God With Us

I went to midnight Christmas (Eve) service at a local church last night.  The message was titled “God With Us.”  During the service, they played a videographic showing a list of times God is with us: when we first cry, when we scrape our knee, when we first fall in love, when we have our first heartbreak, when we’re on the mountaintops, when we feel like we’re drowning.  It was nice, but I was a little frustrated, frustrated because especially this fall there have been days and weeks and perhaps months that God did not feel with me.  Nights that I felt alone, alone with my thoughts and my pain and my so-called inner demons.  And I know that so many people experience pain so much greater that it isn’t fair for me to complain, but at the same time it’s also not entirely fair to invalidate one person’s experience just because someone else’s is more extreme.

And then I realized, God was there.  While I struggled to interact with the world, my odd behavior confusing a number of people, He was there.  As I curled myself into a ball in my friend’s embrace, wondering if this juxtaposition of chaos and emptiness in my mind was a foretaste of what Hell was like, He was there, even as I told them, “I don’t know where God is anymore.”  He was there in the people who asked me if I was doing okay, even if I didn’t quite tell the truth.  He was there in my friend who walked with me into the darkness for hours into the night, forgoing sleep and sanity and personal comfort for the disturbed (and probably disturbing) confusion of my mind and soul.  Last night, I realized that this was more than just them being a good friend: this was God, acting through another person, reaching more tangibly into my life than I could have imagined.

And so I’ll leave you with the words of three others, relevant to my experience, and I think also relevant to this Christmas day.

“Meredith Grey: Cristina, I know you that don’t want to talk about it. But I’m here, so I just want to stay on the phone with you until you want to hang up. I’m here. I’m here.” ~Shonda Rhimes, Grey’s Anatomy

“Contemplation, normally regarded as a private pursuit, needs communal support. We are most likely to risk its vulnerabilities and be faithful to its implications when we are embedded in a community that both evokes and witnesses our truth—a rare form of community in which we learn to ‘be alone together,’ to support one another on a solitary journey. We practice being present to others without being invasive or evasive—neither trying to ‘fix’ them with advice nor turning away when they share something distressing.” ~Parker Palmer

“You can flip the switch by standing at a safe distance, on the threshold, and simply reaching in the door, but to enter the dark you actually have to step inside.  That may be real love, right there.  The willingness to be present, knowing there isn’t a damn thing you can do to fix anything.” ~Kristin Richard Armstrong


Fourth Sunday of Advent: Home and Family

First Sunday back home for Christmas break (finally).  Thus, today:

  • Church (I actually go to a different church than the rest of my family, but alas, things just work out better this way.)
  • Lunch with one of my friend’s family and some of their friends.  They have been like a family to me.  Especially last year, when I was struggling with a lot of personal issues, they supported me, perhaps unknowingly, simply by being present and living their love.  I owe them a lot.
  • Starting the process of transferring my grandfather’s recordings from analog cassette to digital.  Recordings of what, you ask?  The entire New Testament: twenty hours total.  Everything new I learn about this man amazes me more.  My mother also told me that he spent so much time praying that he developed callouses on his knees.  I wish I could have known him better.
  • Going through my former pastor’s library of books.  He passed away from an extended battle with Parkinson’s Disease last spring, and his family is trying to clear out stuff, so I had the wonderful opportunity to pick up free books.  I got a full Bible commentary, Mere Christianity in Chinese, a book by John Bunyan, The Communist Manifesto, an anthology including The Westminster Confession plus both catechisms and some other statements of faith, a biography of Condoleeza Rice, among other texts.  It was incredible to look through his library: to think, that is the room from which the sermons all blossomed; to think, that is the room from which so much of my philosophy and world view formed.  I realized even more how much those first years influenced who I am today: he had tomes by Lewis, Piper, Spurgeon, Augustine–the same theologians and thinkers I now admire.

For tomorrow and the day following:

  • Going to watch some of my friends from high school sing at the mall.  One of the things I miss is being with spontaneously musical people–people who can sing a full harmony with their friends when the teacher is late to class, or whistle the entirety of “Stars and Stripes Forever”, or just play piano for fun during breaks.
  • Possibly going caroling with my church.  Instead of a traditional Christmas Eve service, this church has Christmas Eve service–members of the congregation serving the community.  Some groups volunteer at homeless shelters, nursing homes, women’s shelters, food banks, etc., but spots for those organizations are limited, so a large portion of the congregation hops into trailer beds and goes caroling.
  • Christmas dinner with my godfamily.  They’re a little stressful sometimes, but we work things out. After all, that’s what separates friends from family.

