Saturday, December 16, 2017

Advent Journey: Day 16, Carols


Singing Christmas Carols is one of my all-time favorite activities.  I have such sweet memories from years past, going house to house with friends "Caroling for Compassion" where we would spread Christmas cheer through song, candlelight, and raising donations for Compassion International's Child Survival Program (this ministry provides extensive pre-natal care through toddler years in developing nations where child mortality rates are extremely high due to preventable causes).  I remember the giggles on children's faces and the tears in elderly's eyes when they would open their front door and see a group of carolers by candlelight with santa hats and candy canes.  I also have sweet memories of Historic New Castle's Annual Spirit of Christmas- this colonial town in Delaware has such a rich history dating back to even before our nation became a nation.  I remember singing for three or four hours in the town square with my sound system echoing off the stone walls and brick roads.  Hot chocolate kept me going all day, and of course St. Nicholas and Father Christmas!

Some of my most recent caroling memories are from sitting at the piano in my parent's living room- the one I grew up playing- with my nieces and nephews gathered around, singing out, dancing, and playing instruments from my collection of small instruments from around the world.  So much joy!  I have similar recent memories from Jamie's side of the family- in fact, just this year at Thanksgiving, since we wouldn't see many of them at Christmas, we did carols at his grandparent's house.  I brought my binder filled with carols and played his Grandma & Grandpa's piano.  His Uncle Tim brought his guitar, and the little toddler boys in the family all played cymbals, bells, maracas and the triangle with great enthusiasm, Joey right in the mix with his cousins!  

What is it that makes these memories some of the happiest of all time?  I think of the movies too- how when everyone comes together and sings Christmas carols, it's like all is well in the world.  Can you think back to a time when you were singing Christmas carols and suddenly in that moment felt this surge of joy, or overwhelming peace, or an abundance of love, or incredible hope?  Maybe it was the Christmas Eve candlelight service at church.  Or maybe it was your child's Christmas pageant when everyone joined in to sing "Silent Night" at the end?  Or maybe it was a flash mob at the mall?  Or maybe it was the "Hallelujah Chorus" in Handel's "Messiah"?  Or maybe it was the town tree lighting as everyone sang "We Wish You A Merry Christmas"?  Whatever it may be, we all know that feeling, when your soul seems to overflow with glee and this sense of unity with others and closeness to God, all because of a simple song.  

Two years ago, it was Jamie's and my first Christmas together as a married couple and we both were on the upswing of our long recoveries from surgery/chemo.  I was just slowly getting back to singing and my first few opportunities were Christmas events.  I was thrilled!  They were also Jamie's first events to get the swing of "roadie life" (which he caught the hang of so quickly- his learning curve with anything is amazing, and he is now the world's best roadie and partner in the music ministry.  My Dad knew he had passed the torch into good hands!)  Last year I didn't have much opportunity to sing around Christmastime because baby Joey was born two weeks before Christmas.  This year, I have been blessed to have an abundance of beautiful opportunities to lead Christmas carols with church groups and women's groups, and it gives me such joy!

Just today I had the chance to sing Christmas carols with the women of Hope Bible Church in Columbia, MD.  This event was incredibly meaningful to me, and I'll tell you why...My friend Susan invited me to come share some original music and lead the women in singing at their Bible Study Christmas Brunch.  Susan is the wife of Tom, who is the Senior Pastor at Hope Bible Church.  They are dear friends of ours.  I will forever vividly remember the day we met. It was July 13, 2015, which was Jamie's first day of chemotherapy at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.  We took a chemo class that morning in a small room completely packed with beautiful yet fearful faces.  I looked around and wondered what stories were behind each face, what diagnosis, what faith, what future...Then when we went back to the chemo pod, Jamie and I were crammed into a corner meant for only one patient and possible companion, but here we were with this couple- the man was the patient and his wife the companion.  All four of us elbow to elbow in a space meant for only one to two people.  Jamie and I held hands, bowed our heads and prayed before he began his first ever infusion.  When we lifted our eyes, we saw the smiles on the man's and woman's face.  They asked "Are you believers?" and we said "Yes!" They responded "We are too!" and we learned that Tom was a pastor of a church in Maryland.

