Redeeming Grace

Silent Night, holy night; Son of God, Love’s Pure Light; Radiant Beams from Thy Holy Face; With the dawn of Redeeming Grace; Jesus, Lord, at Thy Birth; Jesus, Lord at Thy Birth.

Taking a 5-year-old boy, who is the living definition of perpetual motion, to an orchestra and choral concert while he is in the throes of Christmas excitement was perhaps not entirely bright. But we did. The boy crawled all over my lap, conducting the orchestra in his own way, falling to the floor on occasion, and playing with my hair most of the time. Between my own incessant shushing and his commentary about the songs and sights, it is amazing that a) we were allowed to stay and that b) we got anything out of the concert at all. But we did. After all, this was the Cleveland Orchestra and Chorus – perhaps the best orchestra in the US if not in the world.

The concert opened with a rendition of O, Come All Ye Faithful that was both melodiously traditional and hauntingly new. When we got to Joy to the World and the audience was asked to join in, a thought struck me. It was fleeting due to my son and his gymnastics, but it was a coherent thought and it went something like, “Wow! This is a Christmas concert in the truest sense of the word! Celebrating the true meaning of Christmas! Here is an orchestra and chorus and audience singing a Christian hymn of praise in a very secular, public place. Cool!” And then I had to disengage from the thought and the moment to prevent my son from crawling under the seats.

Shortly thereafter, I was relieved to hear the familiar opening bars of Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus. We can stand! Hallelujah! I leaned over to my daughter to explain to her that when King George II of England heard this music for the first time he was so moved that he had to stand and that because no one may sit when the king is standing everyone has been standing for the piece ever since. (I’ve also heard that he had nodded off, and when the first trumpet sounded out the notes of the Hallelujah Chorus, George awoke with a start and jumped to his feet. Others have suggested that as the head of the Church of England, George would have been very aware of the Jewish tradition of standing for hymns of praise and therefore was a) complying with tradition and b) accepting his own secondary status before the true king of the universe, Jesus Christ.) And then the thought hit me again. “Wow! Look at us all! Standing and praising God and heralding Jesus Christ as the Lord of Lords and the King of Kings!” My mind swept back to Peggy Noonan’s opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal on Saturday.

Like so many of us, Noonan tried to explain or analyze what just happened in our country, what the events of Sandy Hook Elementary really mean. She commented on how people across the US are not following the story and its every detail like they have in the past. “Too depressing,” she quotes their explanation for tuning out. “Because it’s too painful now, because they’re not sure anything can be done to turn it around and make better the era we’re in. This new fatalism is… well, new. And I understand it, but there’s something so defeated in turning away, in not listening to or hearing the stories of the parents and the responders and the teachers.” There have been a lot of Facebook posts and Twitter tweets talking about the impact of our nation turning its face away from God, suggesting somehow that because we’ve asked people to refrain from public prayer, public displays of religion, and the public teaching of biblical morality, we’ve turned God out and invited in the devil at the worst or at least a grey no-man’s-land of political correctness and individual morality that has actually created a moral abyss. This national sense of despair Noonan is sensing may in fact be because we, in turning away from God, have become hopeless. As she suggests, our nightmares are coming true and the optimism, hopefulness, and perpetual innocence of our grandparents is being shaken by current events. Where do we turn to for hope if we’ve asked God to leave?

Yet, here I was with over 2000 people, packed into Severance Hall, standing for the Hallelujah Chorus. Was this a moment like the one in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation where Grandma Bethany who, when asked to offer a blessing over the Christmas Eve feast, recited the Pledge of Allegiance? Did they stand because it is a tradition that has little meaning but that is followed to the letter simply for traditions’ sake? Or were the people standing in awe of the one King of Kings and Lord of Lords? Was this a midwestern phenomenon? Would such concerts be played this season at Radio City Music Hall, Carnegie Hall, or in any other of the big concert halls of our country? Or was this a prime example of President Obama’s statement about the Midwesterners who tend to cling to their guns and their religion (well, maybe not guns, although since Ohio is a conceal-carry state, perhaps there were a few guns in the audience)?