Third Sunday of Advent: Grief and Grace

“A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.” Matthew 2:18

This isn’t really what I had planned for today, but in light of the events of the past week in Oregon, Connecticut, and China, it seemed appropriate. I’m sorry if it’s extremely disjointed: that’s how the past week has been. I tried to separate thought topics with horizontal rules, if that helps.

At first, I was going to write a list of the major mass shootings since Columbine and  muse about this type of violence.  (Columbine was the first shooting I remember hearing about.  I know, I just dated myself.)  But then I realized that isn’t where I wanted my focus to lie.

Yes, it’s important to talk about school shootings.  It’s important to talk about gun violence/control/rights in general.  It’s important to deal with what’s happened and how to prevent it from happening again.  It’s important to work through what we’ve experienced, seen, heard, felt.  But if that’s the final end of discourse, we’re left in a dark place.

I guess it all goes back to the fallen nature of man.  As I thought about what I wanted to say, all that came to mind were the lyrics of a song by Sufjan Stevens:

The neighbors they adored him
For his humor and his conversation
Look underneath the house there
Find the few living things
Rotting fast in their sleep of the dead
Twenty-seven people, even more
They were boys with their cars, summer jobs
Oh my God
Are you one of them?…
And on his best behavior …
He’d kill ten thousand people
With a sleight of his hand
Running far, running fast to the dead…
And on my best behavior
I am really just like him
Look beneath the floorboards
For the secrets I have hid

We’re all tainted by the same Sin.  Even if it manifests itself differently in different people’s lives, even when it affects us in tragically different ways, we all need grace–to give, but most of all, to receive.  And that’s why we need Christmas.

From another perspective, one of the accounts that struck me most was that of Kaitlin Roig, a teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary School.  Incidentally, props on this interview goes to Diane Sawyer; she’s an incredible journalist and seems like she would be a great person to get to know in general.  Here’s the link; unfortunately, WordPress won’t let me embed iframe videos:


This is particularly remarkable to me because some of my peers here at college are probably about the same age as she is.  For that matter, she might only be three or four years older than I am, and I can’t imagine bearing that type of responsibility (don’t mind the fact that I can’t imagine being responsible for the minds of the next generation).

From Facebook (half of these are from teachers, which seemed fairly representative of the demographic of related posts):

“John 16:33 ‘I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.’  God help the families of Newtown Ct.”

“hugged my kindergartener a little longer at bedtime tonight and cried for the mommies who can’t do that tonight. 😦 my heart breaks!”

“Stuff like this goes on all the time. We just got a compressed version of the evil and pain and despair people experience all the time, and it came close to home. It wasn’t Palestinian kids or African kids or Latin American kids. And it’s going to bring a bit of a downer to our nice North American Christmas. So be it. The birth of the Messiah was never meant to be nice. It’s necessary. Necessary for hope of anything better or different than this status quo of ours. The alternative is that we continue to patch over the darkness with periods of nice, social progress only to have it come through the cracks like this.  [This is] absolutely NOT to diminish what happened in Newtown…My point was that this is only the tip of the iceberg, a glimpse into a darkness that’s more pervasive and constant than we realize because we’re often insulated from it by the veneer of order and stability we have in N. America and Western society. But it is a very thin veneer. Anyway, to any of you who connected to this posting, I want to make that real clear.”

“I am so grateful 3 boys came back through my door today, brimming with all the normal school day news. There are no guarantees and so I will give extra hugs today.”

“All I can think about is my little brother and how thankful I am that I have him alive and safe in my life. Prayers to all the babies and families apart [sic] of the horrific tradegy today. 😦 so upsetting”

“Charlotte, Daniel, Olivia, Josephine, Ana, Dylan, Madeleine, Catherine, Chase, Jesse, James, Grace, Emilie, Jack, Noah, Caroline, Jessica, Avielle, Benjamin, Allison, Rachel, Dawn, Anne Marie, Lauren, Mary, Vicky”

“This is my Father’s world / O let me ne’er forget / That though the wrong / seem oft so strong / God is the Ruler yet.” ~Maltbie Babcock, This Is My Father’s World

“Where there’s a shadow, there’s a light.” ~Petra, Road to Zion

Second Sunday of Advent: Christmas Music

One thing I miss about my high school is teachers saying, “I’ll pray while you start the test” or “Let’s pray before we start lecture” or “Come on, stand up, they’re about to do the Lord’s Prayer on announcements.”  Every once in a while, a professor here says something that reminds me of the way a teacher would get ready to pray, and it throws me for a loop.