At Johns Hopkins Hospital

This was just one of the many God-instances and Divine appointments in that chemo pod over those 9 intense weeks.  We became close friends with Tom and Susan and prayer partners over the course of Jamie's and Tom's treatment.  Tom and Jamie could grunt like men and just look at each other when they'd see each other, knowing one another's pain and trial. Susan and I could laugh, cry, hug, and pray for one another.  Singing Christmas carols together with Susan today and other sweet sisters in Christ at her church was one of the most beautiful moments this Christmas season, as we both were able to recount the faithfulness, miracles, and blessings of God over the past 2 1/2 years.  We ended with "O Come All Ye Faithful" and our hearts poured out adoration to Christ our Lord.  For He alone is worthy, and we will praise His Name forever!  This is a Carol that possibly dates back to the 13th century, and the current version we now sing is from the 18th century. Yet today, it felt like the song was written for just that providential time and place at the Ladies' Bible Study Brunch as we praised our Savior Jesus.  Like Mary, I want to treasure these moments up in my heart as I witness and experience the goodness of God.

At Hope Bible Church 12/16/17
Tom, Susan, Joey, Caitlin & Jamie

As I reflect on not only today's caroling experience, but the many times during Christmas over the years singing carols with family, friends, choirs, or other groups...I am brought back to the first ever few original Christmas carol found in the Gospel of Luke- the Angel's announcement in the skies, Mary's Magnificat and Zechariah's song of praise.  Let's read them together as we finish tonight's Advent Journey and may our hearts be filled with the song of carols!

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, "Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom His favor rests."
(Luke 2:13)

And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
    and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for He has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
    For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
    and holy is his name.
And his mercy is for those who fear him
    from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
    and exalted those of humble estate;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
    and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
    in remembrance of his mercy,
as he spoke to our fathers,
    to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”
(Luke 1:46-55)

 His father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied:
“Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,
    because he has come to his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a horn of salvation for us
    in the house of his servant David
(as he said through his holy prophets of long ago),
salvation from our enemies
    and from the hand of all who hate us—
to show mercy to our ancestors
    and to remember his holy covenant,
    the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
to rescue us from the hand of our enemies,
    and to enable us to serve him without fear
    in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;
    for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,
to give his people the knowledge of salvation
    through the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God,
    by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
to shine on those living in darkness
    and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.”
(Luke 1:67-79)

Friday, December 15, 2017

Advent Journey: Day 15, Star


There is something about the stars in the night sky that captivate and inspire the human spirit. Especially in rural, open places with no city lights, the big sky just shines so brightly with dazzling, countless stars in the heavens.  As a child, I loved looking up at the stars and dreaming. I was drawn to how magical they felt. I was fascinated with constellations and astronomy (though the only constellation I could ever find consistently was Orion). Looking at the stars has always prompted me to pray- not to the stars themselves of course, but to the Creator of the stars!  To see the vast expanse of the night is a reminder of how small we are, and how big our God is.  It is a reminder that He holds the Universe in place and that He has a perfect, orderly plan for our lives and for eternity.  It is a reminder of His sovereign power and beauty.

It's amazing to see how stars are woven through the fabric of the Scriptures, both before and after Christ's birth.  The Lord has used stars as figurative pictures and bold promises to speak to Israel.  Let's explore some of the Bible passages that speak of stars and see what treasures we can find!

And God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years, and let them be lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light upon the earth.” And it was so. And God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. And God set them in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth, to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.
(Genesis 1:14-19)

The God who created the world spoke the stars into being on day four.  He saw them as something good.  They were to assist the moon, which would be the lesser light, ruling the night. I am thankful God thought of such wondrous, creative light as stars!  And to put their sparkling brightness against the backdrop of the dark night...only the Divine Artist could think of such contrast and glory!

