Thinking Out Loud

December 27, 2013

The Christmas Story in the Gospel of Mark

Filed under: Christmas, Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 8:04 am

This is from Clarke Dixon, a pastor in Cobourg, a city about an hour east of Toronto, Canada. I actually got to hear the first message in this series, The Christmas Story in the Gospel of Matthew, and then at the end he invited his parishioners to read the Christmas story in the second gospel for the following week… Click here to read at source where you’ll also find puppet scripts for the skits that accompanied each sermon.

When I began this series “Christmas According to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John,” I invited the congregation to read through the story of Christmas as found in Mark. I could tell by some smiles that quite a number knew that there is no story of Christmas in Mark, no angels, no shepherds, no wise men, no manger scene, and of course no mention of all the traditions we tend to associate with Christmas. That a Gospel writer would miss entirely the Christmas story can be a good reminder to us that Christmas was not celebrated by the earliest of Christians with the same intensity we do today, much of how and when we celebrate being a matter of tradition rather than of obedience to the Bible. It also serves as a reminder that we ought not to think of the Gospels as “biographies.” A biography will often leave us inspired by a person while at the same time satisfying our curiosity by filling in the details of that person’s life. The Gospel writers will have failed in their quest if we find ourselves only inspired by Jesus, they instead want us to be committed to Jesus, and details can be irrelevant to that purpose. So Mark, likely the earliest written and definitely the shortest of the Gospels spares us the details and leads us straight to “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1 NRSV).

So does this mean that Christmas itself is not in Mark’s Gospel? Consider the following (I have included the passage below for easy reference):

  • Mark 1:2 points us to Malachi 3:1 which refers to the coming not so much of a Messiah figure but actually God Himself. That’s a very Christmasy thought!
  • Mark 1:3 points us to Isaiah 40:3, where again the way is to be prepared for God Himself to come. Again, here is the essence of Christmas, that this Jesus is “God with Us.”
  • Mark 1:4-5 makes reference to a lot of people involved in confession and repentance. If you knew that God was to be on your doorstop tomorrow in all His glory, how would you prepare? It takes neither a Bible scholar nor a rocket scientist to figure out that confession and repentance is best and most natural response to the news of God’s arrival. We see people doing that right at the beginning in Mark’s account and again you can hear that echo of Christmas: “God is coming to us!”
  • Mark 1:7 lets us in on the what John the baptizer knows – He is unworthy of the One who is to come. There is an incomparable greatness in the One who is coming which makes perfect sense if God Himself is that One.
  • Mark 1:8 has John saying that while he can only baptize with water, the One to come will baptize with the Holy Spirit. Who can do that but God Himself? Again, God Himself is coming to us.
  • Mark 1:9,10 points to Isaiah 64:1 where Isaiah prays “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down” (NRSV). Isaiah’s prayer is answered through the miracle of Christmas.

So is Christmas found in Mark? Yes, right at the beginning of his account where you would expect it! Mind you, if you read through the Gospel in one sitting you will have the sense that Mark would rather have us focus on Easter. While the earliest of Christians in New Testament times did not celebrate Christmas, or even Easter the same way we do today, they did celebrate Christmas and Easter – every Lord’s Day. Every Sunday is a special celebration! So Merry Christmas and Happy Lord’s Day!

Mark 1:1-11  NRSV

1. The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way;  3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’”  4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.  6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.  7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.  8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”  9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.  10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.  11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

December 26, 2013

Rethinking a Sanitized Christmas

Filed under: Christmas — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:45 am

This appeared three years ago as a special article to CNN’s Belief Blog. The authors are well-known to readers here: Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove.  This is not the full article, you need to click through to read the remaining two-thirds of the piece.

It’s not all that strange this time of year to see Christians outside in bathrobes, trying to keep a little baby warm in the straw of a cattle trough. (Truth be told, it’s usually a doll; but we get a real donkey from time to time.)

We Christians like to re-enact the birth of Jesus and hear the angels sing again, “Peace on earth, good will toward men.” This is our good news. It feels good when our neighbors pause to listen.

But we rarely tell the whole story. The baby in a manger is cute. The shepherds in their field are quaint. The magi from the east give the whole scene some dignity.

But most of our churches are “seeker sensitive” when it comes to retelling the Christmas story. Our kids don’t dress up like the undocumented workers who do shepherds’ work today. We often fail to mention that Mary was an unwed mother. When we re-create the manger scene, we don’t reproduce the odor. We like to clean the whole thing up a bit. It makes it easier to go home and enjoy Christmas dinner.

