Thinking Out Loud

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 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 2, 2013

Connecting to the Bigger Christmas Story

Christmas Banner

For several years now we have either attended or participated in a walk-through re-creation of the Christmas story that takes place in a small village north of our town. In a world of blockbuster budgets and special effects, it always amazes me that people are willing to spend an hour in the variable (usually cold) weather to watch an amateur cast of volunteers do their best at being shepherds, tax collectors, innkeepers, etc. There are about 16 ‘stations’ on the tour for each imaginary ‘family’ to visit, and the event wraps up with an optional hayride followed by hot chocolate or cider and a cookie in the basement of the community hall.

People are drawn to this event. I don’t know what compels people to come. No one has any high expectations concerning the dramatic or musical ability of the participants. It’s like a holy hush falls over each little group of 10-15 people as their guide heads out on the quarter-mile walkabout. People simply receive the story.

The event was started by people concerned that the scriptural version of the story gets lost in all the other narratives that have been layered over what happened in Bethlehem.  Christmas ≠ The Little Drummer Boy, Christmas ≠ Dance of the Sugarplum Fairies, Christmas ≠ Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer. It’s not about mistletoe, fruit cake, or ugly sweaters. The story is not the story of a boy who wants to buy his mom some shoes, a little match-stick girl, a bell causing an angel to “get its wings,”  or Tiny Tim saying “God bless us every one.”  (And nobody “saw three ships” because Bethlehem is land-locked.)

Of course, the purpose of the annual event we attend is to keep alive the real meaning of Christmas. This is the moment in the busy rush of seasonal activities where, figuratively speaking, Linus steps out on the stage to tell the story to Charlie Brown from the second chapter of Luke’s gospel. For about 20 minutes, we’re reminded of something really messy that took place two millennia ago in the farthest reaches of the Roman Empire. Something still a major force in the lives of people today.

But does this repeating of the story from Matthew or Luke really tell the full Christmas story? I wonder to what extent people are able to connect the dots if you don’t prompt them somehow? Something in me wants to put the cookies on a lower shelf (and not the ones that come with the cider). Would preaching a sermonette at the end ruin it? (Or as Jon Acuff would say, juke it; but how do you juke the Christmas story when Jesus is already at the center of it?)

Still, if asked, here is what I consider the real Christmas story:

  • First of all, the centerpiece of the Christian church is Easter, not Christmas. In Matthew and Luke, the narrative receives a total of 39 verses versus 744 for the Easter narrative. (This might be the only sentence on the internet that reads verses versus.)  You can skip the birth story entirely — like Mark and John do — but you can’t ignore the how or the why of Jesus’ death. And resurrection. The baby, the sheepherders, the wise guys, etc., all eventually segue toward an event involving betrayal and brutality. The latter is not the bedtime story that the former is.
  • Second, the Christmas story is part of a much larger story arc. Seen in isolation it really goes nowhere, it’s just a story about a woman and a baby born to an unwed mother in adverse conditions, while she and her fiancee were out of town. Rather, the birth of Jesus needs to be seen as the fulfillment of a promise; the completion of a covenant; the entry-point or heralding of the initiation of a new covenant. Turns out the novella you purchased is part of a series. The little town of Bethlehem scenes were just a trailer for an epic movie.
  • Third, somewhere along the way, you have to introduce the element of who Jesus claimed to be, and how he came to understand his own mission. The holiday celebrated in the western world on December 25th is all about incarnation, and frankly, you either get what that word means, or you don’t get the story at all. Like most Alfred Hitchcock movies, this is the scene where God steps into his own play, the director suddenly has a role, and not a small role. Jesus’ claim of equality of with God makes him appear like someone who is nuts, until you remember the parts about healing blindness, raising the dead, and predicting his own death and resurrection. We’ll avoid the theological differences of opinion on the divinity/humanity question, except to say that if you’re asking the question at all, you get it when it comes to who Jesus really was. And still is.
  • Finally — and there are other things we could introduce, but this is my imaginary sermonette, and I only have ten minutes — I would want to include the idea that this story didn’t end 2,000+ years ago. It continues to this day and (and this is so very important) it demands a response from everyone. The awkward phrasing of the KJV in Matthew 22:24, “What think ye of Christ?” is probably the question that should be on everyone’s lips each December, though you might choose a more modern rendering. The story is not content to have its hearers close the book on the final page. Rather, the book gets stuck open, simmering, percolating, demanding something of each individual with whom it comes in contact. It’s like a computer program you can’t shut down until you respond to a question in a dialog box. It stares at you, and goes, “Well? …Well? …What about it?”
  • And then, in a single sentence, I would squeeze in a mention that the story we repeat is simply Jesus’ first coming; he left us with the phrase familiar to millions of Arnold Schwarzenegger fans, “I’ll be back.”

