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Archives for November, 2017

Come, Emmanuel!

No sooner had the Thanksgiving dressing been put away to become a late-afternoon football snack than the Christmas decor began to make its grand entrance from almost a year’s worth of being stored away!

Isn’t this story so true in many of our homes?  Seems like some folks
have been ready to unleash Burl Ives, Ray Conniff, Mitch Miller and Jose Feliciano since mid-August…but alas, we can hold them off no longer.  For the season of anticipating Christmas is finally here…the Advent of Christ is upon us according to the Christian Calendar.

Maybe it is the weather of the last few days (both at home and in Chicago), but I’ve been thinking about the lyrics of one of my favorite Christmas hymns which guides us through the advent story so well…and does so with such a potent lyrical connection for us today that I really can’t wait to start singing it.

The words find their origins as early as the mid-late 12th century and were translated (or believed to be translated) by John Mason Neale around 1851.

The music finds its origin in the Libera Me, from the funeral mass of the Catholic Mass.  It was called Veni Emmanuel as early as the late 15th century when it was paired with the ancient text by a group of Fransiscan Nuns.  It’s scriptural connection, throughout each verse we know and those left out of modern hymnody is obvious.  We see Isaiah 7:14 “Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. The Rod of Jesse refers to Isaiah 11:1: “There shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse;” Jesse was, of course, the father of David, second king of Israel. Day-Spring comes from Zacharias, father of John the Baptist, in Luke 1:78: “The dayspring from on high has visited us.” “Thou Key of David” is in Isaiah 22:22: “The key of the house of David will I lay upon his shoulder,” which in turn refers to Isaiah 9:6: “The government shall be upon His shoulder.”  I’ll explore each other verse throughout this Advent season…

However, in light of the world’s recent events, terror and tragedy, and tragedy in the loss of family and friends in my own life in recent weeks, I find myself praying this prayer from one of the latter verses of O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.

O come, Thou Day-spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.

Indeed…come, Emmanuel.  Bring light & hope into our gloomy darkness!

soli deo gloria

D.J. Bulls is the Worship & Communication Minister at Riverside Church in Coppell, TX. He is a graduate of Abilene Christian University, the University of Texas, and currently a Doctoral Student in Church Music & Hymnody. He is husband to Meghan and father to Mackenzie…He loves baseball, the Texas Rangers, and Alabama Crimson Tide Football. He teaches music, leads worship, and gets to be a conductor for a wonderful semi-professional choral ensemble in the DFW MidCities called the MidCities Chamber SingersHe composes and arranges music, is on the executive team for the Timeless Psalter project and leads worship all over the country through Bulls’ Pen Music and Fearless4You Music.


When we were unloading our moving truck having just arrived in Bakersfield I moved a shelf inside the moving truck that happened to have another piece of furniture leaning on it. When I pulled the shelf out the other piece smacked me right by my right eye. I saw stars. Then I saw the blood. Standing in the midst of people I had either just met or had met in the interview process drops of blood rolled down my face. It was almost embarrassing but I could tell that they really cared about me they tended to me to make sure I was okay. Now when I look in the mirror and see that scar just over my right eye I think of those lovely people who made such an impact on my life.

The apostle Paul had his scars. Unlike my “moving scar” his scars were the direct result of persecution for gospel proclamation. He lists his sufferings as his “credentials” to the Corinthians. But his scars are much more than proof of his legitimacy as an apostle. They are more than that because what is more important than a resume are people. His scars were personal. His scars are remembrances of people he loved. For instance, pair Philippians 1 with Acts 16,

I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” – Phil 1:3-6

22 The crowd joined in the attack against Paul and Silas, and the magistrates ordered them to be stripped and beaten with rods. 23 After they had been severely flogged, they were thrown into prison, and the jailer was commanded to guard them carefully. 24 When he received these orders, he put them in the inner cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.” – Acts 16:22-24 (this happened in Philippi – Acts 16:12)

Did Paul have an incredible memory? He seems to remember so many people in his letters. Maybe part of his memory were the mnemonic device of his scars. Paul had visible reminders of those Philippians in his own body. When he saw the scars, he could think of them. Maybe this is one of the reasons (along with the teachings of Jesus on being blessed when persecuted) that Paul could rejoice in his sufferings because he knew what it all produced among  people he dearly loved.

