Always Christmas but Never Winter

* Ramble Alert! * I tend to get pensive, ponderous, and poetic at the end of the year. So, there’s no need to read further, as you probably have better things to do with your time. I’m just processing my own musings as the calendar gets ready to flip again. 

1. I shaved off my December goatee. As I was doing so, I had flashbacks to some hurtful insults I received during my school days. I once was described as having a “beaver chin” and “a weak, unmanly profile.” Because of a “face-plant” fall I had as a young child, I developed an overbite that was only partially corrected by my (terribly uncomfortable) retainer. My classmates in fifth through seventh grade were particularly cruel about how I looked. Only one kind girl out of hundreds my age thought it made me look cute. Even when I was at peak physical condition in college, a photographer doing a local hairstylist’s spread featuring a few of us chiseled swimmers kept telling me to grind my teeth or somehow produce a stronger jawline since mine was too wimpy. (Why, then, did you ask me to be in the picture in the first place?) The good news is that these insults no longer sting like they used to. But I do wonder sometimes why I remember them so vividly. Maybe it’s because they led to so many insecurities that would later cause me to overcompensate in other areas of life (e.g., athletics, academics, etc.). Whatever the psychology behind it, it’s a good reminder for us to speak kindly to one another, especially those who are in their early formative years. Let’s not allow our careless words to do unnecessary damage. Lord knows, I’ve had to repent of many unkind things I’ve said over the years.

2. It’s always been our family tradition for me to read the story of the Magi from Matthew 2:1-12 on Christmas morning before we open our gifts. It’s our way of trying to keep the focus on what the day is all about. Problem is, my family always takes bets as to how far I’ll get in the passage before getting too choked up to read any further. (The Incarnation never gets old, and it wrecks me every time I ponder it.) I knew in advance that there was no way I’d be able to get past the first verse with a newborn in the room this year. Samuel wasn’t even a month old on Christmas Day, so it just wasn’t going to work for me to read the text without brutzing. So, this year I carved up the passage and gave each of us a few verses to read. It went well, and everyone enjoyed doing it that way. I think we’ll do something similar in future years. No more betting against me! 🙂

P.S., I got to take SamJam on a walk in his stroller yesterday. He was curious about the world around him, and I was overwhelmed with delight in watching him! (Yes, we got him the hat. Totally appropriate, right?!)

3. The 20th-century British novelist and poet Robert Graves once said, “There is no such thing as good writing, only good rewriting.” That’s why I find the process to be both exhilarating and exhausting. I’m seldom happy with what I’ve written. “It can always be better, sharper, clearer,” I tell myself. And maybe this perfectionistic tendency is rooted in what I (imperfectly) wrote above in #1. Either way, it’s a great hinderance to finishing an academic dissertation. We’re trained to anticipate objections and opposing views as we write, and the “lawyerly disposition” in me always wants to create an unassailable argument. That’s not humanly possible, so please pray that I get over myself and write something defensible, even if not incontrovertible. The best dissertation is a done dissertation. Thanks!

4. I recently finished my latest binge, How to Get Away with Murder. The story arc spanning six seasons was engaging and unpredictable. The progressively expanding flashbacks—while confusing at first—were intriguing and captivating as the episodes unfolded, serving as teasers to keep watching and assemble the pieces yourself. The screen writing was sharp overall, and the plot twists were uncliched. Moreover, the casting was brilliant, the acting was superb, and the emotional impact was notable. As was the case with Scandal, the scene cuts were a bit hyperactive at times, though they were much more manageable. Ironically, the hyper-talented Kerry Washington from Scandal made a few appearances in Murder, which was a welcome addition. Aja Naomi King made a strong case for being the new generation’s Kerry Washington. Her portrayal of Michaela Pratt, an ambitious and overly confident lawyer in the making, was one of several acting standouts in the production. It will be fun to watch Aja’s career unfold. Unfortunately, some of the moral values promoted in the series were disappointing, and part of the socio-political agenda was executed in selective and prejudicial ways. But that’s what Hollywood does these days in their “ends-justifies-the-means” approach to progress. Create a straw man and then give yourself high fives for ripping it apart with ease. We tend to write fiction to suit ourselves because it’s much easier than honest debate. The West Wing and other shows of that ilk often follow the same playbook. In an attempt to get back to cinematic sanity, where I don’t have to keep fast forwarding past the raunchy parts, I may return to Endeavor next (since I’m a Morse fan, and the series was filmed in charming Oxford), but there will be no more guilty pleasures until the dissertation is finished.