Fleetingly, I marveled at the freedom of the moment. After reading Noonan’s piece in the Wall Street Journal, I had glanced at a headline of another opinion piece. “The Most Persecuted Religion” written by Abraham Cooper, John Huffman, and Yitzchok Adlerstein, claims that of the 193 nations on our planet, 131 nations harbor either individual groups or governments that are openly hostile to Christianity and its believers. The article discusses how there are groups in places like Nigeria who are practicing Nazi pogrom style selection, singling out Christian people for slaughter. It reminded me of a speaker I once heard who told of a meeting with a Chinese lady. This American had worked closely with the woman for years on psychological studies. Neither had ever publicly acknowledged the other as a fellow believer for fear of repercussions. But during their first meeting in the United States, the two were able to embrace moving the woman to tears. Why? Because she was so happy to be with a fellow believer, safely. And here I was, at a public concert, quite openly celebrating Christ. Hallelujah!

The concert closed with Silent Night. The stage was bathed in candlelight and the twinkle of strands of Christmas tree lights hanging from the ceiling. Robert Porko, who directed the orchestra and chorus for this concert, asked the audience to ponder the recent current events as they listened to the words and sang along to this beloved hymn. He had previously joked with Santa about the Fiscal Cliff and the Debt Ceiling, about repealing Santa Care (which stood for unlimited cookies for life), and about the ever-bumbling Browns football team. Porko added Newtown to that list of things to ponder. Like Noonan, it seemed he sensed a national need in the midst of crisis after crisis to return to the one who offers unlimited hope. And then, in the third stanza, it hit me. Silent Night, holy night; Son of God, Love’s Pure Light; Radiant Beams from Thy Holy Face; With the dawn of Redeeming Grace; Jesus, Lord, at Thy Birth; Jesus, Lord at Thy Birth.

Redeeming Grace, the grace that is redemptive, the way we should treat each other. This is a great big God saying, “Hey, you bunch of screw-ups, I love you and I’m going to save you.” This is joy beyond measure translated into handling each other with grace, with mercy, with peace. This is holding Christmas in our hearts. This is forgiveness for the little screw-ups and for differences of opinion and for each other’s foibles and tendencies and idiosyncracies. This is hope. Once upon a time, America was viewed as a city upon a hill, set apart, shining holy hopeful light on the valleys below. President Obama recently commented that we are no longer a Christian nation. But what I see happening is that perhaps we don’t quite agree. Perhaps Christmas needs to mean a little bit more to us all, that we are beginning to wake-up from our nebulous gray cloud of moral turpitude, from our politically correct stupor to say, as Noonan put it, quoting Eugene Kennedy, “We are like King Arthur’s knights, entering the forest each day without a cut path, and ‘finding our way through is what we are called to do.’ Here… faith offers not an explanation but the only reliable guide. Jesus said, ‘I am the way.’ That is not a metaphor.”

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Through our holiday sales this year, and thanks to you for your amazing support, we at Compassion Tea will be able to offer redeeming grace in the form of life-saving medical care to countless people in Africa. Extending the hand of love, God gave us Jesus. Extending the hand of love, we in turn give care and love to our neighbors in Africa. Hallelujah!

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Fear Not!

Have you seen the weather forecast for next week? Meteorologists are calling for a high of somewhere between 937 and 975 degrees on Dec. 21. Talk about a heat wave! Do you know why? Apparently the Mayans determined the date of the end of the world and December 21, 2012, is the golden ticket home.

Does that strike fear into your heart? I saw on Facebook (yes, I know, it is such a reliable source for information!) that people were holding off on buying Christmas presents until after the day of reckoning. As if the money saved can go with them. It’s a laugh what we get excited about, isn’t it.

Yah, not so much. The Mayan prediction raises a specter of fear in many of us. And fear is no laughing matter. Clara came home recently with a book for her book club titled Rowan of Rin. At first I wondered if this was going to be any good at all. Scary dragon on the front? Really? For fourth graders? Turns out it was spectacularly written. Rowan and a band of 6 others from his village must climb a mountain to figure out why the water isn’t flowing into their village anymore. It’s a journey motif for sure. The strong and mighty, the town’s heroes, all succumb to fears suppressed, things like spiders and separation, swimming and claustrophobia. As each of the 6 others face their greatest fears and ultimately bend to those fears, Rowan forges ahead, the unlikely hero. The kids and I talked about what resonated most with each of us, which fear seemed most real. I thought mine would have been climbing through a dark, suffocating tunnel with no light ahead, but the kids more accurately pinned the swamp of memory as my downfall. Plagued by memories, disappointments, and fears, the strongest, most brusque of the band had to turn back after the swamp. Yes, my worries over my kids, my past disappointments and separations coming to haunt me in the mist does sound terrifying… and is not terribly dissimilar to some nights I spend.

