with smells and sights and sounds that have been eternally etched on my brain. I can picture everything. Christmas tree. Pajamas. Presents. Green rug. Hi-Fi circa 1975 or thereabouts. Evie singing “Come On, Ring Those Bells” from that Hi-Fi stereo, complete with the cracks and pops that only vinyl can offer.

But like I said, I well up any time of year. These kids always blow me away. I guess it’s yet one more picture of grace that I see in my everyday life. I realize just what I have that I don’t deserve. I realize how far short I fall from being who I really wish that I was, and yet my kids still manage to keep plugging along without the help of therapists…..at least for now.

As I sat there on the hard bench of the cafeteria bench watching my middle child perform in his holiday play, I was just blown away. The kid can act. The kid can memorize. The kid can work a room. The kid can make a joke. While my eyes welled up, so did my pride as I thought, “What have I done to deserve this?”

It’s a time of year when you really see the difference between the “haves” and the “have-nots”….at least if you really look around. As much as I keep wanting, it’s a time of year that I am reminded just how blessed that I am 

Here we are, two weeks from Christmas, and I’m blubbering at the sight of an inflatable Rudolph in the neighborhood…..it might just be a LOOOOONNNNNGGGGG 2 weeks!

Deep down inside, I’m a hopeless romantic, but I guess I hide it well. Maybe it’s self-preservation and self-defense, but regardless, there’s way more emotion down deep than most people who just get a casual glance at me would really expect or imagine. I’m fine with that.

There are a lot of things to hope for during this time of year, but my biggest hope is that I can be half the man that my children and wife deserve. I am a blessed man, blessed beyond measure.

Now, let me go find a good Christmas movie to continue with my blubbering!!!

A Broken Toy Christmas

Christmas with Steve and Jon-2I’ve had so many people make reference to this story that I’ve shared personally, via sermons and my old blog, that I felt the need to dig it out, dust it off, and retell it for the sake of those who have never heard it before. Maybe also for the sake of those who have heard it because sometimes a retelling can make you notice something else.

One year, when my brother and I were probably about 11 and 7, respectively, we had been pretty terrible in the months leading up to Christmas. We were constantly fighting and getting at each other and my parents had constantly warned us that if we didn’t stop, “Santa” would be bringing us nothing but broken, old toys for Christmas. Now, regardless of the fact that we didn’t believe in Santa Claus (nor had we ever), we still used that language for whatever reason. My parents knew that both my brother and I were not believers in the big, fat guy in a red suite.

My parents were jokers, although not many of our friends and some of theirs didn’t believe it. They could joke with the best of them and I think my brother and I thought that they were kidding in this instance too. Our parents would never dream of withholding presents from us at Christmas, right? After all, everyone should get presents, right?

Regardless of their constant threats, Christmas morning approached with little to no improvement in our behavior. I guess we were just stupid enough to believe that our parents would never dream of holding out on us.

Christmas morning finally arrived and we woke up with excitement to see what might be waiting for us under that tree. Imagine the surprise on my brother’s and my face when we arrived at the Christmas tree to find that the only thing underneath it was a pile of broken and old toys with a note that said something to the effect of, “You’ve been naughty, and here’s what you get!”

My brother and I were devastated. Me being the younger of the two of us, I think that I was probably more so. I remember whining and crying and trying to convince my parents that this was unfair and unjust (trying to capitalize on the biblical notion of justice, because that’s what pastor’s kids do to win an argument, invoke the “God” excuse).

I’m not sure how long my parents let this whole thing go on. Like most things that happen when you’re young, it probably went on for far less time than it felt like it had gone on. Finally, after my parents had felt that their point had been sufficiently made, they went to a closet and pulled out all of the “real” presents. Replacing all of the broken toys under the tree were these beautifully wrapped presents. Of course, my brother and I played it up as if we knew our parents would do this all along. We were overjoyed by this gracious act, telling our parents that we knew all along that they would never do this to us, while secretly taking in a deep sigh of relief.

No matter how far I get away from this story, I just can’t forget it. Years go by, both of my parents are gone now, but I still remember the Christmas which has affectionately become known to my brother and I as “The Broken Toy Christmas.”

Parenting experts may call the exercise cruel and unjust, some people may think that it was harsh, and to be frank, I’m still not exactly sure how I feel about it. My leaning is towards the fact that my parents showed my brother and I an incredible amount of grace. What we deserved, based on our actions and behavior, was the broken toys. What they gave us were the presents that showed that despite our imperfections, they loved us. My parents had shown grace in a way that rarely gets seen in this world.

Too many people cower to the whines and complaints of their children. There rarely seem to be consequences when behavior that is less than stellar is displayed. Instead, parents idly threaten their children and then give them what they never deserved with no hesitation.