What scars do you have and who do they remind you of? Some scars challenge us because they remind us of evil. Maybe even those scars are a reminder of grace and forgiveness rather than bitterness and scorn. Jesus also had his scars and they are a reminder of what He has done for us.

Scars show our body has healed but often our minds and our souls have not. Maybe it is time for your scars to tell a new and better story. Not all scars are visible and I am talking about those scars as well. Our scars can make us bitter or they can make us better. Our memory of what happened when we got the scars won’t change but our attitude about them and how we leverage them toward spiritual growth and the advancement of the kingdom can be powerful. The scars of remembrance are powerful acts of grace that keep pulling our memory toward past trauma.

A few of my friends have had a hard year. They’ve lost children. They’ve lost their mental health. They’ve lost security in their future…the list could go on and on. This year has been a painful year for many of my friends. As a friend, I want to be present and supportive. As a preacher, I wanted to make sure the pulpit honored the voice of pain in our congregation while also giving glory to God. This desire led me to studying the Book of Lamentations.

Lamentations is not a book that many of us read often. And I must admit I hadn’t read it much prior to this past June. However, over the past few months I have been drinking deeply of this most painful book from the First Testament. In what follows, I hope to share three observations that occurred to me over the course of my time in this book.

The historical setting of the book is sometime after the fall of Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E. The remaining survivors sit in the dust of their fallen city and are left with one dark question: What now? The reflection of this question in part leads to the five poems that make up Lamentations. Lamentations is a book of mourning for the community of God left behind. They are survivors but given the state of Jerusalem, one wonders if surviving was meant to be a gift or a curse. So while the historical setting is the fall of Jerusalem, the poetic setting can be considered any place of trauma. If you have ever been in a pit of grief and despair, Lamentations is your book.

First, Lamentations lives within the silence of God. In 1:20-21 Jerusalem (personified as the Daughter Zion) exclaims, “Look, Lord, how distressed I am! I am in torment within, Hear my groaning, there is no one to comfort me. Daughter Zion has no comfort; she is alone in her trauma. This is a major point of the book; not even God comforts Zion….she is utterly abandoned.  God never responds to her in the book. He never speaks words of any kind to her.

God is the missing voice of Lamentations. His silence is so great that in the end, the community of God asks, “Restore us to yourself, Lord, that we may return; renew our days as of old 22 unless you have utterly rejected us and are angry with us beyond measure.” Essentially the book ends asking, “Is God done?” Has God washed his hands of this whole thing? This is a question we often ask in trauma but perhaps we are ashamed of this feeling. Isn’t that a lack of faith? Aren’t we supposed to sing and be happy regardless of our situations? I honestly don’t know. What I do know is that a book exists where the cry of the trauma survivor rises up and it is anything but happy. Perhaps, Lamentations reminds us there is space to feel lost when in hopeless situations.

Second, God’s silence opens up the space for the community to reflect on itself. Lamentations spends a good amount of time talking and describing the hopeless present situation. Poems one, two, and four are essentially funeral dirges for Israel. Using powerfully vivid images, the poems dive into the deepest despairs of its people. In 3:1, we are introduced to a geber, a strongman, whose job is to defend and protect the people. He must feel like a complete failure as he surveys the fallen Jerusalem. He says in 3:7-9, “He has walled me about so that I cannot escape; he has made my chains heavy; though I call and cry for help, he shuts out my prayer; he has blocked my ways with blocks of stones; he has made my paths crooked.”

