Let It Be

There has long been an academic debate, in regards to human behavior, between “nature” and “nurture”. The question is – are we really inextricably predisposed to follow the genetic script of our DNA, or are we just environmentally conditioned to act out of psychological muscle memory reflex response? Or perhaps, some amalgam of the two? But doesn’t such a question presuppose a determinist answer – that somehow, either your immutable genetics, or your immutable past, has already predetermined your path? Seems to me like the debate has conspicuously over looked the step that explains where volition fits in.

When I read the Bible cover to cover I can see the providential hand of God indisputably working his sovereign will – but on every single page of it, I find the absolute significance of human choice on full display, as being crucial to how history unfolds. And when I attempt to simultaneously hold these two truths in my mind I experience the innate tension between the two. I can’t bring myself to believe in a fatalistic world that imagines life as nothing more than a cosmic simulation, as if all of our choices were merely cosmetic. But neither can I imagine a world where all of my choices have preeminent value – as that also strikes me as an untenable form of fatalism.

Is this not what it means to live contingently within the mystery of believing in a God who speaks us into existence? Desperate to reconcile the tension we feel between the two, we are tempted to resolve this dilemma with what are arguably reductive theological solutions – solutions intent on giving us the illusion of control over things beyond our comprehension. This invariably leads us to assume human volition to be irredeemably corrupted, while unavoidably being our inescapable responsibility – so we know we need to make the choices . . . even if we don’t really trust the choices we make.

Having grown wiser as I’ve grown older, I’ve developed an appreciation for the sublime elegance of the simple routines of a disciplined life. It has been a refinement of my choice making, a narrowing of my focus to the things that most matter . . . and this is where I’ve learned to make the will of God my deepest desire. So when I read about this teenage girl who intuitively reaches the same conclusion in Luke 1: 26-38, I take notice of her gracious resolve to “let it be”, and marvel at how beautifully divine providence is able to gently entreat our involvement in what God is doing . . . and then I’m humbled in realizing that the natural home for my will is found in God.

Mary’s willingness to play her part in our redemption serves as a bookend to the confession of Jesus “Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42) – so that it would be obvious to us, that throughout the life of Christ, doing his Father’s will was ever before him . . . and that he chose every step of that path to the cross. So now, let it be that our hearts may also treasure up all these things that Mary pondered (Luke 2:19) in her willingness to bring Jesus into this world — this gift beyond all measure.

Christmas begins as a conversation between an angel and a teenage girl . . .


How Much More?

Order out of chaos is the primal impulse of the human psyche – like an undeniable subtext, constantly at work in our daily interpretation, measuring in real-time our experience of meaning and purpose. This is why when we experience unexpected circumstances recklessly pulling us downstream from our normal life, our eyes instinctively look for a safe shore — a place we might step out of the troubled waters and walk on solid ground again. And if those circumstances are grave enough, cratering like a dark hole of despair in the middle of your life — that unspoken subtext becomes the primary text of your thoughts . . . as you now begin to wonder out loud — how much more of this will you have to endure?

So when we hear David cry out “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?”(Psalm 13:1) – we can hear our own weary voice, and know well that feeling of the gathering dark beginning to fill our hearts . . . and that winter’s fog of isolation and loneliness that refuses to lift. In moments like these, meaning and purpose seem to be hanging by a thread – so we wait in silence, waiting in desperate faith, believing that the presence of God will break through the fog of our doubt and pain . . . and lead us back into the light of his steadfast love.

In this way, our longing to have our lives renewed and restored is actually a longing for the presence of God. Because when the inevitable chaos of the world crashes into our life, we intuitively know that it is God who brings order to our world, so we call out to him to be reassured that he has not left us. This is such a primal reflex that even the atheist finds himself calling out for God when he’s desperate enough, when the hope of rescue is fleeting. So for the Christian, how much more does our hope reside in God’s presence?