5. C. S. Lewis described pre-Aslan Narnia as “always winter but never Christmas.” That is, a fallen world without a Savior is devoid of hope. It’s just an icy darkness that shatters the soul and renders people zombie-like until they breathe their last. But because there is a Savior in this world—one whose magnificent mane was shaved in humiliation on our behalf, only to grow back in resurrection glory after the stone table cracked—eternal life can now be described as “always Christmas but never winter.” Believers bend but never break in a world where Aslan is on the move. Here is a poem about how this particular image helped me through a difficult time in my life. It’s not great art by any means, but it’s an honest portrayal of what I was feeling at the time. Here’s the context:

On Saturday, July 1, 2000, my father-in-law, Rev. Keith Moore, resigned as pastor of Baker Heights Baptist Church in Martinsburg, West Virginia. He was only six months away from retirement, but he could no longer shepherd the flock. The awful effects of radiation and chemotherapy had rendered him virtually lifeless, nearly brining him to the point of death in order to spare him from it. It was a painful time for the whole family. That same day, Pastor Keith got a haircut. It turned out to be his last one. The clippers came out and the hair came off. “Better to do it myself,” he said, “than to let the chemo do it.” I was present for that awful event, and when it happened, I sobbed. I was no stranger to the humming of the electric razor. In the 1980s I would often shave my head as a high school or collegiate swimmer to prepare for the big meet at the end of the season. But those silly haircuts had a purpose. They helped me swim faster. But this haircut was nothing but shame and humiliation. It had no purpose at all. Or did it?

Razed to Life

Before the chemo waged its war on blood and scalp alike,
The ravenous razor snarled away, leaving a head full of spikes.
In the other room I lost my nerve and filed a complaint with the Lord;
Comforting words I had given to others suddenly felt like a sword.

“Why, dear Lord, this man of God, who faithfully fed your sheep—
“The same day losing his pulpit and hair, craving nothing but sleep?”
“He’s frail and weak, Lord, wracked in pain; what does the future hold?”
“Where is your power, God; where is your love, if I may be so bold?”

And then in my gloom a beacon of hope fastened upon my soul:
“Aslan’s razor,” came the reply. “That’s all you need to know.”
Aslan’s razor—what could that mean? Where have I heard that before?
A gem by Lewis, for children, and me, where a Lion loses his roar.

Where they crop off his mane and stab at his heart and leave him for dead in the mud;
Naked, ashamed, and lonely he dies with scoundrels mocking his blood.
But why was he captured and horribly killed, and strapped to a table of stone?
The witch said, “For justice,” but Aslan, “For love—for a treason not my own.”

Well, the world, like Narnia, has children around with questioning tears in their eyes,
Yet the world, like Narnia, has a table that cracked, and a Lion who knows how to rise.
So the death of death in the death of Christ laces every trial with hope,
And the empty tomb declares to us all that the grave will not be our home.

While some use pain to bludgeon our souls and scratch away at our faith,
God in his infinite wisdom and love uses faith to scratch at our pain.
So even today a Lion is heard whenever the gospel is shared,
Telling the story of Christ and his love, showing that God really cares.

“Come!” says the Lion to children of faith. “Ride on my back, and we’ll soar.”
“Come!” says the Lord to children of grace. “Enter my heavenly door.”
“I have a surprise especially for you: I’ve built you a grand destination.”
“A land of delight with no more tears—and evil’s humiliation.”

“Look at my mane! Touch it again! Only one scar remains;
“I keep it around to let people know that death has lost its claims.”
“And look at his hair, flowing again; the razor bows to its glory.”
“Yes, I let you feel pain, but only on earth, to maximize your eternal story.”

6. Here’s a good word from Jon Acuff to end the year. Let it be a micro-motivation for us all: “If you picked up any bitterness this year, don’t miss your chance to put it down this week. Don’t carry last year’s rocks into next year’s garden. Don’t paint next year’s canvas with last year’s colors. Don’t write next year’s story with last year’s words. You might need to choose it 100 times, but leaving bitterness behind is always worth it.” Amen.

7. Two albums today for me to finish out the year in mellow reflection: John Michael Talbot’s Simple Hearts and Enya’s Shepherd Moons. “God Alone is Enough” in the former is a great place to park the soul (as Teresa of Avila captured the best and wisest approach to life), and “Marble Halls” in the latter is a fun place to unleash the imagination (as there’s so much more to this life than riches and material wealth). Love is everything. So, perchance to dream. Also appropriate today is Enya’s “My My! Time Flies!” though we’re way past 2010. 🙂

Stay safe tonight, and Lord willing, we’ll see you in 2022.

Edit: Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem are outstanding as Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz in Becoming the Ricardos. Watched it last night on Amazon Prime after our company departed and the house got quiet for the first time in a long time.

Not Sure How Santa Got This Down the Chimney

I’m not sure how Santa got this thing down the chimney, but I’m glad he did. I’ve never had a power recliner before, but this is a high-end Bassett that’s super sturdy and comfy. 

This wonderful piece of furniture was for yours truly. “Hers truly” got a silver Bach Stradivarius trumpet. This top-tier instrument is stunning and is supposed to be played only with gloves or a hand cloth.

Both are kingdom tools. One is for reading and writing. The other is for praising and worshiping. 

As nice as these things are, the best Christmas present this year (besides Jesus) was the new addition to the family. Samuel didn’t make a peep during the entire Christmas Eve service—even with our brass team belting it out during the opening carols. And, yes, he slept through the sermon! 🙂

Today I got to babysit him for a couple hours while Bethany went to a doctor’s appointment. What a blessing that he lives less than 15 minutes away. I’m utterly smitten with this little munchkin and have to share a few snaps from the past few days.