Another thing I miss is getting to play real Christmas music in band.  I’m in a community orchestra now, and in our concert yesterday, we played music from Titanic, Michael Jackson, and The Lord of the Rings, as well as some classical pieces like “Pines of Rome” and “Berceuse and Finale” (coincidentally, they’re both in the 2000 version of Fantasia–the whale scene and the after-the-volcano scene, respectively).  The only vaguely Christmas-y thing we played was the suite from “The Nutcracker.”  I miss getting to play things that talk about what Christmas actually means, even if obtusely.

Yesterday was a busy day musically.  Before my orchestra concert, I played in a TubaChristmas concert, which, as I mentioned in last week’s post, includes a lot of religious music.  As I play, it was incredible to think about the words behind the songs–and how people of so many different religions, creeds, worldviews, and belief systems around the US and around the world were playing that exact set of music. I wonder how many people knew the words, or what they meant.

TubaChristmas 2012

TubaChristmas 2012

The concert itself probably sounded interesting.  110+ tubas, baritones, and euphoniums, plus one sousaphone and an antique helicon played by musicians ranging in age from eleven to 76 made for an interesting choir.  The facts that half the people there probably hadn’t played since last year’s TubaChristmas and that we performed in a noisy mall with a three-story vaulted ceiling made life a little more exciting.  But one of the coolest parts was the people I got to meet.  I went by myself, which meant that I got to interact with a lot more people than had I gone with a little group of friends.  In rehearsal, I sat next to two seventh graders, one of whom appeared to be adopted from Asia and reminded me quite a bit of my own seventh grade self.  I met a nice gentleman and his wife who looked to be in their sixties who gave me a lift as I was walking with my euphonium and they were lost looking for the rehearsal building.  (Yes, I know, I know–don’t accept rides with from strangers.  But when it’s an elderly couple and there’s a tuba visible in the back seat and you’re carrying a euphonium case and you’re looking for a tuba festival…it’s probably an okay time to break the golden rule of stranger danger.)  As I walked from the rehearsal site to catch the metro to the performance location, a band director with three girls from her high school band picked me up. (I did recognize them from the rehearsal, so it seemed safe enough).  One of the girls played tuba, one played euphonium, and one was just there for moral support for her girlfriend (the euphonium player).  The first two were seniors and the last had graduated either last year or the year before.  I ended up spending my lunch break with them, and they turned out to be pretty cool people.  Apparently, they’ve been going every year since seventh grade.  The tuba player had a chronic case of the hiccups and apparently needs to get an MRI to make sure she doesn’t have a tumor on her brain stem (or something like that).  I have no idea how she plays tuba with the hiccups–I’ve tried, and it’s really, really difficult.  The euphonium player wanted to go to Claire’s to get earrings, for some reason.  The girlfriend had a great sense of humor.  After carrying the tuba around the mall to the food court (the rest of us had cases and left our instruments in the staging area), we sat and adorned it with lights, pipe cleaners, and ornaments for the decorated-instrument competition (it won, quite deservedly).  I’m not sure why I told you all that, except that it was amusing.

So I guess this post was a lot less deep and a lot more rambling than last week’s.  I’m getting together a good one (I hope) for next week, though, so stay tuned.

First Sunday of Advent: What Child is This?

My goal for this Advent season is to post each Sunday.  We’ll see if that actually happens…

I’m playing in TubaChristmas, which, despite being a “secular” event, features a lot of religious Christmas carols.  I was rehearsing the music and came upon “Greensleeves,” also known by its lyric name, “What Child is This?”  That song has become a sort of recurring theme over the past few days.  It’s been played on the radio, on my Grooveshark station, in church.  I’ve always been fond of the tune (I’m a sucker for traditional melodies), but I’ve always sort of brushed the lyrics aside.  To me, “laid to rest” is the phrase you use when someone dies and the word “ass” brings back memories of giggling in church during junior high.