I didn’t have to go through years of counseling to get over this and yet I still remember the Christmas vividly. In a lot of ways, I can’t help but connect what my parents did to what God did for us when he sent Jesus to the world. The history of God’s people is full of stubborn and obstinate people who thought that regardless of their behavior, a loving God would never turn his back on them and would never mete out justice on them. They were right, but someone still had to pay the price. That someone was Jesus. He is the gift of grace that God gave to us. When we deserved nothing but “broken and old toys” God gave us the best thing that he had to offer: his only son.

As I raise my kids, I hope and pray that I can instill in them the fact that Christmas isn’t about getting what we deserve, it’s about receiving the gift of grace from God. Christmas isn’t about all the commercialism that is preached at us from Black Friday on, it’s the realization that no gift could ever compare to what we receive in and through Christ.

May we come to the realization that the best thing that we can get and give is the news of this gift of grace. May our hearts always be reminded of what we deserve and be thankful of what we receive instead through grace.

Merry Christmas!

The Carols of Christmas – A Book Review

The Carols of ChristmasFew things will generate such an emotional response as one’s opinion of Christmas music. It seems that when it’s played, how it’s played, and what is played are among the most contentious of issues when it comes to holiday musical fare. Everyone has their thoughts and favorites when it comes to Christmas songs and hymns.

It’s interesting to dig down a little into some of the songs and hymns that have become so well-loved and cherished over the years and hear a little bit about the stories behind them. How did they originate? How have they evolved? Who wrote them? Where do they come from?

It’s just that kind of background information Andrew Gant shares in “The Carols of Christmas.” Gant, a composer, choirmaster, church musician, university teacher, and writer, has done his homework in putting together a thorough (but not exhaustive) and enjoyable compilation with stories of some of these Christmas songs that many have come to know and love throughout the years.

From “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” to “O Holy Night” to “Away In a Manger” and even “Jingle Bells,” Gant shares information about these hymns and the journey that they have been on from origin and through their evolution to the songs that we know today. It’s interesting to read the background stories here. Some songs have evolved from ancient and pagan roots to eventually be connected to the Christian holiday. Other songs have questionable theology or history (did the baby Jesus really not cry and did three ships come sailing into Bethlehem?).

Gant uses images throughout the book to show some of the history in these songs. He also includes full versions of the songs for those whose musical inclinations would allow them to play the songs themselves. It’s a helpful tool to be reminded of what it is that you’ve been reading about throughout each chapter.

While it’s not necessary for one to be a musician to read this, it certainly helps. Some of the terms and phrases that Gant uses may go over the heads of those with little to no musical experience or training.

“The Carols of Christmas” is not exhaustive, and Gant admits that. While there are 21 songs covered in here, Gant mostly sticks to those that would be familiar to anyone who would open up a hymnal in a church. For the casual reader, musician, or hymn singer, I would be hard-pressed to believe that he hasn’t covered what would be expected. While there were no songs that were as surprising as Gant’s subtitle (“A celebration of the Surprising Stories Behind Your Favorite Holiday Songs”) might suggest, it was an entertaining read that I may very well refer to every year when I find myself singing these songs throughout the season once again.

(This review is based upon a copy of this book which was provided free of charge from Booklook Bloggers. These opinions are my own; I was not required to write a positive review, nor was I compensated for this review.)

Manger King – A Book Review

manger kingIt’s pretty easy to get caught up in the rush of the Christmas season every year, being whisked away amidst the Black Friday deals, Santa Claus lines at the mall, and all the things that have a tendency to pull at your wallet and vie for your attention starting the day after Halloween (or earlier in some places and stores). If you’re one who believes in Jesus and considers the Christmas season to be reason to celebrate his birth, it’s always good to have a means to stay focused on “The Reason for the Season” as the busyness and distractions ensue around you.

Enter John Greco. John has put together a thoughtful, informative, and well-researched collection of “meditations on Christmas and the gospel of hope” called “Manger King.” Through these meditations, Greco focuses the reader on the story of Christmas reaching back far into the Old Testament, past the birth of Christ, and to his expectant return one day. He relies heavily on Scripture and personal stories to assist in this feat.

Greco is self-admittedly a fan of Andrew Peterson and his song cycle “Behold the Lamb of God.” For anyone unfamiliar with Peterson or his song cycle, he masterfully tells the story of Jesus starting back with Moses, painting the picture of “the true tall tale of the coming of Christ” as he weaves through the story of Israel, including the Passover, the deliverance from Egypt, the birth of Christ, and the sacrifice that Christ made as the lamb of God.