How much more, indeed! If we as imperfect parents can give our children loving provision, then how much more will our heavenly Father provide? (Luke 11:11-13) And if even the birds are feed by the hand of God, and the lilies of the field are dressed in grand splendor, how much more does our Father know our every need? (Luke 12:24-28) How much more valuable are we to Him? (Matthew 12:12) Are these not the practical expressions of love, indicative of a God who holds chaos at bay? So we place our hope in God for all things are held together . . . in His presence.

This is why it is the very heartbeat expectation of Advent to cry out “O, come Emmanuel” – compelled to beseech God to come and be with us. Because it’s the Incarnation that is the very culmination of our primal desire to have God’s presence make all things right again. For we worship a God who hears our cry, and knows our every need. A God who chooses to enter into this life so that he might abolish the power of death. How much more could we ask of God, than he give us his only begotten son?

O Come, O Come . . .

Giving Yourself Away

Charles Darwin gave us the evolutionary axiom — “survival of the fittest”, and ever since it has been the cornerstone motto of non-theism, contributing to their appraisal that survival pragmatism is indisputably the highest value that humanity can embrace. This is, no doubt, because to the rational mind, self-preservation is the most obvious universal instinct. Besides, what could be more practical than wanting to stay alive? Then again, the impulses of instinct can make for a tricky moral compass – ever convincing ourselves that being selfish . . . is just being a good survivor.

But here’s the thing about framing everything in terms of survival – it assumes that our natural state is to be at odds with our own existence, that the innate forces of the world around us are ever seeking to undo us at every turn. So if you don’t want to be exterminated – you must evolve . . . just to survive. This is because within the evolutionary paradigm you never really arrive — you will forever remain at odds with a hostile existence, no matter how evolved you become. And the reason this seems plausible to us, is because on a very primal level, we’re constantly experiencing some measure of alienation from our own existence.

But is this pervasive sense of alienation really how we exist, or is it just a distortion of our perception? What if survival pragmatism wasn’t our preeminent criterion – what would that look like? It is the confession of my Christian faith that we all exist in God, because there is no other existence. And because we were made in his image, by design our existence can only find its true orientation when we are in harmony with him . . . and apart from him, alienation. So for me reconciliation with God is the preeminent value . . . and survival isn’t even a close second.

To be set free from the pernicious delusion of self-existence that survival pragmatism so subtly insinuates, is to be unburdened of the fear and anxiety that always accompanies self-preservation. I no longer have to serve the self, allowing me to begin to see the true value of others as being the beloved of God – those for whom Christ gave himself as a willing sacrifice. So that I might find at the very center of all existence — a God who gives himself away as an infinite measure of his love. How can I not, but do as he does? To give myself away to others, so that they might know him all the more . . . and be set free from their alienation. Were we not made for this?

Is it not the very centerpiece of Advent, that we might find the babe in a manger as a gift – a gift of hope, forever declaring we can live our lives beyond the mere subsistence of survival? It is a declaration that peace on earth begins with each of us being at peace with our own existence. And you might do well to remember that this season of gift-giving was originally inaugurated by a God who gave of himself, without hesitation . . . and may we all choose to do likewise in the coming year.

I always thought this old Christmas Carol was haunted
with an intuitive sense of how costly was the gift of the babe in the manager

As If The Only One

Retrospection can very often be misleading, if not deceptive – but just as often it can afford a uniquely helpful perspective, allowing you to see the larger patterns of your life’s journey that you wouldn’t have detected, otherwise. How these patterns begin and play out, contributing to your story, can be subtly woven into your choices, almost innocuously. But when surveyed over the long haul, can explain why you are the way you are, and what fears and longings have been quietly pushing the buttons and throwing the levers, shaping your life all along.

I grew up with three brothers, two older and one younger. So as the middle child my natural inclination was to be a peacemaker. But when my parents divorced when I was in middle school, my middle child inclination took on a whole other dimension – one that I can only fully appreciate now in retrospect. I systematically became the closest brother to each one of my brothers, desperately attempting to hold the family together . . . and protect myself from ending up alone. At the time, I was completely unaware of the purpose of my actions – but looking back, the self-preservation of my choices is now very evident to me.