God’s Delight at Christmas (Luke 2:6-20)

Do you believe it’s possible for God to delight in you? That he loves you? That he takes joy in you? That he treasures you? Many people say, “Not me” in response to such questions. “God could never delight in me. You don’t know where I’ve been, and you don’t know what I’ve done.” 

Maybe not. But we do know where King David has been and what King David has done. For the most part, he was a man after God’s own heart (Acts 13:22), but he also committed adultery at one point during his reign. And then he arranged a murder to cover it up. He stumbled badly on several other occasions, too, leaving him with some awful red marks on an otherwise good report card. 

And yet King David could write, “God rescued me because he delighted in me.” (2 Sam 22:17b). God didn’t delight in David’s sin, but he did delight in David. He was part of the covenant. So, believers today can dare to believe that God delights in us, too. In his famous Christmas carol “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing,” Charles Wesley includes these heart-stirring lyrics:

Pleased as man with men to dwell
Jesus, our Emmanuel.

The truth is, God is more excited about Christmas than we are! He sent his Son into the world for the ultimate rescue. Why? Because he delights in us. In this message, we look at four delights of God at Christmas: 

God delights in SURPRISING us (Luke 2:6-9).
God delights in SAVING us. (Luke 2:10-12).
God delights in SATISFYING us (Luke 2:13-14).
God delights in STIRRING us (Luke 2:15-20).

He does these things through his Son, Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world. He’s the Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed One. He’s the Name above every name. He’s the blessed Redeemer, the Emmanuel—the God-with-us. He’s the Rescue for sinners, the Ransom from heaven. He’s the King of kings and Lord of lords. And he’s the only one who can remove those awful red marks from our report card. Trust in him so that your Christmas can be truly merry.

Sermon Resources:

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

The Mirror in the Manger (Luke 2:25-35)

Life is filled with riddles and illusions. We’re often surrounded by mysteries and conundrums. We can’t always figure out what’s going on around us or why things happen the way they do. Sometimes our minds get confused and we need help to determine what we’re really seeing. Certainly, it’s the case that “we all see from where we stand.” We all have different backgrounds, experiences, families of origin issues, and traumas—and that can affect how we see the world.

Psychologists tell us that sometimes what we’re looking for determines what we see. It’s an interesting observation considering Jeremiah 29:13, where God says, “You will…find me when you seek me with all your heart.” If we honestly look for God, we’ll find him. That’s especially true in the Christmas story. God is all over the story of Christmas. He’s on every page of it. And if we look for him there, we’ll find him. Most of the people who were part of the original story certainly did, although a few did not.

In this holiday message, we ask the question, “What did the original characters see in Christmas?” What was their perspective? How did they see it? And what will we see as we join them around the manger this year? It’s an important question because what we see in Christmas reveals what God sees in us. That’s what Simeon was getting at in his prophecy, “This child is destined…to reveal the thoughts of many hearts” (Luke 2:35). In other words, there’s a mirror in the manger, not just a baby. And that mirror tells us something about what’s inside our own hearts.

Sermon Resources:

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

O Holy Night: Christmas Eve Candlelight Service at 7:00 p.m.

Our Christmas Eve candlelight service will be held tonight at 7:00 p.m., Friday, December 24, 2021, at Christ Community Church in Myerstown, PA. The worship packet is attached below for those who will be live streaming the service. Contact us if you need connection information.

Whether you join us on ground or online, I hope you will be able to participate in this most beautiful service of the church year. Featuring traditional Christmas carols, Scripture readings, and candle lighting, this worship experience will last about 75 minutes and be held at:

CHRIST COMMUNITY CHURCH
Dech Chapel in Evangelical Seminary
121 S. College Street
Myerstown, Pennsylvania 17067

Plenty of parking is available around the building and in the student parking lot. Attendees who are less ambulatory may use the smaller faculty lot along Route 501. The ground floor elevator can then be taken to the chapel, which is located on the first floor. 

Here’s Your Sign: Shepherds and the Swaddled God

“This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:12).

A manger? A barnyard feeding trough? Seriously? Is that where they set the baby Jesus right after his birth? A place where snorting animals just nuzzled their feed and insects are still foraging for food? What a crude cradle for such a lofty child. The old carol asks, “Why lies he in such mean estate where ox and ass are feeding?” 

Whatever the answer to that question, it set the shepherds in motion that night with a message they couldn’t keep to themselves. The swaddled Christ was a dynamic sign to them, so much so that it catapulted them into heralding the good news of his birth to everyone they could find (Luke 2:17). What did they see that we might be missing?

The temple was the center of worship in Israel. Two lambs a day were offered there, along with additional ones on feast days. Where did all those lambs come from? They were bred in the fields of Bethlehem, five miles south of Jerusalem. According to the Torah, sacrificial lambs had to be perfect. They had to be spotless and without blemish, or they couldn’t be offered.

The most vulnerable time of a lamb’s life is right after its birth. Like many animals, they’re unsteady on their feet, and they can slip and fall quite easily. Consequently, ancient shepherds had a custom to prevent injury. Right after the birth of a lamb, they would wrap it tightly in strips of cloth, placing it in mounds of hay so it wouldn’t bruise itself. If it did, it couldn’t be used in worship.

