Counting Down (Christmas Eve): “Still We Try to Listen”

[Read the introduction to this series of “Counting Down” posts here.]

The lamplit streets of Bethlehem we walk now through the night. There is no peace in Bethlehem; there is no peace in sight. The wounds of generations, almost too deep to heal, scar the timeworn miracle, and make it seem surreal…*

It’s easy to get stuck, to think things are the way they are and there’s nothing we can do about it. It’s easy to make excuses and say that things can’t be different because we’re human or we’re depraved or both. Or they can’t be different because there aren’t any better options and we’ve gotta work with what we’ve got.

It won’t surprise anyone to find out that I just don’t buy it. Call me naive, but today, this day just before Christmas, I can’t help but think that those excuses are not what the liturgical year teaches us.

I was visiting with a friend recently and I was talking about this YouTube clip I’d watched about capitalism. Though I’m no economist, I was telling my friend, the whole concept of capitalism as an economic system, to some extent, requires that somebody somewhere get exploited. You can’t just make endless profit. You can’t just make something out of nothing. (I’m sure I was going on much too long as I ranted about this.) So my friend looks at me and says, quite simply, “Well, what’s your suggestion then? What’s a better system?” Some of you are probably thinking that, too. And you’re also wondering why I ever decided to write about this today of all days.

Well, friends. It’s Christmas Eve. There is a better way. I don’t have all of the answers, not even close, and I’m not sure what it needs to look like but, quite frankly, I’m tired of hearing arguments about how it’s just not practical. We aren’t stuck. Not now, not ever.

Head on over to the manger.

There’s nothing practical about it.

…The baby in the manger grew to a man one day. Still we try to listen now to what he had to say: ‘Put up your swords forever. Forgive your enemies. Love your neighbor as yourself. Let your little children come to me.’

* from “Little Town,” off Over the Rhine’s holiday album, Snow Angels

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Counting Down: “A New Redemption Song”

A friend of mine helps to coordinate a local outreach called “Timothy Christmas,” which I’ve heard a lot about over the three years we’ve lived in our little town but hadn’t ever bothered to ask anyone about. I knew that toys were collected by the kids in our church, and I knew that our Sunday school sponsored a local family who otherwise wouldn’t have a Christmas, and that we took the family Christmas shopping and gave them food. That sounds pretty straightforward, right? What else is there to know?

Well, I was talking with my friend on Monday night about this and how she got involved in this outreach more than twenty years ago. It’s a story worth retelling, and it actually begins a year before Timothy Christmas was started. That year, a few days before Christmas, my friend suddenly found herself to be a single mother with two little girls. To the outside world, she looked fine–she had a house, she had food, she had her kids. But there wasn’t any money left for Christmas. She went to the Christmas Eve service at church and knew that afterwards she’d be going back to an empty house without gifts for her girls. But when she came out of church that night, she found an envelope on her car. Inside that envelope was fifty dollars. That anonymous gift of fifty dollars–to this day she doesn’t know who left it for her–provided Christmas in a way she hadn’t expected.

The next year, Timothy Christmas was started for local families who otherwise wouldn’t be able to celebrate, and it focused primarily on children by asking children who did have lots of toys and Christmas gifts to select one of value to give to a child who had nothing. The outreach has grown from there, and now provides gifts and food to a significant number of families.

And there are more every year.

A few days ago the main headline at CNN was called “Hungry at the Holidays,” and since I so rarely see news stories worth reading, I couldn’t help but click on it. It mentioned a food ministry on Long Island that offers turkeys and other food items to poverty-stricken families on Thanksgiving and Christmas so they can enjoy feasts like the rest of us take for granted. Last year, they provided 25,000. This year they’ve received requests for more than 42,000.

The same article mentioned that fourteen percent of Americans, that’s 1 in 7, are currently receiving financial assistance relating to food.

Remember how I mentioned that even right here in my little town, thirty to forty new families are seeking assistance from local food pantries each month? Thirty to forty new each month. My town is not that big, nor under extraordinary economic pressures. This is life in America, “post-recession” (whatever that means) or not.

As we crawl toward Christmas morning, let’s spend some time asking for new eyes and ears, to re-envision, to really hear, what we might be called to do come Christmas. Maybe it’s significant, like an entire life-path-changing decision; or maybe it seems insignificant, like committing to buying an extra can of tuna or jar of peanut butter every time we go to the grocery store to donate. Who knows?

But I guarantee that if we listen, if we look, if we wait, we’ll be able to hear, to see, and to know.

