It Happened Again!

I am still amazed at little, seemingly hidden verses that strike me from time to time. In recent years, it seems to always happen at Christmas. Last night was no different.

Our congregation travels to a local rehabilitation and nursing facility every other Wednesday night to sing and fellowship with a special group of residents. Last night was our final visit for 2017. So, we sang through the entire Christmas, er, I mean, “Special Themes” section of our hymnal. True, there are several important Christmas hymns and carols noticeably absent from this particular compilation (O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen, Sing We Now of Christmas, I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, Infant Holy, Infant Lowly, just to name a few).

We came to It Came Upon the Midnight Clear. And we started in, just like we’d sung it time and time again. But we came to the third verse, and there it was, and it hit me right between the eyes.

I must make a note here before going into that lyric: We in Churches of Christ have missed the boat on a LOT of the rich, broader Christian hymnody of Advent and Christmas. Not only that, but we’ve bred a culture of singing that skips stanzas. So many of our hymns and songs were constructed to tell a story…especially, this is the case in so many of these Christmas carols and songs…they tell of the full narrative, of the prophets foretelling the coming of Messiah, of Mary’s encounter with the angels, of the manger, and of the upside-down-ness of Jesus’ coming and our waiting for his second advent, his return…living in that in-between. We’d do well to sing all of these stanzas, and to broaden our choices to include hymns and carols with a rich heritage, while also looking to include new hymns such as Matt Boswell’s Come Behold the Wondrous Mystery which tell the Christ story in with a wonderful new tune and rich text. Listen to the original here, then you can buy the a cappella version here. You can also read the comments of my friend and professor, Dr. Scott Aniol about omitting Christmas stanzas in a recent Baptist Press article here.

midnight

I digress…
So often, these Christmas hymns include a story of how our world is doing anything but living in the reality of God’s world-changing love, as shown through Jesus. I’ve written before about hymns like O Come, O Come Emmanuel and O Holy Night and how they sing into just how we are to live out that love in the here and now. So often, these ignored stanzas speak of the sadness of war and the lack of love for brother and sister humankind…

This verse is no different. Consider these lyrics.
Edmund H. Sears (1810-1876)

3 Yet with the woes of sin and strife
the world has suffered long;
beneath the angel strain have rolled
two thousand years of wrong;
and warring humankind hears not
(Some hymnals use the original, “and man, at war with man hears not”)
the love song which they bring.
O hush the noise and cease your strife,
and hear the angels sing.

Considering this hymn was written over 140 years ago, the commentary on the warring between humankind and the plea with us to cease our strife is all the more powerful, and all the more relevant for us today.

And it sets up the closing stanza, now more important than ever to sing in light of stanza 3.

4 For lo, the days are hastening on,
By prophets seen of old,
When with the ever-circling years,
Shall come the time foretold.
When the new heaven and earth shall own
The Prince of Peace their King,
And the whole world send back the song
Which now the angels sing.

In our living and loving, may we send back heavenward, and to our brothers and sisters, the “song the angels sang.”

And may we sing these hymns and the rich stories they offer in their entirety…and may we be changed because of it.

Law of Love…Gospel of Peace

Christmas, 2015, I wrote this post amidst a sea of unrest, politically and otherwise.  In light of tragic events in our country and around the world, I find myself reflecting on it again this holiday season.

There has been a lot of swirling conversation going on around me, both physically and virtually, about what has gone on in the world around us…Syria, San Bernardino, Orlando, Jerry Falwell, Trump, Sexual Scandal In Hollywood and on Capitol Hill, Abuse of all kinds, terrorism…and on and on.  This mounting and culmination of all these events and occurrences…like you, I’ve had enough and I needed a moment to just sit, be, listen and be quiet…in the quiet, I was overcome by the lyrics of one of the world’s most beloved Christmas Carols…and I had to write a bit about it. A Carol of Adolphe Adam and Placide Cappeau, originally called Cantique de Noel, or “Oh Holy Night.”