But these weren’t just any old cloths that encased the new lambs. The shepherds got the material from Jerusalem. They were the old white linen robes worn by priests during the daily ritual at the temple. After regular use, the priestly garments got so covered in blood, sweat, and filth, they had to be swapped out for new ones.

Normally, the priests didn’t throw out their old garments. They were semi-sacred, so there was a protocol for decommissioning them—much like our country’s old flags. The military doesn’t throw them away; they remove them from circulation with ceremonies for honorable disposal. The same was true for the old priestly garments. The Levites decommissioned them and sent them to Bethlehem so the shepherds could swaddle their newborn lambs with them.

This will be a sign to you,” the shepherds were told (Luke 2:12). Later that night they saw a human lamb wrapped in faded blood-stained garments. To the Bethlehem shepherds, such a sight would have been loaded with significance. “Here’s the Lamb of God who will put an end to all your sacrifices and take away the sins of the world. He will be the bloodied and unblemished priest who will purchase your salvation. That’s how much you are treasured by the Lord.”

God was speaking the shepherds’ language. He was saying, “Here’s your sign,” and they understood it. Later theological reflection in the New Testament would take up this theme of Jesus as the Lamb of God, but the shepherds saw it first. Deep down, they knew God had just shown them their own value by giving them the most valuable thing he could give—his own Son. 

Christmas, then, is God bankrupting heaven to put a price tag on earth. No wonder Paul wrote, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9).

Yes, Jesus came to “save his people from their sin” (Matt 1:21), but that’s because a marred masterpiece is still a masterpiece. Indeed, three times in the Gospels Jesus called his people “valuable” (Matt 6:26; 10:29-31; 12:11-12). Moreover, he said we could never trade our souls for the whole world without us somehow being cheated in the transaction (Mark 8:36). 

To the God who made us, we are worth the price of restoration. That’s why Paul calls us God’s “workmanship” or “poetic artistry” (Eph 2:10). God is restoring his people to the original beauty and goodness we had from the beginning.

On that first Christmas, the Master Artist painted himself into our canvas, landing by design in a manger and subjecting himself to all the cruelties we humans brought into the picture. And now he restores us from the inside out—in more ways than one. 

May your own soul feel its incredible worth this holiday season. Indeed, there’s no other way to be truly merry at Christmas.

O Holy Night, Part 4: Chains Shall He Break (1 Corinthians 7:17-24; Ephesians 6:5-9)

It’s easy to overlook the fact that God entered the human race through a descendant of slaves. Every slave who has ever lived, then—whether in physical shackles or some other kind of bondage—has a friend in Jesus. He can identify with the struggle, which is a tremendous source of encouragement to the oppressed of this world.

Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother
And in His Name all oppression shall cease.

Cappeau’s reference in verse 3 of “O Holy Night” to the equality of all persons, whether slave or free, got the song banned by the church hierarchy in the early years of its popularity. Congregations all over Europe, however, sang it anyway. Such was the French revolutionary spirit. In a qualified sense, St. Paul may have agreed with that sentiment, having written to the Corinthians, “Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so” (1 Cor 7:21).

Once again, Sullivan Dwight’s theology—not Cappeau’s lyrics—drives the English translation. Dwight elevates an important biblical ethic (viz., loving others and standing against oppression), but he eliminates part of the gospel in the process. Lost in Dwight’s translation in v. 3 is:

  • The concept that Christ, the Redeemer, has already broken all shackles
  • The concept that Christ has already freed earth and opened heaven
  • The concept that Christ was born, suffered, and died for all humanity
  • The concept that gratitude is a proper response to this good news

Dwight really did a hack job on Cappeau’s lyrics. And yet what remains is true and beautiful. In this particular message, we focus on two admonitions to two groups of people: (1) to those under authority—remember the contentment of Christ; and (2) to those wielding authority—remember the kindness of Christ. Indeed, we can begin to conquer our own sense of oppression by adjusting our attitudes even before adjusting our circumstances.

In the end, we celebrate the fact that God entered the human race through a descendant of slaves to set us free. Consequently, no one who knows Jesus can ever live perpetually with a victim mentality. 

Sermon Resources:

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

O Holy Night, Part 3: He Knows Our Need (Hebrews 2:9-18; 4:15-16)

Verse 2 of “O Holy Night” contains these two lines: “In all our trials born to be our Friend! / He knows our need—to our weakness is no stranger.” These concepts are biblically true and spiritually encouraging. Once again, however, the translator’s theology, not the original lyrics, are driving the carol’s rendering into English. 

Lost in translation is the sinful pride of humanity for which Christ came to die as an atoning sacrifice. But by eliminating the reference to human brokenness, the good news is not as good as it could be. For example, it’s certainly amazing that a holy God would befriend sinful people, but that’s amazing precisely because in our natural state, we were first his enemies (cf. Rom 5:8).

