the humility of Jesus

Yesterday morning, I wasn’t planning to go to church; I was going to donate platelets instead.  (My prioritization of church, or lack thereof, is a topic for another post.)  But my hemoglobin was a little too low to donate, so I ended up walking into the 11:00 church service about 15 minutes in, toward the end of the singing.  Normally I carry a big, black leather-bound ESV study Bible to church, as well as a hardcover journal for taking notes.  (Never mind that I take notes mostly in order to stay awake in my church’s soft-seated, dimly-lit sanctuary and rarely go back and look at my notes.  Having the journal makes me look serious.)  But yesterday, because I didn’t think I was going to church, I didn’t have my Bible and journal.  So I walked in late, with no Bible (in a church where most people still carry bound Bibles) and with a new short, somewhat asymmetrical haircut that could, I suppose, be interpreted as countercultural.  And, because I don’t know the words very well yet, I didn’t sing most of the song that had just started when I walked in.  Taking together all of these factors, I was worried that the people next to me were going to assume I was a visitor, probably an “unchurched” one.

When my pastor began preaching on Matthew 12:15-21 (at least I had the YouVersion Bible app on my phone and could follow along), I quickly realized how silly my worries were–even if the people next to me were actually thinking about me, which is unlikely.  In that passage, Jesus heals a lot of people and then forbids them to tell anyone.  My pastor pointed to this action as a demonstration of Jesus’ humility: Jesus’ goal on earth was to do his Father’s will, not to “make his own name famous” (a phrase that is popular today in some church circles but is inconsistent with Jesus’ whole way of operating).  It’s not that Jesus didn’t want people hearing his message; he just didn’t want fame, which is shallow and temporary.  We as Christians, my pastor said, spend too much time doing image control, worrying about whether we’re giving a good impression of Christianity.  Even when we say that we don’t care what people think, we’re showing that we care what people think.  My pastor said that all we are called to do is to live in obedience (which sometimes means proclaiming a message verbally–that’s not what is being forbidden here); it is not our job to control how we’re perceived.

It made me think of Shusaku Endo’s Silence (okay, I haven’t read the book, but the movie absolutely wrecked me), which is about a man who has an intensely personal faith in God of which he cannot speak, but which, we understand in retrospect, has driven his actions all through his life.  This character doesn’t have the luxury of branding himself as a Christian, as so many of us do in America today, but all that matters to him is that he knows that God knows of his faithfulness.

I ended up putting away my phone and just listening to the sermon.  My church follows the current trend of putting the words of Scripture on the screens at the front, so I didn’t really need to follow along in my app anyway (unless I wanted to look at the context, which using the screens can’t really replace).  I tried to think of myself not as an individual sticking out like a sore thumb, but as another member of Christ’s body, just like the people next to me.  It helped.  I listened.  I worshiped.  And, wonderfully, I didn’t fall asleep!

 

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People, look East!

Did you know that, for the first time in 14 years, there are four Sundays in Advent this year?  I learned this yesterday when I attended St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Lynchburg, VA, as a change of pace from my home church.  I have no intention of switching churches anytime soon, but as I explained to several people, I enjoy attending liturgical services around holidays, especially Christmas.  My boyfriend was a good enough sport (maybe because he got to have breakfast at Market at Main first) to go along with me to this service involving a lot of standing, kneeling, and even walking up to the altar rail for Holy Communion.  (He said he was watching me and doing whatever I did.  I didn’t know what I was doing either; I was watching the person in front of me.)

We were also reminded in the sermon that right now, we are not technically in the Christmas season.  We are in Advent, and we will be until December 24, that rare fourth Sunday.  Christmas begins that night and goes until January 6, variously called Epiphany, Twelfth Night, and Three Kings Day.  Of course, as my evangelical friends will rightly remind me, we can celebrate Christmas all year, and the dates matter less than the substance of what actually happened and what it means for us.  But the significance of Advent is that it’s all about hope, expectation, and waiting.  These are not only essential disciplines for the Christian life but also just good general life habits.  Advent and Christmas, if we see them in their true Christian light, teach us that what we await far exceeds even the weeks of excitement and preparation.  The days after December 25 are not a letdown, as we often think of them, but a continued celebration of the long-expected Christ who has finally come.

Yesterday’s service closed out with a beautiful hymn by Eleanor Farjeon that I had never heard before.  I loved it so much (especially the bird verse, of course) that I wanted to share it with you.  Please enjoy it, and think about it this week when you start to wonder if Christmas is really worth all the fuss.  It is, and far more!  Think about it later this winter when you feel exhausted from walking around in the dark and shivering all the time.  Spring is coming!  And think about it throughout your life when you are tired of waiting for a break, waiting to see the fruits of your labor, waiting for your prayers to be answered in a way that you can see and understand.  Love is on the way.

(Note: I added the exclamation points because I felt they fit the tone of the song better than the periods that were printed in the bulletin.)

1. People, look East!  The time is near of the crowning of the year.

Make your house fair as you are able, trim the hearth and set the table.

People, look East and sing today: Love the guest is on the way.

2. Furrows, be glad!  Though earth is bare, one more seed is planted there:

Give up your strength the seed to nourish, that in course the flow’r may flourish.

People, look East and sing today: Love the rose is on the way.

3. Birds, though you long have ceased to build, guard the nest that must be filled.

Even the hour when wings are frozen, God for fledging time has chosen.

People, look East and sing today: Love the bird is on the way.

4. Stars, keep the watch! When night is dim, one more light the bowl shall brim,

Shining beyond the frosty weather, bright as sun and moon together.

People, look East and sing today: Love the star is on the way.

5. Angels, announce with shouts of mirth Christ who brings new life to earth!

Set every peak and valley humming with the word the Lord is coming.