Embedded within our primal desire to be known and loved, is our desire to belong and to matter. Which is to say, we are drawn into community so that as individuals we might have our significance validated — but the psychology of this desire takes on a precarious balancing act in the process. We don’t want to belong, as just another face in the crowd, disappearing into some homogeneous aggregate . . . losing our identity. Each of us wants our belonging to the whole to be a celebration of our unique identities – each one a part, each one special.

Sometimes I think we miss how the rhetorical question that Jesus is asking in his parable (Luke 15:3-7) of the lost sheep, takes the listener off guard — but ends up addressing their mostly unspoken desire to be found uniquely important. Because for the shepherd to place at risk the ninety nine to go find the one, would have sounded recklessly indulgent to this agrarian savvy crowd. What an extravagant choice to make for a single sheep. But quickly each listener would have happily tossed aside their pragmatism, so that they too might celebrate the idea of the one lost, being found . . . secretly wanting to know what it means to matter that much to someone else.

This is the extravagance of Christmas — the love of God on full display, announcing itself to the whole world, while simultaneously finding each one of us in our own specific need of his love. This is the great gift of God, which so thoroughly permeates the whole that it seeps into every crack and corner, celebrating each life it touches as beloved. So I say ponder anew the treasure of your faith confessions – God found you in that impossible place your life had become, and brought you home . . . and now there’s a sky full of angels rejoicing.  

. . . and while your pondering your gifts — don’t forget this one

Learning To Refract Light (3 of 8)

Moonlight is the borrowed light of the sun meant to remind us that the sun hasn’t actually gone away – that it shines ever on, albeit from the other side of night. Even the waning and waxing moon can’t help but smile about how faithfully the sun continues to shine, even when it doesn’t fill the sky with light. But on a moonless night, the moon hides from the sun and the path becomes unclear, more shadow than light. More than likely that’s an artificial light, the escaping ambient halo of light above the city. But on that same moonless night, walking a country road, reveals a sky full of distant suns shimmering like diamonds on black velvet — no doubt, our own sun shines with a similar brilliance for some other distant planet.

The moon is a desolate waste, a barren satellite rock caught in earth’s celestial orbit. Having nothing of its own, yet it reflects the glory of the sun, making it the preoccupation of poets and romantics, alike. A serendipitous proximity of cosmic happenstance — even so, it’s evocative beauty remains. How much more are we held as precious to the Father, than this rock hurling through space . . . that in the most unexpected ways we might reflect his glory?

All of creation cries out, proclaiming in wonderment the intricacies of design hidden in plain sight – the hand of God on display. Even the atheist, convinced of the rationality of his disbelief, finds it hard to hide the mark of imago dei he bears – ever pulling on him to understand his life as meaningful, ever drawn to love and beauty and justice . . . as if the universe, for no reason at all, held them as significant. But even these are simple reflections, pointing back to their source, light bouncing off of the surface . . . but what of the light that enters in?

AM_Fig5-ChurchAndCruxGunnIt is the Christian confession, that as believers, we not only bear the image of God, we are also indwelt by the Holy Spirit. So not only do we reflect his glory — we are meant to refract his glory . . . in the same way that light pours through a prism. As God changes us we become the face of God to those who have forgotten what he looks like – it is how we become a tangible instrument of God’s grace to the world. We are not the source of this light, but the light passing through us does take on the color and shape of our personal story . . . of redemption and reconciliation.

So this is what occupies me during this season of expectation, I find myself searching the heavens for a sign, not unlike those wise men of old, who knew the distant light would guide them to something wonderful. It is the mystery of Emmanuel, God with us, entreating us to remember that God enters flesh and blood and changes all of human history. It is Jesus who is the light of the world – a light shown on our countenance, as it moves through us to those in the lost dark of night, those who may be wondering if the Son still shines . . .