As much as both of us love a good meal with our families, we’re pretty sure Jesus didn’t come to initiate a sentimental pause in holiday consumption. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” John’s gospel says. Jesus moved into the neighborhood, and it wasn’t necessarily good for property values.

Christmas reminds us how Jesus interrupts the world as it is to reveal the world as it ought to be. When we pay attention to the story, it exposes our desperate need for a better way. This always makes some people mad.

When King Herod got the news that Jesus had been born in Bethlehem, he issued a national security directive that every boy two and younger should be killed. As we remember this part of the story, we take in the harsh truth that there was and still is a political cost to the incarnation of God’s peaceable love.

[continue reading here]

December 25, 2013

Christmas Story, Rough Edges and All

Rob Lacey was an actor and street performer in England who performed in inner-city London and Manchester, and wrote a book called The Street Bible which was a kind of “highlights reel” of all 66 Biblical books and later became published in America as The Word on The Street. Before passing away all too soon he also wrote a more complete free-style paraphrase of a harmonization of the synoptic gospels that was published in both countries as The Liberator.

Because my wife had taken the time to type out the text for a Christmas Eve service we did, I wanted to include them here for all to read. She made some minor edits to it, and the poem is of other origin, which I can’t trace right now. Remember, this was written for inner-city youth in urban centers in the UK and makes no pretense to be an actual translation.


So how’d it happen? Baby Jesus. The Liberator? You ready for this?

I’ll tell you: his mum, Mary, is engaged to Joe. They’d not had sex yet, but – weird! She’s pregnant! Courtesy of the Holy Spirit.

Focus on Joe. A good guy, trying to do the right thing and he’s desperate to keep this news quiet. The locals would come down so hard on her. He’s working out how best to deliver the “sorry, but it’s off” speech – without the gossip grapevine crashing from overload.

He’s smashing the billiard balls of his best options around his brain, well into the early hours. Finally he drops off and God downloads a dream: An angel saying:

“Joe Davidson, don’t you chicken out of making Mary your wife. I’ll tell you why. ‘Cause it’s the Holy Spirit’s baby. She’ll have a boy, and you’ll put the name Jesus down on the birth certificate. Why “Jesus”? ‘Cause it means Liberator and that’s what he’s going to do for all his people…. liberate them from all the mess they’ve gotten themselves into.”

Joe wakes up and, yes, realizes it was all a dream. But he follows his Angel Orders to the letter and the wedding’s back on as soon as the baby’s born. Joe makes sure the birth certificate reads, “First name: Jesus.”

Meanwhile, in the depths of the Roman Empire, he-who-must-be-obeyed, Augustus Caesar, announces the Big Count. Caesar, the Big Cheeser, wants accurate population stats across the empire. Everyone is expected to trek back to their hometown for the registration.

So Joe Davidson sets off on the 130 km trip down the map, crosses the border and arrives in Bethlehem, Davidstown, in the south. He takes his fiancee Mary, who’s pregnant and showing. Three, four, maybe five days later they arrive and realize someone else is about to cross a border and arrive in Bethlehem.

Crisis! Her waters break! “No vacancy” signs in every B&B window. Decision. Mary has a ‘home birth’ in a livestock shed. She wraps strips of cloth round the baby and uses an animal feeding trough as a cot.

Noisy night, chaotic night
All is alarm, all is fright
Rounded virgin, now mother to child
Wholly infant, so other, so wild
Awake at an unearthly hour
Awake at an unearthly hour

Pull back to the fields outside the overpacked town, focus in on a local Sheep Security Team sitting through their night shift.

One of God’s angels turns up, with brilliant supernatural special FX packing the fields with God’s radiance. The guys are scared stupid.

The angel delivers his standard, “Don’t panic” line then hits them with, “I’ve got great news, great news to bring a smile to every shape of face on the planet. Mark the date in your diaries. Today over in Davidstown there’s a new baby born. Not just any baby – The Baby! The Boss, Liberator God himself, turning up for you in baby shape. You’ll know which baby – he’ll be wrapped up snug and lying in a feeding trough that’s caked with old animal grub.”

Cued to make their entrance on the last line of the breaking news, the whole angel choir turn up and blast out the song:

“Celebrate! Elevate! And on planet Earth, serenity. In your earthly home, shalom for all who have known God’s smile.”

Once the angel choir scoots back up the Heavenly HQ, the Sheep Security Team come out with, “Let’s check it out”. “Yeah, let’s hit the town.” “Search the whole of Bethlehem for this baby.” “God’s put us in the picture – let’s go!”

They leg it and, sure enough, they track down Mary and Joe, then find the baby in his makeshift cot. The next days they fill the pubs with echoes of what they’d been told about this baby. The public pulse is breakneck pace as “Liberator Talk” bounces round the walls of the town. The reactions range from amazed to – well, amazed.