I see him, but not now;
    I behold him, but not near:

a star shall come out of Jacob,
    and a scepter shall rise out of Israel;
it shall crush the forehead of Moab
    and break down all the sons of Sheth.

(Numbers 24:17)

Some Bible scholars believe this prophecy by the sorcerer Balaam is what led the wise men to travel in search of baby Jesus. (While God does not condone sorcery, He can use even that which is sinful for His purpose and to fulfill His will.)

And beware lest you raise your eyes to heaven,
and when you see the sun and the moon and the stars,
all the host of heaven, you be drawn away
and bow down to them and serve them,
things that the Lord your God has allotted
to all the peoples under the whole heaven.
(Deuteronomy 4:19)

This verse is a warning against idol worship.  We live in a day now when creation is upheld more important than the Creator Himself.  People care so much for the earth, for the solar system, for the plants and animals and the sun and atmosphere, that they begin to make all of that their gods, forgetting the God who holds the universe in His hands.  We must beware in our own hearts of committing such idolatry.  Yes, we are called to take care of this planet and be good stewards of this world, because it is commanded by God, for it belongs to Him.  However, we are never to lift our eyes in worship of the creation instead of the Divine Creator.

Out of the mouth of babies and infants
you have established strength because of your foes,
to still the enemy and the avenger.
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him?
(Psalm 8:2-4)

We looked at the first part of this passage yesterday, remembering that God is praised through the mouths of infants and children...but all of creation cries out the glory of God, and when we look to the heavens and see the shining stars, we are reminded of how small we are in His vast glory and greatness!  I am truly humbled and in awe that the Lord personally cares for me when I observe His incredible creation.  (One of the reminders of this is when I am on a flight and see the incredible sky at nighttime from the window of a plane- it gets me every time!). 

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,

    for his steadfast love endures forever.
to him who made the great lights,
    for his steadfast love endures forever;

the sun to rule over the day,

    for his steadfast love endures forever;

the moon and stars to rule over the night,
    for his steadfast love endures forever;

(Psalm 136:1,7-9)

He heals the brokenhearted
    and binds up their wounds.

He determines the number of the stars;
    he gives to all of them their names.
Great is our Lord, and abundant in power;
    his understanding is beyond measure.

(Psalm 147:3-5)

This is one of my all-time favorite Psalms, so much so, that in college I wrote a song after it called "Fear to Fall".  When my heart feels wounded, all I need to do is look up into the stars, be reminded of God's sovereign power and love, and allow Him to minister healing and comfort to my soul.  We have nothing to fear when we fix our eyes on Jesus.

Praise him, all his angels;
praise him, all his hosts!
Praise him, sun and moon,
praise him, all you shining stars!
Praise him, you highest heavens,
and you waters above the heavens!
(Psalm 148:2-4)

Thus says the Lord,
who gives the sun for light by day

    and the fixed order of the moon
and the stars for light by night,
who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar—
    the Lord of hosts is his name:

(Jeremiah 31:35)

And those who are wise shall shine
like the brightness of the sky above;
and those who turn many to righteousness,
like the stars forever and ever.
(Daniel 12:3)

The Lord promises that we will shine like the stars if we honor him and choose righteousness and wisdom (both found in Christ alone).  How fitting that the Christ Child, whose coming was signaled by a star, places righteousness and wisdom into the hearts of His people, and in doing so, allows them to shine like stars!  

So here we are...we come to the Christmas story and the Magi from the east.  God moves in such amazing ways in the hearts of men, doesn't He?  For these particular men, He used a shining star in the Heavens to point to the King of Kings.  Then these mortals kings came and offered their gifts, their honor, their homage and allegiance.  May we, like the wise men offer our gifts, our honor, our homage, and our allegiance to Christ the King this Christmas and forevermore!

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” ...They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:
“‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’”
...They went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was.10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. 11 And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. 
(Matthew 2:1-12)