It is from the substance of what is given us — that we give unto others

Learning To Watch the Night (2 of 8)

Our expectations are built upon our presupposed understanding of how the world is supposed to work. Which is to say, we have layers of expectation, we’re likely not even completely aware of — constantly shaping our perspective. And chances are, we only become aware of these embedded expectations when we find ourselves becoming increasingly impatient about something. In this way, our impatience is measuring the space between what is and what we imagine ought to be – either because it hasn’t happened yet . . . or worse, we begin to believe it won’t happen at all.

It’s funny how willing we are to allow our emotional state to be dragged around behind such poorly defined expectations – that the baseline peace and contentment of our hearts and minds could be so fragile. Could it be that our understanding of being at peace and finding contentment are all too often chained to the roller coaster ride of our ever-changing circumstances? So how do we break those chains? How do we refine our expectations and longings, so that we might learn the humble path of patience?

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning.” (Psalm 130: 5, 6). I have long been drawn to the emotive beauty of the Psalms of Ascent (Psalms 120 – 135), in the way they resonate with our visceral experience of sojourn. But this particular psalm’s invitation to wait the night like a watchmen waits for morning, always strikes me as especially evocative – maybe it has something to do with the way waiting is the unexpected verb.

C10q0NWW8AAPr84In the parable of the Ten Virgins (Matthew 25) we find an important distinction between those who have prepared themselves to wait the night . . . with those who have not. When the discipline of patience is given focus, like those in the parable prepared themselves to wait the night for the bridegroom, it becomes a meditation of the heart. Our longing for daybreak, filled with anticipation, filled with a sacred expectation – allows us to know the night as a friend, delivering us eventually to our hearts desire. This is what it means to watch the night – to keep vigil through the night . . . knowing the morning will come.

Of course, all of this has a particular application this time of the year, given that Advent is all about being expectant — where all of our longings are met in the birth of Jesus. Our faith embraces an already accomplished reality, as it reaches through the long night of our daily circumstance, toward the moment we’ll know face to face, what it means to enjoy the unobstructed presence of the lover of our souls. So this year you might want to allow this Advent season to instruct you in what it really means to watch the night, and in so doing, sanctify your expectations of what comes next . . . and enjoy peace on earth all year long.

I have always loved the melancholy of this Christmas Carol 

Being Vulnerable (4 of 8)

The most striking thing to me about the nativity narrative is found in the extent to which God makes himself vulnerable. Not only does he assume the general vagaries of human frailty, but he pursues vulnerability in its most dramatic forms – being born a helpless babe, sharing a nursery with livestock; born to an impoverished couple, amidst the scandal of a teenage pregnancy, within a morally legalistic culture. All of which historically occurs during a time when the social station into which you were born defined your significance from that point forward.

Our Christmas card portrayals of the nativity tend to employ a more romantic lens, filtering out the harsher aspects of the destitute predicament of Jesus’ birth. But rightly so, we look at this moment with glad tidings of great joy, knowing this to be the moment that ushers in the ponderous gift of redemption and reconciliation offered to all men. And given our role, as being on the receiving end of such an extravagant gift – it does not fully occur to us that even in this moment, to appreciate that a cost is being paid by Jesus . . . long before he goes to the cross.

It is the love of God on display, witnessed in his humble choices of vulnerability throughout his life. It is evident in the forty days of wilderness setting the tone for his three year ministry, giving himself over to want and deprivation – only to culminate in being taunted and tempted by an accusing deceiver. The temptation here isn’t really found in whether or not he accepted Satan’s offer, but in whether he would choose, to avoid or accept, the ultimate vulnerability of the cross. But even before the cross, we find him in the garden, his disciples completely unaware of his burden — fast asleep. So it was alone, he would face the cup that would not pass . . . knowing that he must drink it dry.

imagesThere is a good reason why so many of our Christmas carols choose to celebrate the infant king with the melancholy of minor chords – for embedded in this beautiful, scandalous night of angels, there is a long dark night’s journey for the Son of Man, a journey of self-emptying sacrifice, before we could all awaken on that resurrection morning. It is the humble path of choosing at every turn to make himself vulnerable, that marks the life of Christ from manger to cross. So it is not merely an interesting detail of his incarnation that we find Jesus born of low estate – it is an essential element in how we are to understand his extraordinary love for us.