The Sheep Security Team go back to work, talking up God for letting them in on the whole adventure.

And Mary’s reaction? She’s quietly storing away all of this in a safe place in her heart, bringing memories out when ever she has some space to wonder.

December 24, 2013

My December

Filed under: Christmas, personal — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:06 am

Sometimes I’ll be told that I don’t write enough of myself into this blog, so today is an exception. It’s been a rather different December.

Years ago, I wrote a Christmas song that I always performed at least once, somewhere. For the second year in a row, the only audience the song has had was a crude version on YouTube. I’m ever facing the mid-life crisis that my worship-leading and music-performance days are over. Unfortunately, my creativity hasn’t yet died, so I am forever coming up with great church music ideas and absolutely nowhere to execute them, which is rather frustrating. If you need a keyboard player or a bass player, I might be ready to move about now.

A few weeks ago we went to a dessert fundraiser for a dog. There’s a young girl in our church who has an autism service dog, and the dog has been having health problems which has caused the family to incur costs that apparently aren’t otherwise covered. There’s something really cool though about going to a church that would hold a fundraiser for a dog. In many local congregations, that would never get past the idea stage. The dog’s name, by the way, is Jetson

The season can become a time of stress if you try to do everything. This year we opted out of party that’s become a tradition in order to squeeze in something new, a dinner party with the Bible study small group we’ve been attending. We played Telestrations, which is a cross between Pictionary and the game commonly called ‘Broken Telephone.’ Lots of fun, and far more interesting food than you’d find at a church potluck.

This year we attended a Christmas play in which none of the huge cast of actors have any speaking parts. A narrator carries the story and the actors mime their parts where their role parallels what the narrator is saying. A choir at the back of the auditorium sings part of the story as well, but the real work is done by an organist who is playing relatively non-stop for an hour. The narrated story transforms a traditional Anglican church for two nights, and is now in its 54th year.

The Christian bookstore where I work is experiencing something more akin to Passover than Christmas, inasmuch as customers have basically passed us over this year. People are either buying elsewhere, or not buying Christian resources at all. As funny as Passover in December sounds, it’s leaving us without any financial base for the lean months of January, February and March. Like so many other bookstores, we’re getting the sense that the end is near. Thank you, Amazon.

Then there’s the ice storm. I watch the NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams each and every weekday, but weather incidents are always something that happens to somebody else. We tend to think we’re immune to both tornadoes and earthquakes up here in the frozen north; but we do deal with cold. Fortunately, my wife collects oil lamps and we stayed warm while the power was out for 18 hours. My eldest son described her on Facebook as a wise (not foolish) bridesmaid. Like an idiot, I had to ask him to explain the reference. We did lose one tree, though; local readers with a chainsaw should email me.

The storm also meant the cancellation of Christmas Sunday services all across our region. This is the high point in the Christian year; a service that pastors and worship leaders and choir directors and other participants look forward to for twelve months. But it’s also a key Sunday for financial giving because attendance is usually high, visitors are present, and the deadline for getting an income tax receipt is in view. Some churches can ride over a missed Sunday, but the loss of this particular week can send other churches reeling. And no, you don’t necessarily make it up the next week, and the Christmas Eve forecast is for extreme cold.

Next, there is my youngest son having to have all four wisdom teeth removed two days before Christmas. Driving him to the dental surgeon, I felt like the pet owner who tells the dog, “Hey, wanna go for a car ride?” only to be intending something that the dog wouldn’t ordinarily agree with.  From personal experience, I can say that among humans, the males of the species don’t do well with anything involving the loss of blood.

This year my other son is the lead cook at “Christmas Dinner on Christmas Day.” There are now two such events in our area, and given the aforementioned sales drop at my store, we might be helping ourselves to free community dinners more often in 2014. If you don’t have one of these in your community, you should! It’s not just the poor that need this, a lot of people simply don’t want to be alone on Christmas Day. Nor, if the capital ‘C’ church is doing its job, should they be. 

And that same eldest son is at the center of what ultimately might be the most significant thing in this report. We have neighbors who we simply haven’t talked to at all over the past several years. It goes back to a wild party, and a neighbor who called the police, and some teenagers who assumed we had called the police. Without warning, my son bought them a gift card for pizza with a note saying it was something Jesus would want him to do. ‘Wait!” I thought internally, “You’re wrecking the paradigm.” Well last night the woman of the house next door appeared at the door with a pie and a very friendly hello. Peace on earth. Good will to men.

So it’s been a different December. Did I mention we went to a fundraiser for a dog? That never happens.