The strongman is trapped in his situation. He is blocked on all sides with a heavy weight around his neck. And he will continue to reflect on this suffering until vs. 21, “Yet this I called to mind and therefore I have hope.” In the midst of his grief, something catches his eye and he is able to latch onto it and find hope again (momentarily at least…we’ll get there). It’s as if by talking and processing his experience the strongman is able to find a moment of healing, a brief comfort from the trauma.

Survivors need to have a space to voice their pain; survivors need to be heard. This is how they walk the path of healing….by opening up in a loving context and processing their pain. Pain that is internalized quickly poisons and becomes a bitter bile on the soul. But when it is processed and discussed (in a healthy setting) it can become the springboard for life….even if it just a brief moment of life.

Finally, Lamentations teaches us that hope is a complex experience.  Following vs. 21 we find the most well-known part of Lamentations, “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end.” We might be tempted to think after this verse the rest of the book would be a hopeful read but it is not. The hope of this poem vanishes as quickly as it arrived. The third poem is not a moment of triumph for the poet but rather a moment of rest from the chaos that surrounds. It comes in, goes away, comes back and then vanishes again.

Perhaps this is more true to our experience than we want to admit but I think there is something healthy in this experience. It doesn’t treat hope like a drug that numbs the pain without actually healing the survivor. Instead, hope becomes one step in the complex discussion of a survivors healing. There are days you feel hopeful and days you don’t. This is true to the human experience. We need not feel the shame of imperfection in these days. Rather we simply sit and acknowledge where we are, when we are there.

Trauma is not easily overcome…it took Israel years to work through their pain and loss. However, the survivors did discover a new identity, a new hope in time, and they did heal. So for those who are weathering the traumas of life may you find a friend in this book, may you share in the voice of Lamentations. And for the rest of us, may we learn to be as silent as God and simply listen to their voice.

If you walked out in your yard, picked up a rock and threw it up in the sky at 25,000 mph you could put it in orbit given a few other assumptions. It takes quite a bit of power, effort and direction to escape the gravitational pull of the earth.

Congregations are often like that. There is a gravitational pull that keeps things pulled back to itself. The weight of the congregation and its history are so dense and so weighty that they take on their own gravitational field. It takes a monumental amount of power to push something through that congregational gravity for it to escape.

What is that gravitational pull? It can include a number of things: culture, fear, tradition, and even hermeneutics (how we interpret the Bible). We often call this homeostasis or being in the same state. It is a psychological phenomenon that we seek out consistency even if it is consistently unhealthy. You see this when you see abused people seek out abusers or the children of alcoholics date alcoholics. It is just what you know and you keep getting pulled right back down to the ground.

While gravity can be good for us (no one likes the food flying off their plate or their car not able to hug the road and get somehwere) it can also be leveraged to make sure no one leaves the ground and leaves everyone else behind. Gravity gives you a sense of stability but if relied on too much (complacency and comfortability) is more about being stuck than about being stable.

Churches often struggle to get outward focused ministries up to escape velocity due to the continued cultural pull inward. I remember a “Bring a friend” day where we were the only ones who brought a friend! How is that even possible in a church of 400 people?

It takes a visionary to get to the moon. It also take a lot of persistence and power, a power only God can supply.

When you decide you are going to land on the moon you will always have people who say it can’t be done. These are the “gravitationally enchanced” people in the congregation. For them escape velocity might as well be one million miles per hour. Not only can’t it be done, it shouldn’t be done because “we have never done it that way here before” which is really their way of saying something never mentioned in the Bible is somehow unbiblical. Those are usually the last words you hear before the put the last nail in the coffin. These people press on the gravity pedal even harder to keep people in check. Let’s say you actually do make it to the moon, the ministry launched and it was a raving success, you will still have people who say it never happened or even if it did it should have been done differently because when you choose a direction you are automatically out of line with the vision (or complacency) of some people. If you are waiting for everyone to get on board it will never get done.

It is important we respect and appreciate the stability of gravity without allowing it to make us stuck in tradition and unhealthy processes in the church. This takes vision, leadership and a tremendous amount of energy. Much like NASA the benefits those visionaries bring about may not even come in their own generation but much later. Who are our visionaries today? What moon landings are we needing to accomplish in our generation of Christianity?