So it is of no small significance for me to observe, that in contrast, it is in our being vulnerable to such an extent, where the human psyche resists the most. The shame and hurt, the disappointment and disparagement, are all such powerful forces – we dare not open that door too wide . . . or we will be utterly undone. But in the incarnate self-emptying way of Christ we discover an invitation to throw open that door of vulnerability, to allow ourselves to be known, scandalous details and all . . . so that the love and mercy of God might flow beyond our protected borders of self – to find its way into every life we touch with the true invitation of freedom. Because it is the way of Christ — to give of yourself in such a way that gives beyond the limitations of self.

Sometimes we forget this was a mother’s tender moment first . . .

Being Expectant (3 of 8)

“Hope is a dangerous thing.” is arguably the seminal line spoken by Morgan Freeman’s character in the movie, Shawshank Redemption. The crucial nature of this line’s context is what gives it gravity – men serving life sentences in a state penitentiary. In such a setting, the idea of hope is but a mocking voice, only serving to accentuate the despair of imprisonment. Because those who are free, are free to hope – but for those whose lives are bound, hope comes at a great cost.

There is a symbiosis – hope requires freedom, and freedom thrives on hope. But in order to understand this symbiosis, it is critical that we understand the substance of hope. Hope is not found in the idle wishing for things to be so, predicated on nothing more than the whimsy of our passing desire – hope is forged in the fire of our faith beliefs, which constitutes the infrastructure of our entire perception of life’s meaning. It is an expectation firmly anchored in the faithfulness of God (Hebrews 10:23).

It is our expectation of what is true – that it will eventually make itself evident. So our hope is placed, both in what can be known, and what has yet to be revealed . . . and our faith is the bridge between the two. We are therefore, free to expect that God will accomplish his will, precisely because it is not bound by our limitations to make it so. In this regard, hope is a leveraging against a certain future – in order that we might live confidently now in God’s providence. And it is this very future/now paradigm that animates our understanding of the Advent season.

It was the expectation of God’s people, because of God’s past faithfulness, that he would redeem and deliver them – even though they had no conception of their redeemer as coming in the shape of a helpless babe, who would one day face a scandalous execution as a political/ religious subversive. And whereas, they might not have expected the means of their redemption to be fulfilled in such a manner – their expectations were met all the same . . . regardless of their ability to realize it or not.

christmas-season-advent-nativity-background-baby-jesus-in-a-manger-with-bright-star-shining-above_h-xffjgfg_thumbnail-small01So what are your expectations of this Advent season? Are you building upon God’s faithfulness, so that you might be expectant of what he’ll do next? Will you allow your heart and mind the wonderment of embracing a God who takes on flesh, so that he might enter into your pain of disappointment and know your discouragement? Will you expectantly follow his humble path, believing his life to be a template of reconciliation that you might also reconcile others to God (2 Corinthians 5:18,19)?

So what do you expect as you look once more upon that manger? Do you see death defeated on a cross, and a king inviting you into his banquet hall? And how will that change what you expect from the rest of your life? Does your faith know how to make the journey between what you say you believe and what you hope to be true? Because after all – hope is a dangerous thing. It should only be invoked, if you’re truly willing to be set free from all that binds you.

This is my brother Jeff’s wonderful arrangement of “Joy To The World”


Out of the Corner of My Eye

The resident phobia of the artist is the consuming idea that it’s all been done before, that it’s all been used up, and all that remains is a derivative rehashing. It’s all just overworked metaphors and clichés, employed ad nauseum. How many times can you paint a sunset or a bowl of fruit? How many love songs can there possibly be? Surely such redundancy has to begin to erode the significance of the very thing you’re trying to explain in your art, until you think a tedious parody is all you could ever possibly muster. And yet, the artist persistently breaks the bonds of such a gravitational pull.