From the beginning, he was destined to follow his father in the family business (vinification and cooperage); but after an accident, he turned to the life of an academic. The accident occurred when he was eight years old, while “playing” with his friend Brignon. The young Brignon was handling a gun and shot Cappeau in the hand. This led to the young Cappeau having to undergo an amputation of his hand. Thanks to the financial support from  Brignon who supplied half of tuition,  Cappeau was able to attend a town school and was accepted into the Collège Royal d’Avignon. While there, in spite of his disability, he was awarded the first prize in drawing in 1825.

After studying in Nîmes, where he received a baccalauréat littéraire (A level in literature), he studied law in Paris and was awarded a license to practice law in 1831.

Following in his father’s footsteps, to an extent, he became a merchant of wines and spirits. However, his focus in life was literature.

He is quoted as saying he wrote the poem “Minuit Chrétien” (O Holy Night) in a stagecoach on his way to Paris, between Mâcon and Dijon. Despite Adolphe Adam calling his tune “la Marseillaise religieuse” (The religious Marseillaise),  Cappeau held often outspoken socialist and anti-clerical (secular) views. (hymnary.org)

The third verse of “Oh Holy Night” speaks of a world in which those who claim to follow Jesus are living out he calls all of his followers to in this subversive Gospel…

That Gospel is deeply rooted in Love of God and Love of Others…and so many claim the first part of that Call…the part about loving God.  But the back half…well, I’m afraid some have given Christ a bad name in how we’ve lived that out in recent days, weeks and months…that love of “others” is not one we can or should place provisions or privileges on…it’s an unconditional love for all of our brothers and sisters…

Cantique-002

 

“Truly He taught us
to love one another;
His law is Love
and His gospel is Peace;
Chains shall he break,
for the slave is our brother,
And in his name
all oppression shall cease,
Sweet hymns of joy
in grateful Chorus raise we;
Let all within us praise
his Holy name!”

 

 

May we help bring this verse to a reality…may Life on earth come increasingly as it is in Heaven.
Come, Lord Jesus!

Reggie McNeal to Address Kingdom Leadership at ElderLink Dallas

Abilene Christian University’s Siburt Institute for Church Ministry would like to invite you to ElderLink Dallas, a one day conference for church leaders on Saturday, March 3, 2018. We have some exciting new changes, including a move to a more central location within the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex and a more focused one day format. We are so grateful for the hospitality of Highland Oaks Church of Christ these past 15 years and want to welcome and thank our new hosts, North Davis Church of Christ.

The event theme is “Kingdom Collaborators: Leaders Who Bring Heaven to Earth.” Reggie McNeal (author, leadership consultant, and senior fellow at Leadership Network), will share insights from his forthcoming book, Kingdom Collaborators: Eight Signature Practices of Leaders Who Turn the World Upside Down. McNeal will address questions such as “What kind of leadership does it take to align with God’s mission and agenda?” And “How do kingdom collaborators impact their communities and the world?” If you want to better understand how God works in the world and how you can partner with God to missionally impact your community, you won’t want to miss this event!

Please visit our registration and event page for more event details and to take advantage of the early bird discount.  Additionally, all ElderLink Dallas participants will receive session recordings and a copy of McNeal’s forthcoming book, Kingdom Collaborators: Eight Signature Practices of Leaders Who Turn the World Upside Down.

We hope you’ll join us and other church leaders on Saturday, March 3, 2018 at the North Davis Church of Christ in Arlington, Texas!

A Doctrinal Christmas? Two Theological Gifts of Christmas

I grew up in a fellowship that was incredibly conflicted during the Christmas holiday. We decorated our homes with trees with a star on top. We put nativity scenes up. We made cookies. We sang “Away in the Manger,” “What Child is This?,” and “Silent Night.” Then during the month of Christmas we had annual sermons on why we do not celebrate Christmas. We heard that Catholicism stole Christmas from the pagans and December 25 was really about Saturnalia. These sentiments regarding Christmas, along with the myth of Saturnalia, continue to be paraded as truth among the descendants of the Reformed branch of the Protestant Reformation. But Christmas is neither pagan in origin nor is it theologically, or doctrinally, empty. Christmas teaches us.