What the translator did is what so many people try to do today—keep the good news of the gospel while eliminating the bad news that it answers. But if there’s no bad news, what is it that makes the good news good? The lack of a contrast renders the word “good” almost meaningless in such a context. It’s like the medical community announcing a great cure for some disease nobody has. So what?

Christmas is the announcement that God has a great cure for the spiritual disease everyone suffers from—the disease called sin. It’s a condition that manifests itself preeminently in human pride, as the author originally wrote. And pride needs to be confronted by the preaching of the gospel. So, yes, God knows our need, and let’s not minimize that need. By properly understanding it, we better appreciate God’s solution for it, and the lengths to which he went to deliver it to us on that first Christmas.

“He knows our need—to our weakness is no stranger.” Our passages from Hebrews 2 and Hebrews 4 bear that out. God cares about our physical needs, our emotional needs, and our spiritual needs. Indeed, Christmas shows that God cares about our every need. He is attentive to our condition because he loves us. And his love for us is why he sent us his Son (John 3:16).

That’s why Jesus came. He would go on to suffer and die in our place on the cross. He made our hell his so that he could make his heaven ours. Our response of faith to such amazing grace is to “walk as Jesus walked” in this regard. God’s people cannot be indifferent toward other people’s physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. We serve humanity because the ultimate human served us. To our weakness that ultimate human—Jesus—is no stranger. So let us not be a stranger to him.

Sermon Resources:

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

Cookies, Stockings, and All the Holly Jolly

1. It’s cookie making time chez nous. On the menu this year are decorated sugar cookies, peanut butter blossoms, and chocolate chip cookies. We may even try a batch of pizzelles on our new iron. We’re a bit behind in decorating and baking this year because of the recent new addition to our family, so we’re trying to keep it simple. Fortunately, we’re catching up fast, and we’re almost back on schedule. Alas, red and green sugar sprinkled on round sugar cookies may have to suffice this time around in lieu of the shapes and the icing.

2. Speaking of the new addition, I had to add a stocking to the mantle over the fireplace this year. The occasion was just another opportunity to shed a few more tears of joy in the process. (Yes, we INTJs can extrovert our F; we just tend to do it privately. But it’s no less deep than folks with other MBTI combinations.) Samuel could probably fit into his stocking at this point! Talk about a great gift!

3. With the dissertation, the end-of-semester grading, caring for a relative with Alzheimer’s, and helping a new mother adjust to the new normal, it can feel a bit overwhelming at times. But I’m choosing to keep the jolly in the holly at all times. What’s the alternative? Besides, the gift of new life has provided great joy this year and a certain re-orientation to priorities, so some deadlines will just have to wait—especially those I impose on myself. I’ll get stuff done when I get it done. 

4. Sadly, I won’t be able to write and post a bunch of Christmas devotionals this year like I did last year, so I’ll probably just write a single new one and post it next week, perhaps Wednesday. I may also re-post the one that got all the hits last year (“Have Yourself a Snarky Little Christmas”). We’ll see. If the cookies turn out o.k., I may post a few pictures of those as well. Other than that, I’ll just look at all the wonderful posts you supply this year! 

5. The Christmas Eve sermon this year is called, “The Mirror in the Manger” from Luke 2:35. What a night it’s going to be. My family always joins me at the front for the closing hymns in the candlelit darkness, and this year we’ll have a new singer. (We should probably teach SamJam that line about Jesus—“no crying he makes”!) The beauty of the Christmas Eve service is rivaled only by the majesty of the Easter morning service. Both convey the earth-shattering love of God to a world that has lost its way.

6. Speaking of love, it really does make the world go round, doesn’t it? It can manifest differently in different seasons of life, and it and can certainly deepen over time, but it never goes away (1 Cor 13:8a; 13). Thank God for that. 💙

Be well, everyone. And have yourself a merry little Christmas.

O Holy Night, Part 2: And the Soul Felt Its Worth (Matthew 6:26, 10:29-31, 12:11-12)

Do you feel valuable? Significant? Important? Not in the sense of an over inflated ego or an attitude of superiority toward others—but in the sense that you matter, that your presence here on Earth is significant, that when you make a footprint in the sand it means something?

We meet people on a regular basis who are down on themselves, down on hope, and down on life. And, really, all of us have some regrets, disappointments, failures, and wrong turns that we’ve made in our day. Consequently, as life unfolds, we sometimes feel used, abused, abandoned, and confused. We feel cheapened. Sometimes we even feel worthless.

Life has a way of leaving its skid marks on our soul. It has a way of drawing its map on our face, and those lines cut deeply—not only into the skin, but into the heart. Sometimes it’s because other people have been cruel to us. Sometimes it’s because life has simply dealt us an unfair hand. Sometimes it’s because we ourselves have made poor choices.

We get involved in worthless pursuits, and over time we feel worthless ourselves. As it says in verse 1 of “O Holy Night,” “Long lay the world in sin and error pining.” Sometimes it gets so bad for us personally, we don’t even feel valuable to God any more, the one who made us. We say things like…

  • “God could never love me.”
  • “God could never be pleased with me.”
  • “After what I’ve done, God could never consider me valuable.”