Lord, we need a new redemption song. Lord, we’ve tried–it just seems to come out wrong. Won’t you help us, please? Help us just to sing along? A new redemption song…

— from “New Redemption Song,” a track off one of Over the Rhine’s holiday albums, Snow Angels

Counting Down: “Only God Can Save Us Now”

I haven’t tried to hide the fact that over the last two days, and for some time now, I’ve been thinking about brokenness–the world broken by poverty and hunger and injustice; broken social systems; broken churches; broken people who feel hopeless and abandoned. But I’ve also been thinking about broken bodies, the physical pain of living in this broken world.

In my family, as I write this, a loved one is lying in intensive care, in an unreliably conscious/unconscious/responsive state. I am not there to be with my family, to sit with those who are sitting and keeping vigil, wait with those who are waiting, or pray with those who are praying.

So I sit here. And I wait here. And I pray, often without words, as Advent trudges on, as bodies keep breaking, and the world seems big and dark. And sometimes it’s all too easy to forget what this waiting is all about. It’s not for naught, you could say. There is hope, even here, even in this waiting, even when it seems hard to locate it.

And that’s where Over the Rhine keeps sneaking into my thoughts. Karin Bergquist has written a gorgeous, haunting song about the nursing care facility where her mother, a retired nurse, now lives after suffering from a stroke. Karin took the time at each concert this weekend to tell the stories of the folks who show up in the song–each story, each broken and beautiful character in this tragedy/comedy. (Karin says that the tragedy is what we know and experience, and the comedy is the grace we’ve been given to deal with it.)

This is a song of compassion, of looking through the pain and the brokenness, of seeing hope,  of seeing what it is that we’re waiting for, as we wait in this season of Advent.

In this special song, there’s a refrain that is a quote from Geneva, one of the residents of the home, when Karin asked her how she was doing. Her response? “Only God can save us now.”

Here’s the opening of the song:

Margie struck Geneva with her baby doll. Barb knocked off the med cart coming down the hall. Bob leads the congregation with “How now brown cow”: Only God can save us now. Jean sings “Fuzzy wuzzy, fuzzy wuzzy was a bear.” Miss Cleve sings “Hallelujah” from the choir in her chair. Behind his busy apron, Raymond’s naked standing proud: Only God can save us now. . . Who will save me? From myself? And the night? . . . Only God can save us now.

– “Only God Can Save Us Now” from The Long Surrender.

Counting Down: “We’re All Working the Graveyard Shift”

[Read the introduction to this series of “Counting Down” posts here.]

Thanks to a mini miracle, J & I found ourselves at three Over the Rhine concerts last weekend in Cincinnati: Friday night was a special “world-premiere” concert of their new album that will be released early next year, Saturday night was a holiday concert at the Taft downtown, and Sunday was their annual “Sunday Soiree” at St. Elizabeth’s.

There were a handful of songs that were performed at each of the shows. One of those, which is also one of my favorites from their new album, The Long Surrender, is worth a mention as we countdown to the end of Advent. Here’s an excerpt:

All my favorite people are broken. Believe me, my heart should know. Orphaned believers, skeptical dreamers, step forward: You’re welcome. You’re safe right here. You don’t have to go. . . Is each wound you’ve received just a burdensome gift? It gets so hard to lift yourself up off the ground. But the poet says we must praise a mutilated world; we’re all working the graveyard shift–you might as well sing along.

— From “All My Favorite People,” on The Long Surrender (which you can buy online here for an immediate download)

Linford introduced the song by mentioning how difficult it was to write. No, not difficult, but rather that there was something in this song that just needed to wait to be revealed, and that they’ve been working through it, waiting on it, wrestling with it, for four or five years now.

There’s something about it, though, that really resonates with people. You could feel it in the audience, among those of us who knew the song and those of us who were hearing it for the first time. Maybe there are just lots of orphaned believers and skeptical dreamers hanging around these parts. Maybe we know brokenness when see it. When we feel it. When we say, yes, that’s me, too.

All my favorite people are broken…

What is it in this song that just feels real to me? Well, it reminds me of how the world tends to work, how the world is. It’s a good Advent song because it calls us both to attention and to acceptance of our brokenness. Life isn’t perfect. It’s hard.

But it’s beautiful, too.

You’re safe right here…

Advent is about creating a space that is safe, where the ugliness of the world and of ourselves is open and revealed. It’s only when we can look straight at ourselves and the world that something more–miraculously–can be revealed to us. Only when we love others, the world, and ourselves, in all our fear, and pain, and brokenness, can we be we prepared to see. To really see.

We’re all working the graveyard shift…

This is my favorite line because it’s so loaded–we’re all in it, it’s late at night, and it’s dirty. Still, we are called to be community to each other.