Fear is very real to me in ways that I’m not going to discuss right now. But let me say that there are days when it is crippling. The darkness of fear is horrific, like a void, an abscess, a spidery web that fogs and clings and chokes. It is a really dark place, without shadows or even the faintest hint of light. Who of us can’t relate to being completely in the dark? My kids have nightlights and fish tanks to keep their rooms just light enough that they can sleep without fear. What lengths we go through to banish the dark!

I just typed in the word “fear” into the search engine at biblegateway.com just to see what would come up. There are 330 biblical uses of the word “fear,” many of them discussing the importance of fearing God. But there are those favorites like Psalm 118: 5 – “In my distress I prayed to the Lord, and the Lord answered me and set me free. 6 The Lord is for me, so I will have no fear. What can mere people do to me? 7 Yes, the Lord is for me; he will help me.”
Psalm 23 says, “Even when I walk
through the darkest valley, I will not be afraid,
for you are close beside me.
Your rod and your staff
protect and comfort me.”
Or Deuteronomy 31:8 – “Do not be afraid or discouraged, for the LORD will personally go ahead of you. He will be with you; he will neither fail you nor abandon you.”
And Joshua 1:9 – “This is my command – be strong and courageous! Do not be afraid or discouraged. For the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.”
And 2 Timothy 1:7 – “For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline.”

Paul, in his second letter to the Corinthians addresses weakness and I apply it to fear which can be a huge weakness. He writes: “I was given the gift of a handicap to keep me in constant touch with my limitations. Satan’s angel did his best to get me down; what he in fact did was push me to my knees. No danger then of walking around high and mighty! At first I didn’t think of it as a gift, and begged God to remove it. Three times I did that, and then he told me,
‘My grace is enough; it’s all you need.
My strength comes into its own in your weakness.’
Once I heard that, I was glad to let it happen. I quit focusing on the handicap and began appreciating the gift. It was a case of Christ’s strength moving in on my weakness. Now that I take limitations in stride, and with good cheer, these limitations that cut me down to size-abuse, accidents, opposition, bad breaks. I just let Christ take over! And so the weaker I get, the stronger I become.”
(2 Corinthians 12:7-10 The Message)

The part here that really stands out to me is how Satan’s angel tried to get Paul down but what happened was that Paul went to his knees… the proverbial posture of prayer. We’re strongest on our knees praying to God.

And then there is the prophet Isaiah who proclaims repeatedly “do not be afraid” because the savior is coming. In chapter 40, he commands, “Shout, and do not be afraid. Tell the towns of Judah, ‘Your God is coming!’” and in chapter 43 he declares, “O Israel, the one who formed you says, ‘Do not be afraid for I have ransomed you. I have called you by name; you are mine….’ Do not be afraid for I am with you. I will gather you and your children from east and west.” And let’s not forget Isaiah 9:2 – “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.”

For one stumbling around in the dark of fear, the promise of light is huge. What is the light? Well, it’s Christmas, right, and under the cover of Santas and snowmen and reindeer and presents and politically correctness, we are, whether we admit it or not, celebrating the birth of light.

I managed to write all of the above yesterday. Ironic. Because today I’m staring in disbelief at an image of a class of elementary aged students being led from the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown CT. Have you seen the image? Did you notice the girl in blue? The one that has sheer terror etched on her face in lines deeper than any child should ever have? That is the look of innocence robbed, of nights that will be forever filled with nightmares and screams, of inconsolable moments of grief. And my heart weeps for that child because that depth of despair is ugly and dark and so, so hopeless. Of course, I weep for the families who have gifts that won’t be opened, stockings hung by the chimney with care but for whom… the child is no longer there. I weep, as we all do, for the senseless, dark evil of it all. Innocence stolen, safety shattered, security battered, beauty ripped to shreds. How? How and why are the questions of the day now. How and why did it happen? How do we prevent it from happening again? Why would someone do this? Why weren’t there stronger… fill in the blanks with where you want to point your finger and scream. It might be at the laws of the land. It might be at the doctors and psychologists and parents and society that allowed this evil. It might be at God. (And that’s ok. He can take it. He is crying too… and hugging those little lives in his arms.) Maybe you just need to point and scream. There will be a lot of that in the coming days. Brace yourself.