Such thoughts are understandable, but they’re also wrong. Three times in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus states that human beings are “valuable” (Matt 6:26, 10:29-31, 12:11-12). Moreover, the value of something is determined by what somebody is willing to pay for it. I first learned that lesson on eBay about 10 years ago. I was trying to get a few things from my childhood Christmas—silly decorations, like ShinyBrite Christmas ornaments, little red pixie dolls, Santa pins with noses that light up when you pull the string. I kept getting outbid, so I wound up going to my maximum bid right away. I refused to be outbid by anybody! 

Now, all of those objects were old, dirty, and defective, and probably meaningless to most people—but I was willing to pay top dollar for them. Why? Because I wanted them. They were valuable to me. If the value of something is determined by what somebody is willing to pay for it, then look at what God himself was willing to pay for us. When we begin to do that, we quickly realize that God could not have paid a higher price for us than he did.

God the Father bankrupted heaven for us on that first Christmas. That’s why Christmas happened in the first place. God wanted so much for us to become part of his family that he became part of ours. We can all be glad the song doesn’t end with, “Long lay the world in sin and error pining.” It goes on to say, “Till he appeared and the soul felt its worth.” Take a listen to this message, and dare to believe that your soul can feel its worth, too!

Sermon Resources:

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

O Holy Night, Part 1: From Muddled Mess to Beauty (Isaiah 40:1-5, 61:1-3)

The hauntingly tender Christmas carol “O Holy Night” has a strange and fascinating history. Indeed, the version we have in our hymnbooks today was the result of a joint effort among individuals who would by no stretch be considered orthodox Christians. 

  • The lyrics were written by a lapsed Catholic.
  • The score was written by a non-practicing Jew.
  • The piece was first sung in public by a popular opera singer.
  • The English translation came from a transcendentalist who denied basic biblical doctrine.
  • The official church hierarchy originally opposed the song even though congregations loved it and demanded that it be sung.

That’s only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how this alluring carol came to our ears today. Yet for all the twists and turns in its strange and bumpy journey—not to mention its wildly loose translation into English—the result is truly beautiful. In fact, it’s just not a Christmas Eve service if we don’t sing “O Holy Night.”

The carol itself, then, can be seen as a helpful illustration of life itself. We, too, experience many zigs and zags on the way to our divinely intended destination. But God can take the broken pieces of our lives and shape them into a beautiful mosaic.

We do much the same with stained glass windows. We gather sharp and broken pieces of colored glass and fit them together with design and intentionality to tell the Jesus story. The God of the universe does the same with his people. He tells the story of Jesus and his love through the order and design he brings to our chaotic lives. God’s gracious work in us is “a thrill of hope” for which “the weary world rejoices.”

Sermon Resources:

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

A Million Dreams Are Keeping Me Awake

Just a little bit of this and that as I take a brief break from the books.

1. Fall is magical. As Khalil Gibran has said, “Trees are poems that the earth writes upon the sky.” In a similar vein, Ralph Waldo Emerson has said, “The earth laughs in flowers.” (See what I did there? Vein…) 🙂  Anyway, the crisp colors and beauty of this season always refresh my soul.

2. Speaking of laughter, six-year-olds laugh an average of 300 times a day. Adults only laugh 15-100 times a day. Be six again. (O.k., feel free to accuse me of being silly—but only after you read Proverbs 17:22. Life is too short to be curmudgeonly all the time.)

3. Martin Niemöller’s robe and preaching collar are now the property of the seminary where I work. I hope to do a short post on that in the near future. Niemöller is not really a household name, but he should be. (“They came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew….”) See, I can be un-silly, too.

4. “I can’t imagine a man really enjoying a book and reading it only once.” So said C. S. Lewis. Amen to that! Which books do you find yourself re-reading? Oh, you don’t read? As the adage goes (often misattributed to Mark Twain), “A person who won’t read has no advantage over one who can’t.”

5. The Phillies are just two games back. Why do they always get close enough to give us hope but linger far enough behind to break our hearts? Fortunately, it doesn’t sting as much as it used to. While I thoroughly enjoy the game of baseball, I’m no longer a fan of professional sports.

6. On a happier note, SamJam (Samuel James) is just two months away from coming into view. I suppose I’ll be more of a puddle than usual this Christmas, getting to hold a newborn and all. This little guy is just the third blood relative I will have gotten to meet on the planet. What an honor!

7. Speaking of Christmas, I probably won’t be able to write too many original posts this year on the Incarnation—one of the richest, deepest, most profound subjects we could ever ponder. So, I’m thinking of doing some re-posts of the more popular ones I’ve done over the past few years. Since that almost feels like cheating, I’m hoping to write at least one original post this year. 

8. My Advent series this year will focus on the history and theology of the carol “O Holy Night.” I did my own translation of it several years ago and discovered that the English version is way off the original French. Nevertheless, the lyrics are still poignant, and the tune is hauntingly beautiful. My favorite line is, “Till he appeared and the soul felt its worth.” This concept is the next unit for two of the seven classes I’m teaching this semester. The Scripture pulsates with the sentiment, though we often try to obscure it. As Karen Salmansohn put it, “When you realize how much you’re worth, you’ll stop giving people discounts.”