We’re in this brokenness together, folks. And that’s part of the waiting of Advent, too. I’m not good at that part and haven’t been feeling up to it lately. I don’t like being up late, for one thing, or being uncomfortable and dirty, and most of the time, quite frankly, I don’t feel like singing.

That’s another reason why this song is good for me.

…you might as well sing along.

Beginning the Countdown: “We’re All Broken”

Christmas is nearly here, and I’m not ready.

This overwhelming feeling of not being prepared, though, isn’t because I haven’t finished my Christmas shopping or cookie-baking or gift-making or travel-plans-arranging (though of course I haven’t).

It’s not that I’m not ready for Christmas. It’s that I’m not yet ready for Advent to be over.

How can it be that even when you light candles in your living room and watch the the circle of tea lights getting brighter and brighter, even when you try really hard to avoid listening to the cheery Christmas carols announcing the already-born Savior, even when you have been wearing long underwear for three weeks trying to stay warm in a drafty old house in central Kentucky, how can it be that Advent is slipping by you and you haven’t even taken the time to be still?

Well, now I sit in a frigid, unfurnished basement with a genuine Grandma-made afghan around my shoulders, having nearly finished everything that had been looming over my head from last week. And I’m wondering how I can be still and prepare my heart in the very few days that are left before Advent is over and we move into a new season, a season of feasting rather than fasting, of celebration rather than yearning, of joy rather than preparation.

I don’t know the answer, truth be told, but since our weekend turned out to be unexpectedly packed full of Over the Rhine music, I’ve got it seeping out of my pores. And so to Over the Rhine I am turning to help me countdown the last few days of Advent.

Last summer I asked OtR’s Linford Detweiler about the way their music tends to (what I call) “sacramentalize” ordinary, lived experience, finding beauty in brokenness. His answer is where I want to start this week:

Take the unwillingness to divide the world into sacred and secular, or an unwillingness to divide the world into the broken and the unbroken—we see that those divisions cannot be made. We’re all broken, and it’s all sacred. So that is sort of where we try to live. And if we fail, on a personal level, I think songs can remind us what we aspire to.*

Take a deep breath and then read it again. And then one more time.

That is Advent.

We’re all broken, and it’s all sacred.

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* Excerpts from our conversation can be found here on the Christianity Today website.

having no more than we can love

As we lean into the third week of Advent, let’s think about the stuff with which we surround ourselves, our attachment to that stuff, what it says about us, and what Advent’s call to preparation and peace might mean in that context.

I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. Driving downtown in Nearest Big City recently, I found myself behind a shiny gold Lexus with this license plate: THX GOD. (Apologies to you if this is your license plate and I have now outed you.) I was indignant and offended and upset and frustrated and, okay, a bit self-righteous about it all, too. Maybe it’s the “X” there that bothered me, making it not “Thank God” (which is still somewhat questionable) but “Thanks, God,” as if God’s job here on earth is to reward us with fancy cars when we do what we’re supposed to do. (In case you weren’t sure, that’s not the case.)

Because I’m on an anti-consumerism and anti-capitalist kick, this story and my reaction to it won’t surprise you. I am sensible enough to say that I was being uncharitable (this person may very well give away more to charity each year than J’s and my combined income), but I do feel rather strongly that God doesn’t reward us with Lexuses, and to say otherwise, I will offer, is not reading the Gospels very closely.

Still, is a Lexus any different than stuff that I cling to? What is most important to me? What do I think of as a “reward” from God? Maybe I don’t tend to speak in those terms, but I am not sure my heart (or yours) is in a much different place than “THX GOD for all the awesome things that prove I’m doing exactly what you want me to be doing.” We’d never say that, would we? Of course not. We’re better than that. More humble and all that jazz.

On that note, here’s some food for thought, sent to me as “an advent thought” from J last week.

“It is crucial to have no more than we can love, for without love the claim to having becomes void. Loveless having, possessing in the purest sense, remains illegitimate, a theft.”  — Erezim Kohak, The Embers and the Stars, quoted in Norm Wirzba’s The Paradise of God (Oxford, 2003).

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[This post originally appeared on December 5, 2010.]

Cow Bell Alleluias & What We Do on Easter

Our opening song at church this morning was “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today,” which won’t surprise any of you raised in low church traditions like mine, considering it was, ahem, Easter.

But about halfway through the first verse, I found myself unable to sing. This is something that rarely happens to me.

In fact, I’d already paraded around the house singing it a dozen time at that point, and even called my parents bright and early to sing it as an Easter greeting to them, waiting for the sung “Ah-a-a-a-leh-eh-luu-yah” response I knew I’d receive. (I get it honestly, what can I say?)

So it’s not like I’m not familiar with the song.

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