I think of the children in Africa, however, where people like Joseph Kony are raping and enlisting children into an army, or where AIDS steals parents from their children leaving them without security, sustenance, hope, or where an accident leaves a child maimed and shunned by society whereas here the child would receive a cast and his or her friends would line up to sign it. I think of the children suffering from malnutrition, malaria, AIDS, TB, parasites, infections who have no medicine or food, who at the early ages are searching for food, running a household, caring for even younger brothers and sisters, for whom childhood is comparatively bleak next to the rosy Norman Rockwell bounty of our children in the States. Yes. Weep we must. For all the innocents.

But must we cower in fear? I will have to continue to take my kids to school, to play practice, to the park, the mall, the movies, and countless other places. In some instances, I will leave them there for a time and will go about my day. Hurried sometimes, frantic even, to get things done. Will I be fearful about letting go?

There’s a story in 2 Kings 6 about the prophet Elisha. Surrounded by the enemy army, Elisha remains calm and asks God to show his friends that He is there. When the friends look around, they see God’s army of angels surrounding them in even greater numbers than the enemy. The kids and I were talking about this story yesterday, celebrating the way God’s angels had safely brought Daddy through his trip to Brazil and had delivered him back to us a bit tired but safe and sound. And it struck me again that there are things going on around us we have no knowledge of, armies of angels protecting us. I know, the question is coming. Where were the angel armies for the kiddos at Sandy Hook? I don’t know. All I can assume is that they were there protecting the other kids, hiding them in the closets and in dark corners. It’s a why we can’t answer. I’ve heard it said that God wasn’t there because we kicked him out of our schools. Uninvited, He turned His back? I don’t believe that is the way of God. He was there. We have no idea how He worked in the school but I know that He was there embracing the little ones who lost their lives and carrying them to Heaven where the terror they just saw vanished forever.

Let’s go back to Christmas. Because that is where we are. Christmas. Actually, Advent, a time of getting ready. Of preparation. Clara asked me the other day what the preparation was for. Why, for the birth of the baby Jesus! At Christmas, we remember that God so loved us that He gave His only son so that whoever believes in Him will not perish but will have eternal life (or nocturnal life as Joseph likes to say). What a gift! The gift of life, the light of hope, the hope of things beyond this broken existence. In Jesus, God fulfilled promises made to a desperate, fearful people who were sick and tired of oppression. After hundreds of years of waiting, those people adapted the promises laid out by the prophets of God to look like an earthly king who would come and conquer and build a kingdom better than any they could dream up. When he did come, he didn’t look like that king. He talked a hard path of loving neighbors, of doing unto others what you would have done to you, of caring for the poor, the widows, the orphans, the oppressed. He ate with sinners, healed the unworthy, traveled with outcasts, and taught that every life is loved by God and worthy of attention, mercy, and justice. And he said that God wasn’t going to let death be the final answer, that we were made to be loved by God, to stand in His presence someday, to glory in His light and love, to never be separated from Him especially not by Satan’s death. After his death on the cross, Jesus came and spoke to his followers, told them that he would be with God, gave them the Holy Spirit to guide them, and assured them that he would come again. The book of Revelation lays out what that is going to look like. My favorite part is where the clouds part and Jesus, more light than anything else, shines out to the tune of thousands of heavenly trumpets and angels on horses ride through the clouds ready to escort the faithful home.

Advent is about this coming too. We celebrate the baby in the manger, yes, but also the Son of God coming again to right the wrongs of this world, to bring justice where humans can’t, to bring solace where humans can’t, to wipe away the tears and the fears and the pains and the pasts and the shame and all the darkness. All of it. Gone. When I stand here, in fear, in shock, completely stalled by evil, injustice, and the overwhelming sense of hopeless helplessness, I fall on my knees and utter the one prayer I can utter. “Lord, bring your kingdom.”

December 21, 2012 may be the end of the world. Because of the promise of Revelation, I say “Hallelujah. Bring it on!”