In much the same way that Peterson tells the story through music, Greco tells the story through words. He uses his gift of storytelling and prose to fill in the back story of Christmas, exposing some common assumptions by reflecting on what the Gospels say and taking into consideration some of the contextual elements of the story that might easily be glossed over by the casual reader of the Gospel accounts. As he writes, “We’re missing out if we gloss over certain points or ignore how God himself tells the story. No matter how comfortable and familiar our nativity scenes may be, we’re only cheating ourselves if we hold on to tradition at the cost of truth.” He urges the reader to cast aside the comfortable and familiar for the more appropriately correct interpretations of what the Gospels say.

The chapters and reflections in “Manger King” are short enough to be able to take a journey through them on a daily basis as you venture into Advent every year. While they connect with each other, they could easily act as standalones which step through Advent in a methodical journey, helping to focus the reader on Jesus Christ and the bigger God story that Christmas means to us.

While I didn’t find much new information in “Manger King,” I’m not sure that could be said of those without a theology background or seminary degree. Greco’s thoughtful engagement with the material and his treatment of it is thorough enough to be worthwhile for the academic reader but not so academic that it would leave the average “Joe” or “Jane” in the dust. He is passionate about this material and that passion shows up in how carefully and thoroughly he treats it.

Greco adds an appendix in which he more exhaustively treats the Gospel accounts in Matthew and Luke of Jesus’ birth. Within the appendix, he dispels notions of an inn in the modern sense of the word, shepherds and wise men together at the manger, and even the public shunning of Mary at her unwed pregnancy. It’s a helpful reference for those who want to dig deeper into the Christmas story without having to do all of the research on their own.

Greco proves that the story of Jesus is so much more than the birth account found in Luke 2, the genealogy in Matthew 1, and the other information found in the Gospels about Jesus’ birth and early years. “Manger King” is a helpful tool and even devotional for the Advent season. It’s a reminder to us all that, “the men and women God used were somehow unique, altogether different from you and me. But they were ordinary, sinful, broken people. What made them special was God’s Spirit – the same Spirit who dwells inside all those who know Christ today.”

Christmas books will come and go, riding the latest trends and promoting the most popular themes, but “Manger King” is a book that focuses us on what’s most important about Advent and Christmas. It’s worth a read, whether you’re a novice at this Advent thing or you’ve delved into the material before. Pick up a copy to help you reflect on just how essential Christ is to Christmas and what a gift the world received when he came.

(This review is based upon a copy of this book which was provided free of charge from the author. These opinions are my own; I was not required to write a positive review, nor was I compensated for this review.)

The Eve of the Eve

It’s the Eve of Christmas Eve and I can feel the excitement starting to bubble up within me. There is anticipation of waking up on Christmas morning to see what’s under the tree. There is an excitement in me to take part in a Christmas Eve worship experience with my church. There is excitement in me to see how my kids drink in all that they will experience over the next few days.

Ever since I was a kid, I have loved Christmas. I would hardly sleep on Christmas Eve as my excitement was palpable and uncontainable. I would wake up while everyone else was sleeping and start organizing the presents into piles, making sure that everything was in order for when everyone was awake. I love the smells of Christmas, the sounds of Christmas, the memories of Christmas, and all that Christmas means to me and to you.

Every year that goes by, it gets a little harder to get into the mood. Life has a tendency of getting in the way. Whether it’s my own health issues or someone in the family’s health issues, whether it’s a tragic loss in my community or a loss within my family or church, somehow the challenges that we face in life can creep into our celebration and do everything they can to steal our joy.

I need constant reminders of what Christmas really means, and I’m a pastor. I can read the birth account in Luke, I can sing the songs, I can plan out the services, but I still need to constantly keep before me the fact that my celebrations are somewhat backwards. Why do I get gifts when it’s Jesus’ birthday? Why am I not focusing more on the fact that I received a gift for which I should be eternally grateful?

Today, there will be no running around doing last minute shopping. I’m hoping I won’t have to go to many stores at all. I’ve tried even to avoid some of the roads around the mall in fear of being impacted by those whose heads are mulling over their own “To Do” lists. I’ve taken care of most everything on my “To Do” lists, so I hope to just get ready.

While I certainly feel a sense of loss without my parents here, the holidays have a way of reminding me of all of the great times that we shared together. I can’t help but smile as I think about my mom playing her Christmas records on the record player while she was cooking or baking in the kitchen. I can’t help but think about my father’s booming voice as we sang Angels We Have Heard on High or O Little Town of Bethlehem or some other Christmas hymn. I remember all of the Christmas traditions that we had in our family and I want to do my best to make sure that my kids have traditions that they can carry on as well.

True, no one really celebrates the eve of Christmas Eve, but I can be the first. If it means that I remember a little bit better what I’m celebrating, then I’ll do whatever it takes!

Savoring and Soaking

2014-12-04 18.52.57When people say, “Christmastime” it conjures all kinds of images in people’s minds. Candy canes. Stockings. Santa Claus. Black Friday. Trees. Presents. Fires. Family. The list could go on and on. But when I think of Christmas, I can’t help but think “Andrew Peterson.”