9. Finally, here are two songs for your weekend pleasure. The first is Disturb’s cover of “The Sound of Silence,” a song about incommunicability. It’s really a lament about individuals who are physically close to each other but still separated by their inability to communicate. They speak without expressing any substantive content, and they hear without really listening. The realm of silence, into which the noisy nothings of this world often crash, is painful to the author.

The second song is much brighter. It’s the One Voice Children’s Choir performing “A Million Dreams” from The Greatest Showman. I love this group of young people, and I find the musical itself quite entertaining. In fact, my son and I have talked about doing a Friday night sing-along of the whole show. (All recording devices will be confiscated before we push play on the DVD!)

Thanks for reading. And have a lovely weekend!

P.S., Hurricane “Sam” is headed to the East Coast. Yeah, we knew that. (See #6 above.) 🙂

Random Thoughts the Day After

1. Proverbs 26:20a says, “Without wood a fire goes out; without gossip a quarrel dies down.” The message is clear enough. You want to minimize contention? Then stop talking for a while. Our nation should try it. The last thing anyone needs right now is another opinion on social media, which can only become fuel for the dumpster fire that has become political discourse in our country. As such, I will say very little today. De-esclation is sorely needed after yesterday’s riot and storming of the U.S. capitol by protesters. There’s “a time to be silent and a time to speak” (Eccl 3:7b), and I will stay largely silent for right now.

2. What I will say is the obvious—what everyone should be able to say across the board without equivocation: I condemn violence and destruction in the attempted furtherance of any political agenda, whether it comes from the left or the right. I also condemn the hot, biased, and inflamed rhetoric of our corrupt media. They are as guilty as any politician or protester. Alas, I’m not optimistic that they will do any self-reflection in this crucial moment.

3. For now, I have said everything I wish to say about politics here. Additionally, Carey Nieuwhof has a good post here on “Why Your Words as a Leader Matter (Far More Than You Think).” There is some overlap there with the study I did on TNL called “Oh, My Word.”

4. One of the joys of teaching at the master and doctoral levels is the depth and quality of work from my students that I get to review on a regular basis. I’ve been fed and inspired by projects submitted for my courses in preaching, ecclesiology, semiotics, outreach, and Old Testament. The students really hit it out of the park this semester. I’m also looking forward to serving as a member of the dissertation committee for three Th.D. students over the coming months. Not only are their topics fascinating, their passion and scholarship are coming together in such a way that I get to be the beneficiary of their labors.

5. Is it “de-decorate” or “un-decorate”? I’m not sure, but the time has come. Epiphany Day has passed, although the season remains for a little while longer. Putting the Christmas decorations away has always made me a bit melancholy. And this year we can’t have our Epiphany party for the neighborhood because of the virus. (Even this introvert misses that special get together.) Were it not for the bright sky today, I’d probably be sitting in the sad seat. So, let’s hear it for the appearance of the sun! Time to go out and make my FitBit happy, not to mention my spirits.

6. One last thing for now. We’re finally singing “The Blessing” this Sunday at church. I’ve already written about that song in this space, and I’ll post it again soon as it will be new for most of the folks in our congregation. “May his favor be upon” each and every reader of TNL, especially now since my frequency of posting has to drop for a while. Ugh!

The Lord bless you and keep you
Make his face shine upon you
And be gracious to you
The Lord turn his face toward you
And give you peace

A Bonus—Just for Grins

My son and I had way too much fun with this comic. We’re not sure if the two guys are to be understood as skinheads, or if the bear is to be understood as a butt-head. Either way, it…uhm…cracked us up.

Image Credit: pexels.com

Random Thoughts at the Close of a Challenging Year

“I played my best for him, pa rum pum pum pum.” 


1. Christmas Day has passed, and members of the extended family have all returned home. The house is quieter now (always a delight to us introverts, though still a bit depressing after all the excitement), but the Christmas season continues through January 5 on the liturgical calendar. Epiphany Day is Wednesday, January 6, and the season after the Epiphany extends through February 16, which is the day before Lent begins. Normally we would leave our decorations up and have an Epiphany Party for church members and the neighbors, but the virus makes gathering a real problem right now, so I’m not sure when the decorations will go back into hibernation.

2. The general theme of the Epiphany and the season that follows is Jesus’ manifestation of himself as deity. (The word “epiphany” comes from the Greek word for “manifestation” or “appearance”). In lectionary churches, Bible readings and sermons during this time of year typically deal with Jesus’ identity. In the eastern Church, Epiphany commemorates the baptism of Christ. In the western Church, Epiphany commemorates the natal star and the arrival of the Magi, with the following week focusing on Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River. So, there is much for believers to look forward to, and any post-holiday spirits that are flagging can be reinvigorated by these great truths. In my experience, emotions can be like sine waves for many people (myself included); they go up and down in patterns, sometimes exhausting us in the process. Thankfully, Christ is the steady, unchanging “x-axis” that cuts through all the motion and commotion. That’s not a cliché; it’s an anchor for the soul when we’re feeling blue.