December 20, 2013

Social Media: Putting Your Best Keystroke Forward

Brokenness

In the forthcoming book Clout: Discover and Release Your God-Given Influence, Jennie Catron writes:

I’m generally a fan of social media. I actively use Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest. I enjoy meeting new people, sharing thoughts and ideas, and having a forum to chatter about the simple things. However, the dark side of social media may be the format to perpetuate the sins of envy and comparison. Social media by nature only give space for us to put our best foot forward. Our most aspirational self is portrayed while our fears, challenges, and unmet desires remain hidden. After all, who wants to follow a constant critic or an endless stream of depressing thoughts?

I think that partly explains the appeal of blogger Jamie Wright. Calling herself “The Very Worst Missionary,” she isn’t afraid to present herself as the anti-role model; the blog almost revels in her failures, until she writes a post like she did recently about her Christmas tree falling over, and it’s just broad enough to include all of us, to bear the weight of all our brokenness.

…I was fighting to find joy this year. I was struggling to make a place for the delight of Christmas because I was wrapped up tight in the pain of loss. When it fell, I was like, “Perfect. That is just effing perfect.” Because this Christmas was already well on its way to Sucksville and an unwilling Christmas tree was just the icing on the Birthday Cake For Baby Jesus. *rolling my eyes*

It’s been a rough one for me and for some of the people I love. Frankly, this is not the most wonderful time of the year for us, at least not this time around.

I’ve noticed this year (probably because I’m having a super lame horrible dumb stupid stupid stupid Christmas) that there doesn’t seem to be a lot of space in our lives for hurting people during the Holidays. But, man, there are a lot of hurting people. There are a lot of people for whom this time of year is sad or bitter, hollow or lonely, or just plain painful.

While some of us are celebrating, others are aching.

While some of us are toasting to long life, others are mourning life lost.

While some of us feast on family time, others are starving to be loved.

The bustle of activity and togetherness in December only serves to make some houses feel all the more empty.

Canadian author Sarah Tun recently posted:

I seem to be in mid-life crisis. At 54 I guess that means I’m running a little behind. I just recently woke up to the fact that I’m over 50, aging and I’ve not accomplished what I hoped to do and time is running out!

The clock seems to be running and I’m slowing down.

My joy is only in the LORD and it is complete in Him. I haven’t slipped from obedience, faith or love for Him. But reason is telling me I need to make a shift in my strategy for living. Not because I’m tired, because I’m not. But because I doubt my ability to achieve what’s in my heart to achieve and I’m not sure how to move forward.

Click the graphic at the top for more (in  different article) from Sarah.

Perhaps that was the appeal of the article I linked to earlier in the week; where an author shares a story she originally planned to keep hidden; one of checking herself into a hospital psych ward, a story which also reminded of a similar brokenness in Shelia Walsh‘s story.

I hadn’t planned on only quoting or mentioning women today, but if this is helpful to someone today; I guess that was God’s plan. However, know that because there are more of them online, men who blog are equally guilty of a lack of transparency, and equally broken, but probably a lot less likely to express it.

December 19, 2013

Simeon: “Now I’ve Seen Everything”

Filed under: Christmas, music — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:58 am

Life is like a box of Christmas ornaments. You never know what you’re gonna get.

I was wondering if I would have time to post anything today, when last night an old friend asked if I would post a particular song on our store’s YouTube channel. The song was the title song on a vintage Canadian Christian album called Simeon by a band called Simeon. So yes, the album, the song and the band all have the same name. The band was the house band at The Master’s Workshop in Toronto, Canada and did studio work for clients during the week and did weekend ministry at Christian concerts.

I was just thinking about Simeon — the one in Luke 2, not the band — just the other day. His speech in Luke 2 is the ultimate, “Now I’ve seen everything.” Eugene Peterson tells the story this way:

In Jerusalem at the time, there was a man, Simeon by name, a good man, a man who lived in the prayerful expectancy of help for Israel. And the Holy Spirit was on him. The Holy Spirit had shown him that he would see the Messiah of God before he died. Led by the Spirit, he entered the Temple. As the parents of the child Jesus brought him in to carry out the rituals of the Law, Simeon took him into his arms and blessed God:

God, you can now release your servant;
release me in peace as you promised.
With my own eyes I’ve seen your salvation;
it’s now out in the open for everyone to see:
A God-revealing light to the non-Jewish nations,
and of glory for your people Israel.

So enjoy this song from the early 1980s.