This is a daunting question I’m faced with daily as a chaplain. Individuals burned over 75% of their bodies, trauma victims from motor vehicle accidents and gunshots and stab wounds, women who’ve lost their babies, first-time chemo patients…this is a normal day within a hospital. This is real life. While we all desire an unstormy, calm-seas passage, we will not experience that on this ball forever.

It’s impossible.

It’s a relatively easy ascent when things are sunny-side-up. But how about when they are just NOT? What then? When we find ourselves beside that bed with our loved one. When the diagnosis that’s voiced hits our own eardrums.. When what seemed impossible becomes actual.
I have a phrase I tell my patients when presented with this ever-longing question. It’s very short, and not always what they’d hoped for.. But as an authentic person who refuses to be anything but honest, it is the truth. When I’m asked why someone’s child is paralyzed, or why the baby didn’t make it, or why they have to endure their 11th chemo treatment, or why their dad died so quickly, I have a very short, three-word answer. It goes something like this.

‘I don’t know.’

Usually they nod in agreement, but one lady in particular asked for me to find someone with a better answer. I couldn’t. The great unfathomable mystery of Godness is that we don’t know the workings of the world. This is a bummer for me, as someone who likes things to make sense logically and rationally. This fact is brutal. There are just some things we are not ever going to understand here on the round blue, green, brown ball.

Riding shotgun with faith is all we’ve got.

Isaiah 40:31 ESV -But they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.

“The reason birds can fly and we can’t is simply because they have perfect faith, for to have faith is to have wings.”
― J.M. Barrie, The Little White Bird

“I once had a sparrow alight upon my shoulder for a moment, while I was hoeing in a village garden, and I felt that I was more distinguished by that circumstance that I should have been by any epaulet I could have worn.” Henry David Thoreau (1817 – 1862)

“Show her the birds!” He exclaims in a midnight dream in vivid technicolor. He and I are standing under pterodactyl-size white birds gliding, mind you, not flapping. I am uncertain of the species. Our necks are craned upward to view this simple yet poignant sight of soaring creatures, wings fully outstretched, perhaps a span of ten feet. I can hear the soft whisper of the glide. They simply, yet majestically, soar. He is smiling from ear to ear, delighted to show me these birds. David has recently passed on at the young age of 40. I presume David is asking
God to put on this show for me, to prove the beauty of Heaven, to ease my mind and bring me some piecemeal of peace, peace which I honestly do not remotely have at that moment in waking life. The birds… they are pristine and beautiful and I am in sincere awe at their glorious sight. I am in particular amazement that these birds need not flap their wings, relaying a message that in Heaven all is effortless, that perhaps there is no wind to strain against, to move against. All is calm, all is right. Winds are of the earth, sickness is of the earth. In Heaven, people are happy about showing others soaring birds. Upon waking and contemplating the dream, I try to reflect on all the Scriptures I was raised on and to bring to mind any regarding birds. My mind immediately directs to “not even a sparrow falls without God knowing.” I recall the dove sent from the ark. I know that birds are prominent within Scripture. In literature, Thoreau remarked that a sparrow landing upon him was a profound experience.

David and I never discussed anything pertaining to birds in our relationship. We weren’t bird-watchers or even remotely interested in the subject. We typically passed the bird exhibits at the zoos trying to reach the cages of something “more interesting” like giraffes and elephants.
I’ve thought of this often; what is with the birds and why are they becoming a seemingly telltale messenger? Is David able, as a remote figure from Heaven, choosing the feathers right now to send us hopeful signals that he is still very much alive and sees us? One can only hope. There is a very specific, linear trail of signals and communications he has left for our now 8-year old son and me. Jude says, “I think the feathers make us healthier.” The feathers appear at least a few times a month, in random locales. One time I was trying to make a big decision, opened the back door, and a feather was lying on the threshold right at my feet.