That, Charlie Brown, is the true meaning of Christmas.

January 11, 2012

Wednesday Link List

Wednesday List Lynx as seen in Australia

Time for another one!

  • Actually going to kick off with an internal link, because when I wrote this review back in May, I never imagined that Kyle Idleman’s book, Not a Fan would do as well as it has.
  • You may have seen Jessica Latshaw in A Chorus Line, or you may have seen her on YouTube singing on the A train in the New York City subway with hair in pigtails. The daughter of a Maryland pastor, JL explains how it all went down.
  • A Danish study shows that victimization of children on the internet is significantly reduced when parents are aware of the kids’ online activity.
  • Buried in one of those articles about all the new laws that came into effect in 2012: “California also becomes the first state to mandate the teaching of gay history. A new law requires schools to include in the public-school curriculum the contributions of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans, along with disabled persons and others…”
  • Mark Driscoll’s book on sex and marriage — which now has a video trailer –  is being overshadowed by Ed & Lisa Young’s latest sermon series and book, Sexperiment. One blog suggests it’s not necessary, while another, Master’s Table, agrees with Internet Monk that it’s hard to think over the noise of the Evangelical circus.
  • I swore we were done with Christmas links, but this is so good and I want to be able to track it down 11 months from now.  This is The Christmas Story as told by the children of St Paul’s Church, Auckland, New Zealand.  HT: Walt Mueller.
  • Matt Chandler offers a gospel-centered interpretation of the story of David and Goliath; and you’re not David in the story.
  • Country music fans: Canada’s Ali Matthews has released the full — nearly six minutes — video of her song Carry Me Home.
  • Hope the churches using older wireless microphones got the message that they now risk fines of over $100,000 US and imprisonment.
  • I’ve heard a number of people talk about the Biblical emphasis on hospitality.  But not so much lately.  I remember Jesus Movement icon Lonnie Frisbee telling me, “The early church fellowshipped from house to house and we fellowship from restaurant to restaurant.”  Here’s a short article to start the hospitality discussion where you live.
  • This just in: Preachers sin.  Who knew?  Some encouragement for those in pastoral ministry from Peter Mead, which is part of a series on issues which can disqualify people from ministry.  And here’s a classic from March I had bookmarked where Peter talks about moralism as preaching element which can strangle the gospel
  • Also for people in vocational ministry, here’s a list of Rick Warren’s ten things to remember as we begin a new year, as reposted at Leadership from The Heart. 
  • And we don’t want to leave out worship leaders: Here’s Chris Vacher’s take on a possible alternative — in some instances — to using CCLI as a source for legal worship song charts and parts.
  • If your church is wrestling with the idea of ditching Sunday morning children’s ministry, you should read this apologetic for Sunday Kid Min.
  • B o n u s :   W a t c h   f o r   m o r e   l i n k s   o n   S a t u r d a y !

December 25, 2011

Show Me The Manger

Filed under: Christmas — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:23 am

Here’s another one of Ruth’s songs.

From our house to your house, Merry Christmas.

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 Saviour,
I will never turn away.

December 23, 2011

Get Your Picture Taken Next to Jesus

Filed under: politics — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 9:29 am

I found this today at the devotional blog Daily Encouragement and am fairly confident that, since it’s rather short, authors Stephen and Brooksyne Weber wouldn’t object to me including it in its entirety. They titled it True Worshipers.

“Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, ‘Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him’” (Matthew 2:7,8). “But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers” (John 4:23).

Here in America we are already in the midst of the next presidential race although the election is still over 10 months away!  Among the hot topics is the pursuit of religious or value voters and regardless of the politician’s political ideology attempts are made by many to use the name of Jesus to gain voters (when the group of potential voters serves their own political interest.)

When catering to a specific voting constituency political candidates jostle to use Jesus, a sort of “getting my picture taken beside Him” approach attempting to convey that “I too worship Him.”  Although only God knows their real heart and motive, many of them hardly pass the “you shall know them by their fruit” test!