People look East and sing today: Love the Lord is on the way.

 

 

I’m a church lady.

I hinted last week that I might post about Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them this week, but after watching the Blu-Ray, including the deleted scenes (which were enjoyable  but didn’t fill in any of the story gaps I’d hoped they would), I found that I don’t have a whole lot that’s new to say about the movie, except that I still love it, story gaps and all.  I will briefly mention, however, that I now have a favorite sequence: the one in which Newt and Jacob work together to catch the Erumpent in Central Park.  It starts off with that lovely little scene in which Newt does the Erumpent mating dance, showing that he has no problem making himself look ridiculous for the benefit of his beloved beasts (and making us love them too, vicariously).  After that, it’s a well-paced, purely fun caper through the park that solidifies the partnership between Newt and Jacob–at the end, the latter puts out his hand as if they’re meeting for the first time and finally says, “Call me Jacob.”  The music is also perfect in this sequence; it’s beautiful and sounds like something that should be in a ballet, but it has just enough of a sense of humor to fit the tone of the events.

But that’s not the topic of today’s post.  Instead, I want to write a little bit about the wonderful time I had this past weekend at my church’s women’s retreat at the Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove in Ashville, NC.  I think I’ve mentioned before on this blog that I’m a mountain lover, so it should come as no surprise that I enjoyed my surroundings, especially the feeling of being enveloped by the woods while zip-lining on Saturday.  I also enjoyed The Cove’s gourmet meals, the music and teaching sessions, and getting to sleep in almost total darkness and quiet.

But my favorite thing about the retreat was looking around and realizing just how many women from my church I recognize and, of those, how many I can call my friends.  This is significant to me not only because I belong to a large church, but also because for a long time, I didn’t think I was a “church lady.”  During college and for a number of years after that, I did not consider myself the type of person who would go to a women’s retreat–nor who would attend a Beth Moore Living Proof event (which I did last fall) or who would wear a piece of jewelry inspired by a book from a women’s Bible study I participated (and I love my necklace pendant that looks like the bird’s nest on the cover of Ann Voskamp’s One Thousand Gifts).

Now, when I look back on the period when I thought I wasn’t a church lady, I realize that my attitude largely stemmed from pride and prejudice.  (I promise that was not an intentional Jane Austen reference, but I decided to run with it.)  I had a very narrow definition of what a church lady was.  Although I couldn’t have pointed to one person who fit this description, my stereotyped mental image of a church lady didn’t like to read non-Christian fiction, hugged everyone who came across her path but didn’t really know them, would have considered me unspiritual and just plain weird for liking Harry Potter and rock music, and used Bible verses in all of her decorating.  She was also, although I may not have ever articulated this is a verbal thought, intellectually and spiritually inferior to me.

Of course, I was wrong, not to mention lousy with pride.  My erroneous thinking derived from two main problems.  First, I was forgetting that the true definition of a “church lady” is any woman who belongs to Jesus Christ, even if she lives in a country that doesn’t have a single Lifeway.  Second, I didn’t know very many women from my local church.  It took me a long time and some deliberate actions–serving in various ministries, becoming an official church member, deigning to attend Wednesday night Bible studies–before I really started getting to know some of them.  Now, in my church, I have running buddies, I have fellow Harry Potter fans, and I have women who may not have any superficial interests in common with me but with whom I can have a genuine conversation about life.  It was beautiful to look out over the crowd in our sessions over the weekend and realize that.

All flesh shall see it together

Last night, due to the cancellation of coffee shop gig by a local Celtic family band (more on them later, hopefully), I had the unexpected joy of attending a community choir’s performance of the Christmas portion of Handel’s Messiah.  I always have something of a beatific experience when hearing Messiah live–I’m usually one of the first to spring to my feet when the Hallelujah chorus begins.  This time, however, I had the additional pleasures of a beautiful setting and good companions.

The performance took place in a lovely old church, the kind that when you go in the front door, you walk directly into the sanctuary.  This architectural feature implies two things: first, the emphasis is on worship, and second, a visitor shouldn’t have to wander around looking for the service.  We sat over to the side, so I had a little trouble seeing the choir, but I had other things to look at, like Christmas trees, banners, and stained glass, as well as other things I enjoy seeing in churches, if only because of the novelty of the old: pews and hymnals.

I also got to look at people, one of my favorite activities.  The sanctuary was nearly full, and not just of older people who look like they attend a lot of cultural events; there were numerous children, only a few of whom looked bored, and–how do I say this without sounding like a classical music snob?–well, we parked next to a car with a NASCAR bumper sticker.  I also enjoyed watching the people who sat on either side of me in the pew: the two friends I had come with.  The one on my left had never heard most of the Messiah; the one on my right is an experienced singer who had participated in performances of the oratorio before.  The one on my left pulled out his phone and took a video during the Hallelujah chorus; the one on my right did interpretive hand motions (which I think were at least partly intended to make me laugh one of those awkward silent concert laughs) during at least one of the recitatives.  I have no doubt that they engaged in these activities not because they were bored, but because there is something about Handel’s masterpiece that makes everyone want to be an active part of it.  (I felt the same way.)  At one point, I watched both of them conducting with their hands in their laps.

What struck me perhaps most of all is that this was not a particularly masterful performance of the Messiah.  The choir and orchestra were perhaps too small to really nail some of the more “epic” pieces; the soloists were clearly amateurs.  And we did discuss some questionable interpretive choices in the car afterward.  But something about those old melodies and even older words can redeem even the most mediocre performance and draw everyone in, from a Handel newbie to an often critical seasoned performer (and, somewhere in between, Penelope Clearwater, who sings along with the Messiah CD in her car).  The Messiah is for everyone.  And yes, there’s a double meaning in that sentence.