Some of you are scratching your heads and wondering, “Who’s is Andrew Peterson?” When I first heard his name and listened to his music, I was not impressed. That’s not so unusual for me, it takes me a while to latch onto things that are unfamiliar. A friend told me about Dave Matthews a few years before he hit the big time and I just didn’t get it. Same thing with Jars of Clay. Now I’m a big fan of both of them. Back to Andrew Peterson, though.

I’m always trying to find new and different Christmas music. While many people are fine with the usual Christmas music fare of Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole, or Dean Martin, I’m always trying to reimagine the Christmas season in the musical realm. I mean, how many ways can you hear some of these songs done, redone, and then done again? Just a search in my music library and I find that I have 26 different version of “Angels We Have Heard on High.” Seriously?

A few years back, a friend and I were driving in his car and he put a CD on while we talked and it was enough to distract me from my conversation with him. I kept getting drawn to the music. He sang along as well, completely out of tune and off key, but I started paying attention to the words. Curious as I was, the natural question for me to ask him was, “Who is this?” When he told me that it was Andrew Peterson, I was both surprised and intrigued. Yes, I had heard the name before but I didn’t remember hearing him like this.

As I began to pepper my friend with questions, he told me what he knew about the album, “Behold the Lamb of God.” It was a song cycle, which always excites me as a musician and hack songwriter. Weaving and forming a group of songs together with a common theme is not an easy thing to do and be successful, it’s a challenge. Artists have done it (or attempted to do it) for years, artists all across the map. But a song cycle about the Gospel message, that was even more intriguing to me.

I purchased the album and began listening to it……and I just couldn’t get enough. This was all before I went to seminary as well. Now that I have seminary under my belt and now that I’ve grown even more in my faith over the past few years, the story and its power as well as the way that Peterson tells that story are powerful. With wit, wisdom, eloquence, and craftiness Peterson tells the story of the Messiah starting way back with Moses. While all of the songs are good standalone songs, when you put them together, the sum of the parts is equal to something magnificent on many levels.

Once I was hooked, I shared the music with everyone that I knew. As I followed Peterson more and more, I found out that he toured the country performing “Behold the Lamb of God” with his friends during the month of December ending up with a few shows before Christmas at the famous Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee. I immediately began to search where this tour would be going to see if there was any chance that I might be able to catch it.

Sure enough, on Friday, December 3, 2010, Peterson was scheduled to be in Richmond, Virginia. I found out when the tickets were going on sale and told everyone that I knew and bought a bundle for myself. My parents had just moved to Williamsburg a few weeks prior to the concert and I thought that they might enjoy the concert as well. They didn’t seem to keen on the idea, so I enlisted them as babysitters. Turns out that it would be the last Christmas that I would have with my mom.

For 4 of the last 5 Decembers, Andrew Peterson has been coming back to Richmond. I’ve been there every time. In fact, it almost seems like the perfect way for me to usher in the Christmas season. I look forward to it every year and look forward to the day that I can go to Nashville to experience it in an historic venue like the Ryman.

Last night was the night to share in this experience once again, and it did not disappoint. I felt just like a kid on Christmas Eve, even more so when I found out that Thad Cockrell was on the tour as well as Caleb Chapman (trying to make it on his own outside of the shadow of his dad, Steven Curtis Chapman).

Peterson has the same format on the tour every year. Since there are other artists traveling with him, he shares the stage with them for the first half of the concert, going through the cycle of them twice to allow for everyone to get a feel for who these artists are individually. As the musicians played, I continued to anticipate the second half of the concert where Peterson and friends play the entire song cycle of “Behold the Lamb of God” from beginning to end with no stops (except for applause).

For the hundreds, if not thousands, of times that I have listened to the song cycle, I always find myself sitting enthralled as I find myself in these repeat listenings. In fact, as each song waves into the next one, I find myself feeling a bit of regret and sadness over the fact that the songs will end as will the concert. But there are moments to simply savor and soak in all that surrounds me in the aural realm. There are moments that I simply want to pause and hibernate in for the winter, such sonic goodness that I want to capture and bottle up.2014-12-04 21.32.07

But alas, the night does end and the feeling passes, but what is left behind is the impetus for me of what will become the Advent season. It spurs me into the season in a way that no Black Friday sale or Bass Pro Shop Santa Claus ever could. It sets the trajectory of the season in the right direction, not assuring perfection, but helping me come pretty darn close to it.

Peterson doesn’t have any hits, as he even jokes about in his own self-deprecating way, at least not in the formal sense, but to me, this whole album is a hit. It’s a hidden treasure that’s just waiting to be found out, dug up, discovered. I’m glad to have discovered it and look forward to kicking off my Christmas season each year with it. I guess I’ll savor that for as long as I possibly can!