So I enter this field that has been plowed thousands of times before and plant my seeds in the belief that something new could grow, something with a simple beauty, with a practical subtle elegance — something that once ingested will cause something else to grow . . . and go much farther than the limitations of my reach. But I can tell already that this ground is hard and resistant, as it is a winter field left fallow beneath an all too familiar sky. Even so, I till this earth and toss my seed, and wait . . . to see if it will render a new Advent song.

violinWhen I look directly at Christmas, I find a storehouse of memories and touchstones, an intertwining of personal experiences with my faith traditions — and over the years there is a discernable cumulative effect. From here the path forks — these accumulating memories and touchstones either serve to enrich our appreciation of the unfathomable depths of meaning this season offers, or they fade into the wallpaper and become the predictable white noise that begins to hum in the back of your head during the month of December. Sometimes when you look directly at something it comes into focus for a moment and then begins to blur – this is especially true of familiar things . . . we just allow our minds to fill in the blanks.

It is out of the corner of my eye where I begin to see something different, something that my longing for a more visceral experience of an incarnate God might find – a God who enters my world of humble means as a peasant child born amidst the scandal of a teenage pregnancy. This image does not come to me in the sterility of theology, or a loftily orated sermon, it comes to me in the crushing imperatives of everyday life, asking of me – how does this child fit into my life, even now? And just before I can reflexively respond (allowing my mind to fill in the blank) – I get a catch in my throat, and realize my words will only be empty . . . that in truth this question is far more profound than any platitude I might speak. So this Advent I come to this manger in the silence of my meditation, trying to reimagine how my whole life could, even now, be remade by the birth of this infant king.

This is an Advent song I wrote with my old friend Mo Leverett a few years back

Let the Angels Bring the Music
Words: Greg Doles & Music: Mo Leverett

There is a star that leads me home
Along a path I’ve learned to trace
It shines the way that Christmas can fill an empty space
If I open up my window
And if my mind is clear
I can hear a song of angels floating on the atmosphere

So let the angels bring the music
Of an ancient melody
All of creation knows this song by heart
And teaches it to you and me

It’s like a gift I had forgotten
Or a song I used to sing
A promise slipped into my pocket of a chance to start again
But if I only squint my eyes
Just as the evening fades
I can see those angels gather over where the child is laid

So let the angels bring the music
Of an ancient melody
All of creation knows this song by heart
And teaches it to you and me

There’s a hollow in this mystery
Where you can hear a baby’s cry
And where a mother sweetly whispers a gentle lullaby
And if my wounded heart is open
And if I’ll lay aside my pride
I can know this mystery’s beauty, dream of that silent night

So let the angels bring the music
Of an ancient melody
All of creation knows this song by heart
And teaches it to you and me

Measuring Light Against the Falling Dark

As the ever shortening days give way to the lingering darkness, I can feel my conscious focus attenuating as I slip into the sub-conscious repose of a wakeful dreamlike state, where I begin to ruminate more particularly the content of my days, which have already begun to pull on their winter coats in the dimming light. The cold and dark have long been traveling companions, and I now find myself in their company, while the waning days of this year begin to remember what has passed, and to imagine what might lie ahead. It begins to occur to me why Advent resides at this end of the calendar.

Scripture really offers us no specific indication of when Jesus may have been born, and all of the cultural clues available in the text actually make it far likelier that he was born during the spring or fall. So then should we conclude that we’re getting it wrong, celebrating it on December 25th? But is the significance of Christ’s birth defined by the specific date of his birth, or by what his birth portends? In this way the wisdom of the Church in selecting December 25th isn’t to be understood as a miscalculation, but as a seizing of an illustrative opportunity, inviting us to look beyond a single day . . . and discover the powerful metaphors embedded in the first advent of Christ.