Recently, though, I’ve been thinking about it more.  One thing I noticed when I looked up the lyrics to post here was that most renditions remove the lines “Nails, spear shall pierce him through, / The Cross be borne for me, for you” and replace them with something more Christmas-y.  I knew this was a fairly common practice (for example, “We Three Kings” usually has verses sung about gold and frankincense, but rarely myrrh–turns out, the verse about myrrh talks about “gathering gloom,” “sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,” and a “stone-cold tomb”), but I wasn’t aware it had been applied to this carol in specific.  I’m not sure whether I like that, though.  I understand: this is Christmas, not Good Friday.  We want Christmas music to be happy and Good Friday music to be somber.  But Christmas means nothing without Good Friday.

Another thing I’ve come to realize is that a lot of people really do ask “What Child is this?”  My life thus far has had a fairly Christian background–church, Christian neighbors, Christian school, Awanas, a lot of Christian cross country friends, etc.  I’ve had people tell me about their experiences with college roommates or other peers who are into Christmas but truly don’t understand its meaning (e.g., asking a Jewish person, completely naively, why they don’t celebrate Christmas).  I believed them, but it seems that I didn’t fully understand what they meant.  I do now.  People love the presents and the food and the family and the shopping and the vacation time and the whatever else–but they don’t love the Cause.  They don’t know who/what the Cause is.  They don’t know the Cause.  I can’t claim that I fully know Him either, but I know who He is.  Truly, they are asking “What Child is this?”  I can only hope that my life reflects just a little bit of the answer.

What Child is this, who, laid to rest,
On Mary’s lap is sleeping,
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet
While shepherds watch are keeping?
This, this is Christ the King,
Whom shepherds guard and angels sing;
Haste, haste to bring Him laud,
The babe, the son of Mary!

Why lies He in such mean estate
Where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christian, fear: for sinners here
The silent Word is pleading.
Nails, spear shall pierce him through,
The Cross be borne for me, for you;
Hail, hail the Word Made Flesh,
The babe, the son of Mary!

So bring Him incense, gold, and myrrh
Come, peasant, king, to own Him!
The King of Kings salvation brings;
Let loving hearts enthrone Him!
Raise, raise the song on high!
The virgin sings her lullaby.
Joy! joy! for Christ is born,
The babe, the son of Mary!

Apparently, nobody sings the verse about nails and a spear, so I settled with my favorite interpretation.

On another note, I find the adapted lyrics by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra to be quite thought provoking.  I’m not including the narration, just because it’s so long, but without context, it’s hard to appreciate the lyrics of the melodic portion, so here’s a link.

What Child is this
Who laid to rest
That I now find here sleeping?
Do angels keep the dreams we seek
While our hearts lie bleeding?

Could this be Christ the king
Whose every breath the angels bring?
Could this be the face of god, this child, the son i once carried?

What Child is this
Who is so blessed he changes all tomorrows?
Replacing tears with reborn years
In hearts once dark and hollow

Could this be Christ the king
Whose every breath the angels bring?
Could this be the face of god, this child, the son i once carried?

In the dead of the night
As his life slips away
As he reads by the light
Of a star faraway

Holding on
Holding off
Holding out
Holding in

Could you be this old
And have your life just begin?

Reading by the light of a lost Christmas day
It begins
Reading by the light of a lost Christmas day

Tell me how many times can this story be told
After all of these years it should all sound so old
But it somehow rings true in the back of my mind
As i search for a dream that words can no longer define

Reading by the light of a lost Christmas day
And the time
Reading by the light of a lost Christmas day

And the time and the years
And the tears and the cost
And the hopes and the dreams
Of each child that is lost
And the whisper of wings
In the cold winter’s air
As the snow it comes down
And visions appear everywhere

Reading by the light of a lost Christmas day
In the air
Reading by the light of a lost Christmas day

In the dead of the night
As his life slips away
As he reads by the light
Of a star faraway

Holding on
Holding off
Holding out
Holding in

Could you be this old
And have your life just begin

Reading by the light of a lost Christmas day
It begins
Reading by the light of a lost Christmas day
It begins
Reading by the light of a lost Christmas day
It begins
Reading by the light of a lost Christmas day
It begins