Herod was the first to have a political interest in worshipping Jesus.  He feigned interest as he sought the advice of the Magi to find out where Jesus was.   His insincere explanation for needing their advice was so that “I too may go and worship Him.”  However the text goes on to reveal that Herod’s motive was jealousy and the real intent of his search was to find Jesus and kill Him.  He certainly had no plan to worship the newborn King.

The Magi (wise men) however appeared to have the purest of motives in their quest.  They had responded to the star seen from the east (some authorities feel as far away as present Iran) and began a long, arduous journey to seek out the Child.  When they had worshipped Him and gave of their gifts they were instructed in a dream to take another way back, rather than reporting to Herod.

They, along with the shepherds, Anna, and Simeon are the very first true worshipers of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Later, during His ministry, Jesus spoke of “true worshipers” as those who worship God in “spirit and in truth” and taught his hearers, “for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers.”  What about you and me today?  Are we true worshipers, the kind of worshiper the Father seeks?  That’s my heart’s desire today, and I trust that it is yours as well!

~Stephen & Brooksyne Weber

December 18, 2011

An Original Christmas Song

With a busy pre-Christmas schedule eating away at our time, the best I can offer this morning is a feeble attempt to boost the YouTube stats on our modest Christmas song video.

As I wrote last year, “It’s not the musical quality, or the recording quality; it’s just my wife and I with some extra time… and a desire to share with my blog audience a song I’ve been singing somewhere every Christmas for a rather long number of years.

“There’s something about the idea of  being home for Christmas; something about the fact the pace of life slows down for a day or two. No wonder that it’s so difficult for people who are alone on December 25th; being with friends or family seems to define the day.Which is why people where I live have revived the annual “Christmas Dinner on Christmas Day” for people who don’t have close family, or can’t afford all the trimmings of the season; people who don’t have a home to go home to.

“We didn’t have time to do this up as professionally as we might have, but I hope you’ll kick back and enjoy the song and its ideas. Most of the technical work was that of my wife, Ruth; who, on some of this, was learning on the fly. If we could ever cut loose from our individual projects, we could be the Christian version of Pomplamouse!

“Most important, I hope you’ll reconnect with the thought that the familiar birth of Christ narrative in Luke is the start of much, much longer story. One that continues into eternity.”

December 6, 2011

Will This Be a Hit or a Flop?

For our American friends, last night was the occasion of the 47th airing of A Charlie Brown Christmas. 47 years of the same show in an endless repeat. But according to this National Review story, by Lee Habeeb, the show almost didn’t happen:

As far back as 1965 — just a few years before Time magazine asked “Is God Dead?” — CBS executives thought a Bible reading might turn off a nation populated with Christians. And during a Christmas special, no less! Ah, the perils of living on an island in the northeast called Manhattan.

“A Charlie Brown Christmas” was a groundbreaking program in so many ways, as we learned watching the great PBS American Masters series on Charles Schulz, known by his friends and colleagues as “Sparky.” It was based on the comic strip Peanuts, and was produced and directed by former Warner Brothers animator Bill Melendez, who also supplied the voice for Snoopy.

We learned in that PBS special that the cartoon happened by mere serendipity.

“We got a call from Coca-Cola,” remembered Melendez. “And they said, ‘Have you and Mr. Schulz ever considered doing a Christmas show with the characters?’ and I immediately said ‘Yes.’ And it was Wednesday and they said, ‘If you can send us an outline by Monday, we might be interested in it.’ So I called Sparky on the phone and told him I’d just sold ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas,’ and he said, ‘What’s that?’ and I said, ‘It’s something you’ve got to write tomorrow.’”

We learned in that American Masters series that Schulz had some ideas of his own for the Christmas special, ideas that didn’t make the network suits very happy. First and foremost, there was no laugh track, something unimaginable in that era of television. Schulz thought that the audience should be able to enjoy the show at its own pace, without being cued when to laugh. CBS created a version of the show with a laugh track added, just in case Schulz changed his mind. Luckily, he didn’t.

The second big battle was waged over voiceovers. The network executives were not happy that the Schulz’s team had chosen to use children to do the voice acting, rather than employing adults. Indeed, in this remarkable world created by Charles Schulz, we never hear the voice of an adult.

The executives also had a problem with the jazz soundtrack by Vince Guaraldi. They thought the music would not work well for a children’s program, and that it distracted from the general tone. They wanted something more . . . well . . . young.

Last but not least, the executives did not want to have Linus reciting the story of the birth of Christ from the Gospel of Luke. The network orthodoxy of the time assumed that viewers would not want to sit through passages of the King James Bible.