405e6392f7adff79be32f3702a0a3437There were various pagan celebrations of winter solstice prior to Christmas, all of which were a variation on the theme of entreating the return of the sun, as December 21st is the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere. Already my artistic intuition can’t help but notice how rich this metaphor is — the long dark silence of winter longing for the luminous embrace of spring, waiting for the sun (son) to arrive, bringing with it the fullness of life. And even though there are still many dark days before spring—the promise of new life is unstoppable. Now consider this, that the dark hour of a four-hundred-year long silence was broken by a baby’s cry, a moment that forever breaks history wide open, revealing the promise of an everlasting day.

It’s the ultimate use of chiaroscuro – the natal star splits the night to a song of angels . . . while the light of the world sneaks in, incognito as a peasant boy born in a common stable. The richness of the Advent narrative is truly well suited to these narrowing days of winter, as they force our meditation into stark relief, that as we begin to miss the warmth of the sun, our longing begins its vigil, waiting for the sun’s return. For those who share in the season of Advent this longing is mirrored in our desiring to receive anew, the Son who is the embodiment of new life . . . of new beginning.

So it is as the year unwinds to its closing days, and all that was left undone, and all that we struggled through, follows us into a long winter’s night – before the year closes, we pass through the recalibrating wonder of Advent. We are reminded once again that even though the light might have a humble origin, it is more than enough to lead us out of the dark into the unknown of a new year . . . that a new beginning awaits us.

I find this Peter Himmelman song evocative, with a resolutely hopeful melancholy,
that for me, seems to suit the long vigil of Advent.  

So I Light My Candle

If you’re like me, you can’t remember a time when you weren’t aware of Christmas and all of its trappings – it’s so enmeshed into your baseline context you can’t even imagine its absence. This can be a comfort and problem, simultaneously. I grew up embracing my Christian faith, so the annual touchstones of Christmas and Easter have always served to reinforce both the central theological themes of my faith as well as my commitment to them. But unavoidably, to whatever degree something becomes familiar — it is equally susceptible of being taken for granted . . . so it’s all I can do to refrain from coasting on autopilot.

The rich traditions, the wonderful music, the magical visuals, even the predictable bemoaning of the commercialization – have grooved a well-worn rut in the yuletide trail that my wheels lock right into . . . leaving little room for any variation in my response. This is why I gave up observing “Christmas time” a long time ago in favor of celebrating Advent. Christmas is no doubt still the culminating event, but the discipline of Advent forces me into thinking afresh about how I am making room for Christ in my life – preparing anew to receive his presence.

Candle in snowRelationships require intentionality — Christmas is a ponderous expression of God’s intentionality in pursuing us in relationship . . . which makes for a very unique opportunity for us to become intentional about how we respond, relationally. So it’s not so much that I ignore the Christmas time fanfare, in fact I’ve learned to enjoy it anew, as a wonderful backdrop for my Advent meditation. And it is my meditation to be expectant that God will show up in a new way during this season . . . and expectant that I will be forever changed when he does.

My brother Garrison came to the Christian faith much later in life, which I believe gave him a fresh appreciation for the spiritual depths of Advent. As a very gifted singer/songwriter, his talent for personalizing his experience of faith is well demonstrated on his Christmas CD, “Songmaker’s Christmas”. I have selected a song from this project that I think best illustrates a thoughtful, meditative, and expectant response to the child who was born.

Pay particular attention to how the response evolves
with every mention of a candle . . .

For To Us A Child Will Be Born

O the nights have grown long in the deepening winter
The gray of the sky giving way to the dark
So I light a candle and wait by the window
For to us a child will be born

O the measure of winter is stately and somber
A drifting of snow at the foot of a tree
I wait at the end of my lane with a candle
For to us a child will be born

He will be called Wonderful Counselor
He will be called the Prince of Peace
Noel Noel Noel

O the longing of winter is poignant and wakeful
The silence that beds in mysterious hush
We bring our candles abiding together
For to us a child will be born

O the vigil of winter is still and untroubled
The slumbering world in linens of snow
We bear our candles in watchful procession
For to us a child will be born

He will be called Wonderful Counselor
He will be called the Prince of Peace
Noel Noel Noel