The Calendar

It is important to remember the actual environment of the early church.  Our unconscious ideas often skew our understanding of both Scripture and the early church. In the early church, no one owned a New Testament, much less a whole Bible. Christian homes did not have dozens of Bibles in them. In fact, it is not certain that most  congregations would collectively own an entire New Testament. Literary works were incredibly expensive. So how is the faith passed on? How is proper understanding passed on?

The early church followed the precedent set by Israel, they followed a calendar. The “Old Testament” calendar directed the the life of Jesus, though we American disciples often fail to recognize this. The calendar was not just about keeping the days straight.  The calendar taught a way of life.  The Roman calendar proclaimed the important events in the history of Rome. The calendar in Persia proclaimed the acts of various monarchs. The calendar in the Hebrew Bible preaches the mighty acts of grace by Yahweh. So we read about the Sabbath, Passover, Tabernacles, Weeks, Purim and Hanukkah.  The festivals tell the Story of God: God creates the world, God deliveres by grace Israel, God walks with Israel in the wilderness, God provides food and gives torah, God protects from annihilation, and God redeems his temple. The calendar teaches the content of the faith.

The early church did the same thing. They used time, the calendar, to teach what God has done.  The first day of the week, Easter, Pentecost … and what became known as Christmas. God began a new creation, God renews his covenant and makes us his people, … and God became one of us.  The calendar was a way to teach the Christian faith.

Theological Gifts

From a theological point of view, what does Christmas (the terminology is not important, that term was not used by early Christians since they did not speak English) teach? What might be of importance that a second, third and fourth century believer needed to know. What might have been in dispute? What might Christmas counter?

Jesus the Jew

For starters, Christmas answers the Marcionites. The Marcionites wanted to sever Christian faith from anything Jewish. The “Old Testament” was the sacrificial lamb of the Marcionites, it had to go.  The Christian Church has always struggled with the ghost of Marcion. Through various ways and means the Hebraic origin and content of the faith has been minimized and outright rejected at times. The most glaring example is Nazism.  Many Church Fathers struggled with anti-semiticism. But to their credit the Fathers knew it was, and is, impossible to have Jesus the Messiah without David and Abraham coming along for the ride.

Christmas, the season of the birth of Jesus, proclaims as clearly as anything ever could several radically important truths to the Christian faith. First and foremost, Jesus is, not was, a Jew. The Gospel cannot be divorced from Israel. It is hard to find something that stresses the Jewishness of the Messiah more than telling a story of his circumcision in the temple on the eighth day of his life.

In a culture that was rabidly anti-Jewish, including the Fathers, Christmas puts the breaks on rejection of Israel and the Hebrew Bible. To reject the history of Israel is tantamount to rejecting Jesus himself. Christmas preaches this.

The birth narratives of Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2, Christmas, reveal that the Gospel begins with what people today call the “Old Testament.” There is no Good News without Abraham, David … the Messiah is, before he is anything else, the King of the Jews. This the ever present doctrinal message of Christmas. We must never forget this.

Jesus is a Real Human Being

Christmas answers the Gnostics. The Gnostics believed they had liberated Christianity from its carnal or fleshy Jewishness by making it truly “spiritual.” All that matters is our spirit or soul.  In Gnosticism the material realm is a problem to be freed from. The physical world is really transient and of no ultimate value. What matters is being redeemed from the pain, misery, suffering, and appetites of this physical world. Salvation, according to gnosticism, is the ultimate “spiritual” liberation where we rejoin deity in some spiritual realm.  If matter does not matter then the human body does not either.

Christmas smacks this heresy with as much force as it does Marcionism. Christmas declares that the “spiritual” Logos (Word) became flesh itself. It became “matter.” Christmas declares that humans do not become gods but that God became Human.  The Word did not merely take up temporary flesh. The word became flesh.

It is hard to be more “in the flesh,” to be more human, than to be inside a womb. To be born into a specific Jewish family and into a specific Jewish town. It is hard to be more “in the flesh,” to be more human, than having your diaper changed, nurse from your mother, be circumcised on the eighth day, to go through all the growing pains of being human.