There was a standoff of sorts, but Schulz did not back down, and because of the tight production schedule and CBS’s prior promotion, the network executives aired the special as Schulz intended it. But they were certain they had a flop on their hands.     [...continue reading...]

The CBS executives saw what they had as, at best, a tax write-off.

I couldn’t help but think that actually parallels the original Christmas story in more ways than one.

John the Baptist was sure that Jesus was the Messiah on the day that Jesus stepped into the Jordan River to be baptized.  But later, in the isolation of a jail cell, he wondered if had backed that wrong horse.  He thought he a flop on his hands.

Certainly there were people in the crowd who loved the miracles and the multiplication of the fish and bread that fed 5,000 men and countless women and children. But when he started turning his remarks to the “hard sayings” and spoke of eating his flesh and drinking his blood, the crowd thinned out considerably.  Having seen other Messiah figures come and go, they figured that, once again, they had a flop on their hands.

Judas Iscariot was one of the original twelve, and no doubt entered into that select group with enthusiasm and optimism.  But into the third year of apprenticeship with the this particular rabbi, dreams of political conquest and liberation from the Romans turned into disillusionment when the talk turned to a Messiah that would suffer and die. Like the parliamentarians of today who ‘cross the floor’ to join the other party, Judas figured he had a flop on his hands.

Time exonerated the decision and vision by Charles Shultz, and the events in Acts 2 showed the world that something new and exciting was beginning; that instead of a flop, the disciples had a hit on their hands.

And today, there are those who complain that the Christian faith and worldview is foolishness. They have a checklist of things that they would change about the Christ story. They think we have a flop on our hands. 

But the ratings have yet to come out on that one. The ultimate scene in the play has yet to appear on stage. Stay tuned…

We do know how the above story ended, though:

To the surprise of the executives, 50 percent of the televisions in the United States tuned in to the first broadcast. The cartoon was a critical and commercial hit; it won an Emmy and a Peabody award.

Linus’s recitation was hailed by critic Harriet Van Horne of the New York World-Telegram, who wrote, “Linus’ reading of the story of the Nativity was, quite simply, the dramatic highlight of the season.”

November 21, 2011

When The Manger Scene is Too Neat and Tidy

This was composed and recorded by a very good friend of mine.  Kick back for five minutes and consider what the scene at the back of the Bethlehem Inn really looked like those first few nights.

I have a little manger scene I unpack every year,
I put it on the mantle way up high
Safe from puppy dogs, little hands and wrestling adolescents,
Who might break a piece and make me want to cry.

I’ve had that little manger scene of china and of glaze,
Since I was just a kid of 4 or 5
For years and years I looked at it believing every line,
Cause it made the ancient story come alive

It makes me sentimental,  Though I know it didn’t happen quite that way
A little poetic license is OK.

In my little manger scene Mary’s got blue eyes,
she’s dressed in silk and satin like a queen
Joseph’s beard is neat and trim, just like his fingernails,
And everybody’s handsome and serene

The swaddled baby’s smiling up at three wise men standing guard,
So noble, not a sunburn neath their crowns
They’re hanging with the shepherds who are kneeling squeaky clean
on golden straw carpeting the ground

It’s all sleek and smooth and shining,
Tho’ I know it wasn’t quite like that, don’t you?
The truth is not quite so pretty, but it’s true

I bet Mary, she was saddle sore and Joseph couldn’t sleep
The wise men smelled like camels and the shepherds smelled like sheep
And the stable smelled like cattle and the things that cattle do
The baby woke up hungry every morning, half past two
And the straw got into everything, your shoes and in your hair
In the food and in the beds and on your nerves and everywhere

But our Mary, she’s no china doll, she’s a fighter through and through,
Joseph knows he has a job to do
There isn’t any stopping them, there isn’t any doubt,
Together they will see this journey through.

‘Cause she, she was a warrior, he was her strong right arm,
In a battle that they couldn’t comprehend
That baby was a treasure who would ransom all the world,
They’d carry him until he took his stand.

Even though Mary, she was saddle sore and Joseph couldn’t sleep
The wise men smelled like camels and the shepherds smelled like sheep
And the stable smelled like cattle and the things that cattle do
The baby woke up hungry every morning, half past two
And the straw got into everything, your shoes and in your hair
In the food and in the beds and on your nerves and everywhere

So if in my little manger scene, they look a little glazed
A little poetic license is OK.
Though I know it didn’t happen quite that way.

©2011 Ruth Wilkinson

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