I met with a counselor a few weeks after his passing and the first thing I see on the wall is a pattern of white feathers wrapped around the wall behind her chair. Feathers. There they are again. It seems they are literally everywhere. I cannot escape them, not that I would want to.
The grief is so weighty and drowning and soul-soaking that I will take anything I can get. I am aware I could be inventing these signs in my mind, but it’s all too surreal not to be something. I decide it has to mean something and be of the working of some force beyond little old me. I need peace that he is at peace and if feathers are the means of divine communication, then I will gladly accept.

Little tiny downy feathers like the stuffing inside a pillow have fallen from above, landing before us, appeared resting on the floor in front of us, and randomly arrived from seemingly out of nowhere. I cannot count the times this has happened. When my son and I visited San Diego,
he was running down the pier and turned to me with a massive white feather, so proud to show me. “Look, Mom!” We kept the feather. Another late afternoon, Jude was playing in the backyard. A feather fell from a tree or the sky, and he said “Look a feather! That’s Daddy saying hi to me!” He was full of delight at this discovery. What to make of these feathers? Do I believe in signs? Do I really believe that is possible that somehow David could be sending us feathers? Could he be? One day we were driving to visit his parents home. We stopped at a traffic light in their hometown before some train tracks and about a million tiny white fluffs surrounded our car, like our own little private snow storm. I was taken aback and told Jude “maybe that’s Daddy.” I don’t know if the fluffs were from trees, from the weather, or from a higher place. We were covered over and it felt a lot like all-encompassing love. Jude and I were walking thru our living room one morning and he looked down and there were two tiny downy soft feathers, one for each of us. Jude was so excited; he put them in a special little box. Another morning, a little robin was playing chase with him in the front yard. A feather floated in the air as the robin flew
away. Jude said, “That black feather is from Daddy.”

What do they know? What do they see through their tiny eyes, orbs fronting bodies of feathers? We know they chirp, sing, fly, build nests and raise families. Can they possibly be modern-day messengers from those gone before us? Could they be used by angels to reach us
with hope to encourage us? Plausible not. Logical not. But what I have seen causes me to believe they have a purpose more than just flying. What I’ve borne witness to tells me they are guided to the suffering to deliver promises in things unseen. Why the bird? Their quantity and
ease of dropping feathers make them ideal for message-delivery. Their ability to cover long distances via air also make them the perfect candidates.

So we trust in the ways of the Creator of birds. We trust if the Most High wants us reassured with feathers, then that is more than able to happen. We have faith. And we cling tightly to our feathers that God has David in the shadow of His wings, and us too.

I am not much of a feeler but it is hard to miss all the hurting that is going on out there. Well, it is not just “out there” but “in here” as well. Those of us who like to think the trauma is always somewhere else or with someone else just need to reflect a bit harder and have a bit more honesty with ourselves about things.

Trauma is prevalent. It is a part of our humanity and our propensity toward injustice and selfishness. Someone always pays for selfishness, even the one who is being selfish. This morning in the car our youngest child, age 6, thought selfish was “sell fish” and didn’t think the fish would be too happy about that. Maybe they have trauma too! You just can’t escape it so you might as well deal with it in a healthy manner.

Whatever the source of our trauma is, it is important that we recognize it and create space for its expression and healing. While I understand that often we make Sunday morning worship the catch all that is supposed to accomplish too many things I do think we could do a better job of expressing some difficult, far too real, things on Sunday. Authentic worship would demand this but too often we keep singing happy go lucky songs among a hurting people. Is that faith or is that denial? I don’t know that it can be both at the same time.

Is our assembly or community a safe place to express trauma and look for healing? Are we so set on everything and everyone being “okay” that we are missing an opportunity for the Gospel to be the Gospel? I think we can improve in this area and when we do we will be accomplish some of the reasons Jesus has us here.

So let’s talk about trauma this month and consider how we might find more community relevance in our ability to bring healing to the hurting through the love and mercy of Jesus.