Lays His Glory By

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We attended a local Christmas Eve service last night – thankfully, no bats in the sanctuary –  and sang “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”. Not the first time we’ve sung it, and probably won’t be the last. You know the song:

Hark! the herald angels sing
Glory to the newborn king…

Now you have the Charlie Brown Christmas version in your head, right? Admit it.

The team last night, either on purpose or by mistake, changed the words. The third verse says:

Hail the Heav’n-born Prince of Peace!
Hail the Son of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings
Ris’n with healing in His wings
Mild He lays His glory by
Born that man no more may die
Born to raise the sons of earth
Born to give them second birth
Hark! the herald angels sing:
“Glory to the newborn King!”

But we sang “mild he lays his glory by” for the second verse, too. It bothered me. Not just because the words were wrong, though for the life of me I couldn’t remember the right ones. Just an old Episcopalian here, folks, singing hymns and carols for most of her natural-born life. Anyway, then it hit me in the gut.

Mild he lays his glory by…

We don’t lay our glory by in any mild fashion. No. When we run the 100-yard dash in 6 flat, everyone knows. If we sing for the queen, Instagram lights up. If we get all As, it’s the biggest news since the moon landing. We celebrate our successes, and well. And that’s not all bad.

That wasn’t Jesus’ path. He let his deity rest in human flesh. It was enough. He didn’t strive. He didn’t self-promote. No paparazzi lined up for shots of the manger or the bewildered parents. He let his life unfold into being the King of kings and Lord of lords. It was enough to be humble and join us in our humanity.

Today, I am grateful. All 4 of us are home and soon the house will be filled with family and friends. It’s weird to be home on a Wednesday to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Not going to lie. But maybe Jesus was born in the middle of the week, too, awkward for everyone in the short-term. Yet what an eternal blessing to us all.

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  – Isaiah 9:6

 

Journey of 2,000 Miles

This morning, we fly to Wisconsin. We were just there back in July, visiting Jonathon’s folks. Today we make the trek again because his mom has brain cancer. I’ve hesitated to write this, because I want her to beat it. She’s an amazing woman, strong and unstoppable, able to do almost anything she sets her mind to. But the fact is the doctors have given  her less than a year to live.  Hence the trip.

I’m sitting here typing this in front of the fake fire. It’s raining outside. Zac is showering. Ruby is doing whatever takes teenage girls so long to do in the a.m. Jonathon is reading something on his phone. It’s quiet. Right now, I need the quiet. It’s been go-go-go for weeks now, with the church Christmas program last night plus ensuing rehearsals f work exploding and me trying to fix it, navigating power outages (at work), and on and on.

I am tired. Coffee has touched the exhaustion, but barely. I am tired down to my hair. Even my fingernails feel pooped. All I want to do is curl up in bed and sleep until next week.

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One can dream.

I’m looking forward to the time with my immediate family and the Isham clan. We’ve got a 2-hour drive to SEA-TAC, a four hour flight and then a 3-hour drive to our rental home. Wisconsin has snow. Tempts are slightly above freezing during the day and then slide down to the 20s at night, at least in Beaver Dam, which is where we’re staying. Christmas forecast shows a light dusting of snow is possible. The kids are stoked.

It’s going to be good. I will lean on the joy of the Lord and He will hold me up. He will hold all of us up.

But those who trust in the Lord will find new strength.

They will soar high on wings like eagles.

They will run and not grow weary.

They will walk and not faint. – Isaiah 40:31

 

Sudden Snow

I haven’t posted in a while. The combination of illness, lack of Wi-Fi when blogging opportunities arose, and then the whirl of Christmas festivities made it difficult to find the time.

Something unusual happened on Christmas Eve. In the early morning when the light appeared, Mt. Rainier’s top was cut off by a cloud-blind. It looked like an enormous Bob Ross had blotted it out. My phone blew up with winter weather advisories. As the day progressed, the white sky cover rolled all the way down. The mountain disappeared from view.

Ruby and I were outside, playing fetch with Dakota when the flakes started. At first it looked like ashes drifting down, remnants of a bonfire.

“It’s snowing!” I cried. Ruby lit up with delight.

We tried catching them on our tongues, despite Lucy of Peanuts’ fame’s admonition that December snowflakes aren’t ripe yet.

The snow fell gently at first. It stopped and started. The temperature hovered at just above freezing. Nothing stuck. Then, the sun slipped below the horizon. The snow started coming down harder. The ground accumulated white. Traffic slowed outside, muffled by the drifts.