3. The civil calendar is fast heading toward January 1, which is New Year’s Day for most of the world. We find ourselves, then, living in between high moments. I suspect many people this year will be welcoming the calendar change from 2020 to 2021. That’s understandable, as a lot of awful things have happened this year. At the same time, believers are instructed to “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:2-4). That’s easier said than done, but it does mean that God always has a purpose in the our pain.

Whew! We’re almost done with 2020. Can I get an “Amen!”? I can’t help thinking of the title of that Barry Manilow song, “Looks Like We Made It.” Just 14 more hours by the time this article is posted.

4. Yes, God is always up to something good, even in the challenges we face. And, of course, he’s always faithful to his people in the midst of those challenges. I’ve been thinking of Matt Redman’s song “Never Once” as I look back on 2020 as a whole. It’s a good reminder that God has never abandoned us—not once.

Scars and struggles on the way
But with joy our hearts can say
Yes, our hearts can say

Never once did we ever walk alone
Never once did You leave us on our own
You are faithful, God, You are faithful

5. As I look back on the fourth quarter of 2020, and especially the month of December, I do so with a good deal of gratitude and satisfaction. It’s been a joy to put more time and energy into This New Life, establishing a number of templates for future posting. I especially enjoyed preparing the articles I did that focused on the Incarnation—one of my favorite theological topics to research and ponder. I’ve never been a huge fan of “The Little Drummer Boy” song, but I’ve been thinking about one line in it for several days now: “I played my best for him, pa rum pum pum pum.” What do I have to offer my Lord except what he’s already given me? Absolutely nothing! Moreover, there’s not a single thing he ever needs from me—a mere human being with faults and flaws all over the place. He is, after all, the sovereign king and creator of the universe; he has no needs.

But he does accept our gifts when we offer them in sincerity of heart—like parents who open a small, homemade present from their young children on Christmas morning. The parents’ delight in that moment is not manufactured; it’s a genuine response of gladness to the relationship, more so than the intrinsic value of the thing itself. It was the love with which the gift was made that sparks joy in the parents. I have a few things like that from my own kids, and they’re precious to me.

Looking back on this past month, I can honestly say, “I wrote my best for him,” seeking to honor and somehow articulate the incomprehensible miracle that is Christmas. Jesus doesn’t need my pen, but I gladly give it in service to him, as I can think of nothing more incredible to write about. My earnest hope is that he was pleased with my literary drumming. (And I hope it didn’t keep baby Jesus awake!)

6. Perhaps there is one thing more incredible to write about than Christmas, and that’s the other end of Jesus’ earthly life, where on the cross something truly astonishing happened: “God made him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in him” (2 Cor 5:21). When that kairos moment took place, the veil in the temple was torn from top to bottom—a highly symbolic and theologically rich act of God that will be the focus of my dissertation. My broader work on Israel’s tabernacle has been narrowed down to explore the significance and implications of that one incredible portent at Herod’s temple in the first century. What exactly happened? Why did it happen? Why does it figure so significantly in the book of Hebrews? What does it mean for us today? 

7. So, my research and writing efforts must now shift to that project during the first part of 2021. It will be labor intensive, so I need to disappear from TNL for a while—though not completely. I’ll continue posting a few things from time to time, but not as much as I have been these past several months. I’ll keep scanning my favorite blogs when I can (because I love your stuff, and it gives me hope and inspiration!), but I won’t be able to generate as much content for a while—just sermon summaries, classroom handouts, weekly songs in the sidebar, and occasional updates and fun stuff as time allows. All prayers are appreciated for this new venture, as I cannot do it alone. “No man is an island,” said John Donne, and he was right. So, thanks for your support!

I look forward to getting back in the blogging groove again after this major project is completed, and I can say with Jesus, “It is finished!” 

Love to all in Jesus’ name. Be blessed on your journey in 2021.

God will not abandon us.

UPDATE: WordPress stats indicate that my post popular post in 2020 was “Have Yourself a Snarky Little Christmas.” Thanks for reading! Much appreciated!

Happy Taste Buds at Christmas

I may be rolling into the New Year. My sister-in-law, who’s an expert baker, brought a trove of goodies to our house for the Christmas break. Alas, my tongue is craving more than my stomach can handle. Among her delectable treats are:

  • Pizzelles
  • Pinwheel Snickerdoodles
  • Shortbread Cookies
  • Buckeyes
  • Pecan Tassies
  • Peanut Butter Cookies
  • Yule Log Cake Roll
  • Chocolate Covered Pretzel Sticks
  • Butterscotch Smoothies
  • Other Assorted Cookies

Joan is a high-power exec at her company, so it’s a wonder she has the time to do all this work. And not just do it but do it well. Her husband John is an expert bread maker and a boss at the grill. So, I’m raising the white flag today because I can’t come close to competing with these skills. (Not that this is a competition.) 

I will say, however, that my peanut butter blossoms—topped with Wilbur buds—are right up there in taste. And, as I like to say: Chocolate is proof of God’s existence. Peanut butter is proof of God’s power. And the two together are proof of God’s goodness.

All of this divinity, however, is giving me a sugar headache!