December 16, 2013

Christian Radio Stations and the True Meaning of Christmas

Christmas Banner 2

Because I spend part of my week in a Christian retail environment, I hear a lot from customers about their frustration trying to buy Christmas cards that contain anything even remotely resembling the Biblical Christmas story, and as I mentioned here a few days ago, the birth narrative from Matthew or Luke is just the beginning of what we, as Christ-followers, would want to convey.  Fortunately, the Christian bookstores — and their online equivalents — are able to offer products that aren’t about Rudolph, or Frosty, or one-horse open sleighs.

So now that we’re into the final countdown to Christmas, I’m at a total loss to understand how it is that the customers who so decry the secularization of Christmas can handle what Christian radio is offering during the final weeks of December. Biblical narrative? Idea that Jesus came to save us? Concept of God incarnate? Some songs, yes; but in many others that are sucking up valuable Christian radio airtime, it’s just not there to be heard.

Now let me say at the outset there are two realities present here.

The first is that successful Christian music artists either feel compelled or are compelled contractually to make a Christmas album. This provides them with extra visibility, extra radio airplay and extra revenue. And I’m sure that these artists really do have deep personal memories of song of these songs from their own childhood years.

Secondly, I realize that for Christian radio stations, they are most likely to attract new listeners at this time of year with a playlist that is more recognizable to the average listener. Maybe some of those new listeners will stick around in January, and hear the Good News in a way they’ve never heard it before. One of my favorite radio ministries is 96five in Brisbane, Australia. They play a mix of Christian and secular family-friendly songs that has earned them top ratings in their market.

Despite both of these realities, I believe there is an expectancy on the part of regular listeners, who are also in many cases financial supporters that the station will take the opportunity to communicate the message of the Gospel at this time of year. Furthermore, I think the broader community feels that in many ways they own lyrics like “Joy to the world, the Lord is come” in a way that they don’t relate to “How great is our God,” and are therefore quite content to stop tuning across the radio spectrum and allow their car radios to stop at any station that’s playing the traditional carol.

I’ve deliberately avoided mentioning names of artists or song titles here, but the one which grates on me (and others) most this year is a recording of a new song called “Merry Christmas, Baby.” Sorry, but there are so many better uses for that three minutes. I realize the song goes into what we might call vertical ‘worship-inclined’ lyrics — lyrics that can be taken two ways — but that isn’t clear to listeners in the context — and title — of the larger song.

There is also an argument for the radio formula where only one song in three is a Christmas song, and listeners traveling to the mall or to family events get to hear the kind of Christian radio that is broadcast the rest of the year, instead of re-branded “Christmas” format that disappears on December 26th. That strategy, is something my Christmas card customers would support. Right now they’re just bewildered.

What’s your relationship to the whole Christian Christmas-album genre?

December 7, 2013

Show Me The Manger

I thought we’d take a break from yesterday’s busy day here at Thinking Out Loud. It’s been a couple of years since this first appeared here. My wife Ruth is a naturally gifted songwriter and singer. Her best writing is often centered on Christ’s birth (Christmas) and death (The Cross).  I hope you enjoy her song.

 

Show me the manger
Show me where life begins again
Show me the manger
Show me where hope and peace come breaking in
Show me the shelter and the family and the faces and the dawn
Of untidy love that’s forever, forever from now on
Once I’ve seen the manger
How could I ever turn away?

Show me the angels
Show me a hint of what Heaven can do
Show me the star now
Show me a flash of forever shining through
Show me the beauty and the glory and the music and the flame
Show me the power of the promise and the power of the Name
Once I’ve seen the glory
How could I ever turn away?

Show me the baby
Though I don’t begin to understand
How such an ordinary baby
Could be God becoming man
Could he be born to live to die to live again?
To be the life, be the way, be the truth, be the plan
Once I’ve seen the baby
How could I ever turn away?

Show me the manger, show me the family,
Show me the angels, show me the star now
But once I’ve seen the Savior,
I will never turn away.

December 25, 2012

Best Wishes for Christmas from Thinking Out Loud

Filed under: Christmas — paulthinkingoutloud @ 6:29 am

Thanks to all of you who make frequent stops here part of your routine. Now grab the kids and ask them to count all the animals in this nativity scene that are not mentioned in the Biblical account of Christ’s birth.

Nativity Calendar Enhanced 2

December 16, 2012

Cliff Richard: Little Town

Filed under: Christmas, music — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 11:25 am

This one is for those of you who do NOT have high speed internet and don’t usually get to watch the videos posted here. The video is simply a single slide, so you’ll not have a problem. I want everyone to be able to enjoy the song.

This song was my first introduction to what is a relative multitude of pop Christmas songs Cliff Richard has recorded. I wrote about some of these here four years ago — here is a link to that article — but didn’t have time to see if all the links are current.

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