Ruby and Dakota clowned around outside, guided by the Christmas lights . Ruby made snowballs and threw them to Dakota, who caught them in her mouth. They broke around her muzzle in an icy white wave. The friends ran up and down the yard. They jumped and slid.

I watched the white curtain from the warm indoors.

We don’t get white Christmases here very often. When they do occur, it feels like a celebration.

The snowfall felt like hope. This seemed like God reaching down and saying, “I remember you. I know you wonder which end is up sometimes, but I know. I’ll guide you if you let me.”

The snowfall felt like peace, causing a moment of slow motion as Christmas arrived and we all sang “Silent Night”.

The snowfall felt like joy. A baby boy born in the most unlikely place to the most unlikely people, God transported into history. Joy to the World!

God can work in a “suddenly” way. And when He does, it’s wonderful.

Little by Little

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(source)

Anticipation hovers in the air as Christmas approaches. The days grow shorter. The sun dies around 4:30 every day, leaving burnt ribbons of light on the horizon. The rest of the time, the sky stays gray. But what hit me this year is that lots of trees and plants stay green. Heck, evergreens surround us – cedar, Douglas fir, Ponderosa Pine, hemlock. It’s so easy to focus on the dismal. Why not gaze on the vibrant that remains?

I guess it’s like how we age. I’ve got gray hairs marching onto my head on a minute-by-minute basis, despite Clairol’s tricks. Wrinkles congregate on my forehead and at the corners of my eyes and mouth. Certain body parts are, ahem, migrating south permanently, probably to Florida.

What’s a girl – or boy -to do in the face of inevitable change? Well, celebrate who you are, of course, aside from your physical attributes.  This earthly body will pass away. Take care of yourself with kindness, and make the most of your good features. Remember you are fearfully and wonderfully made, no matter what the mirror says. And be thankful. Because nothing makes a person more beautiful than pure joy and gratitude.

And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. – Philippians 4:8

Winter Solstice

 

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Today is the shortest day of 2015. It’s clear and cold. I stepped out into the still-night a.m. and looked up at the sky. A sprinkling of stars winked at me. sassy after all the rain and even a bit of snow we got yesterday.

I ran in our neighborhood. The wet pavement glowed with the shine of stars, streetlights and neighbors festive Christmas lights. As my feet found their rhythm, I thought about darkness and light.

Today  marks the end of losing light for 2015. Tomorrow, we get an extra minute of light. One minute. Sixty seconds. Doesn’t amount to much. I liken it to putting pennies in a jar, one day at a time. It takes forever to get a pile together. But by summer time, we’ll have light until almost 10:00 p.m. Okay, we also get a boost from Daylight Savings Time in there, too.

 I’m encouraged that during this darkest time of year, Jesus shows up. You can argue that the Roman-era Christians moved the birth to winter in order to give people something to celebrate and to counteract the Winter Solstice celebrations of the Celtic peoples. I’m fine with that. Because Jesus truly does come to us when we’re at our lowest, bottomed out, completely whipped, backs flat on the mat of life.  The truth remains.
The people who walk in darkness will see a great light. For those who live in a land of deep darkness, a light will shine. – Isaiah 9:2

In Defense of Performance

Today’s guest blogger is my husband, Jonathon. He addresses the concern about worship vs. performance in the church service. Enjoy!