Christmas stresses, in neon lights, that the God who Created the material world, is the God who now lives in the material world. Salvation is not from materiality as the Gnostics declared. Salvation is of the whole creation that God made. Like Marcionism, gnosticism has been a constant threat in the modern post-Enlightenment Christian faith.  There are many parading around under the banner of “sound doctrine” whom Valentinus would praise.

Christmas was not the selling out to paganism. Christmas, that is stress on the Incarnation and birth of Christ as essential to redemption, in fact began rather independently in geographically diverse places like Africa, Syria, and Turkey and for good reason. People needed to be taught about Jesus the Messiah and the nature of salvation. These are just two reasons that what become known as Christmas found its way into Christian faith.

So we see Jesus really is the “reason for the season.” It matters that Jesus is the King of the Jews. If he is not then we have the wrong Jesus. And it matters that God loves the world. If our god does not then we may have never actually heard “the Christmas gospel.”

The Gymnastic Flying Preacher?

Back in August I participated in a funeral service for a beloved friend in Hot Springs, AR. It was also an unplanned, unscheduled gymnastics competition. My sweet friend would have laughed out loud at my spectacular landing. In the vernacular, I stuck it hard.

Here’s how it happened…

I spoke passionately for about twenty minutes. This particular friend? We could have talked for hours. There was a lot to say. Still is. Marilyn was one of the most loving, caring, and giving women I have ever known. If something needed to be done, she was the one. And if it required money and she couldn’t fund it herself, she could talk the Grinch into paying for it.

So here I was. My part of the funeral service was over, and that’s when I entered the gymnastic competition. Or tried to fly. I am not sure which—I’ll let you decide. At any rate, when I stepped down from the rostrum on to the lower (unsecured/ unattached) step, my athletic prowess began to shine… the step tossed and rolled—I went into the air, did a graceful turn, flip, and then planted myself into the hard floor shoulder first. My right shoulder. The one my right arm and hand is attached too. Did I mention I am right-handed? Why yes, yes, I am.

I don’t know if I have ever fallen and popped back up so quickly. Truthfully, I was mortified, embarrassed, and mortified some more.

Yesterday (Monday as I write this) the pain in my shoulder and arm finally got to the point where Becki was tired of hearing me complain about it (it’s the gift that keeps giving). So, I wimped out and made an appointment to see a doctor. That rarely happens in my world, but I went. The verdict? Who knows? At this point we are just going to treat it with Naproxen and see if it gets any better.

In the meantime, while I can’t quite scratch my back with my right arm or throw a ball like I should, I have run into some other health issues. Suffice it to say, I did not enjoy telling my wife how truly high my blood pressure was at the doctor’s office. No, that was not a conversation I wanted to have. All married men everywhere know the look. Yep, that one. I got it. Hard. Guys, pray for me. The fallout is severe. I am now on a starvation, uh, I mean strict, diet. As it was told to me, I WILL exercise every day (You are NOT leaving me here by myself with all these kids). And, I WILL learn to relax and let go of some of my stress and anxiety.

Unfortunately, I am not the only person with a magical ever-expanding waistline. And truthfully? I know I have to learn to turn things off, to not take things so personally, and to realize I am not the only person capable of whatever needs doing. It’s hard to break the habits of a lifetime, but that is what I must do to have a better quality of life and health.

While important, I wonder how many of us should be just as concerned about our spiritual health? I was asked today how many people around me live in poverty. It made me wonder how many people even in our own church family are living in spiritual poverty…

  • How’s my prayer life?
  • Do I spend quality devotional time with God?
  • Am I committed to my faith community?
  • Do I work at building God-honoring relationships with those outside my faith family?
  • What are my real-world spiritual priorities?

As it turns out, I know the things I need to do to make better my physical health—and I know the source of my spiritual well-being.

Are their needed changes in my life? You betcha!

Here’s this preacher giving you the look.

Les Ferguson, Jr.