I have seen a lot of articles on Facebook and elsewhere lately that try to parse the difference between ‘performance’ and ‘worship’. They state that the Christmas and Easter services should be much like their normal weekly counterparts in an attempt to avoid a sense of performance and focus all energies on worshiping Christ. They seem to pit the ‘production value’ of lights, sound systems, video production and multiple practices against ‘true worship’. They tend to advocate for us modern-day Christians to eschew the performance (or entertainment) and get back to true worship of the living God.
This past Easter weekend (2015), I spent 8 straight days volunteering at my church to set up for the Easter Production. I took 3 days off of work to cover it.
  • Ash Wednesday I drove to the closest major city to pick up rented sound gear.
  • Maundy Thursday I set up the rental gear in the sanctuary, as well as re-configured all the audio gear and instruments to make a space for the acting happening on stage….and picking up props…and building the back curtains…and typing and printing a 14 page cue list for multiple sound, light and video techs…and a 3 hour night rehearsal…and 30 minutes for dinner.
  • Good Friday was a day of rest….2 hours finishing set-up and a 3 hour night rehearsal.
  • Saturday I took another 2 hours fixing things and making the final prep for Easter Sunday.
  • Sunday call time was 7:30 a.m. and 2 performances (9 and 10:30), ending around 1 p.m.
  • Monday I returned all the rented gear back to the major city.
  • Tuesday saw me breaking down and reconfiguring the instruments on the stage.
  • Wednesday I cleaned the stage, reconfiguring the lights back to the regular services setting.
Eight days and 50+ hours of work for an Easter performance…and I loved every minute of it!
I believe every minute of work that I put into the production was part of my worship to my God. I want to be excellent in all the He gives me to do. I use my hands to honor Him. I use my feet to honor Him. I use my voice to honor Him. I will use every talent and ability available to me (and some I have not yet developed) in worship to the One who is worth of the best I have to bring.
So…excuse me for being a little defensive and cranky when I read that performance has no part in ‘true’ (or ‘pure’, as one article put it) worship to our God. I simply cannot disagree more. I thought it high time someone stood up for ‘performance’ in church.
I have a college degree in Music and am a classically trained vocalist. I attended both secular and Christian colleges to obtain my music degree, and at both types of universities, the music department was part of the college of fine and performing arts. Note that second descriptor: “performing” arts. Music is an art form that must be performed. Assuming the articles I disagree with mean the music portion of the service when they talk about worship (which is not a true association, but that’s another blog), then there’s no way that the music part of the service can be devoid of ‘performance’ unless your entire service is devoid of music. Singing “Heart of Worship” acapella is still music, and therefore ‘performance’, no matter how poorly sung.
I was a vocal major in college, so after I learned the notes and the correct pronunciation of the language (which is only the beginning of good music, not the end), I focused on performance techniques, such as:
  • Vocal inflection
  • Body Movement for emphasis
  • Facial expression for connection to audience
  • Vowel Modification for clear diction in extreme registers
  • Diction/articulation – for understandable words
  • Resonance – to carry the pitch further
  • Vowel Placement – for tone changes based on the song type
All of these aptitudes make for a better experience for the attentive audience and an easier and better performance for the artist. These performance techniques make high songs more manageable, difficult lyrical passages easier, fast-paced songs more understandable and a host of other benefits – but these are all techniques I learned to help in the ‘performance’.
In addition to my musical studies, I was blessed to study acting, psychology, education and marketing. I finished with a PhD in Education (in case you were wondering), but through my studies of other arts and sciences, I have learned more performance techniques, including:
  • Color theory in psychology and marketing (affecting mood of music/worship and extending the feeling of the song)
  • Lighting techniques (to guide attention of the audience/congregation)
  • Set building and set design techniques
  • Drama production and direction techniques (including a stint as a drama teacher)
  • Sound reinforcement techniques for live production…and many more
All of these count as performance techniques. I’m told to put all of this away so that I can get back to ‘true worship’, as if Jesus doesn’t want me to use what I’ve gleaned over the years in an effort to ‘only worship Him’. He gives us gifts and abilities. Using them to His glory is worship. Hiding them is the opposite of worship (see Matthew 25:14-30).
Some would say that the lights, multiple practices and scripted cues would lead to focus on worshiping ourselves and our abilities instead of God. I  concede that it can. In that concession, though, I would ask for a concession from you, dear reader. I would ask you to concede that having no lights and no ‘performance’ can just as easily lead to an attitude of ‘look at me worshiping the right way’…and then what?
See…the trouble has never been the talents, but the heart. It’s not ‘performance’ but what/whom you are performing for. Judging the heart by the ‘performance’ is just as evil as performing for our own glory, isn’t it? We are constantly told not to judge people by their outward appearance but that God looks at the heart. Yet we see one ‘high production’ number and think that everyone involved must be in it for themselves.
We should run away from performance that puts the focus on the performers. However, an intimate, acoustic set that worships its own simplicity should be shunned as well. Both could be equally effective in leading people to worship Jesus ‘in spirit and in truth’, but both could be equally damaging to a congregation when the focus is wrong.
So…how about we stop this fighting and complaining about the church shying away from performance and get back to ‘true’ or ‘pure’ worship? How about we discover what God wants from us and what our congregation needs from us worship leaders, and do it? Let’s serve our congregations, our pastors and our God the way they need us to. Stop telling us we’re doing it wrong because we utilize the different gifts our body has. Stop giving performance a bad rap.
I have always said that when I get to Heaven, I can’t wait for the wedding feast of the Lamb. I don’t want a place at the table though, I want to be the entertainment. That’s gonna be a party like we have never seen before, and I am gonna put on a show! He deserves nothing less.
Dr. Jonathon Isham