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A Review: The Stories We Tell

The Stories We Tell

I’m not much of a TV watcher, and never have been.  Occasionally I’ll get wrapped up in a show though.  ER was my go-to choice for many years.  Currently The Walking Dead and Parenthood are two of my favorites, along with watching the current Superhero conglomerate of shows with my youngest boy (Gotham, Arrow, The Flash).

But, even if I’m not huge into TV and for the most part it is turned “Off” at our house, I am not unaware of it and it’s impact on society.  I’ll occasionally catch episodes of a mindless show, or delve back into The Twilight Zone or NCIS.  I’ll read news articles about different movies and shows (I’m much more apt to go see a movie than watch a TV show).  I can’t escape its influence.

Mike Cosper has written and engaging and thought-provoking book examining the ultimate story or thread that is woven through the stories we see on TV and the big screen.  He invites his readers to explore aspects of the fall, sin, violence, the desire and need for heroes, and our ultimate longings in the stories we tell.

Cosper is no elitist or snob.  He samples genres that fall on a wide spectrum:  Horror, Drama, Love Stories, classic and modern, comedy, shallow and deep.   He doesn’t recommend the stories he refers to–he simply points out underlying currents that we would be wise to take into account and learn from.

The writing is forthright and fairly insightful.  There were a couple of times I thought “Well, huh.  I never thought of it that way before”….which is always a good thing.  Did I learn anything mind-shattering?  No, but it has made me a bit more thoughtful as I’ve engaged in the handful of shows that I watch.  His words on social media were also very good.

I’ve sent a copy of the book to a young aspiring film-maker that I know who has tremendous dreams and aspirations.  Cosper addresses filmmakers specifically in his epilogue, and his words seem to be very solid.

I received a review copy of this book from Crossway Publishers.

 

Unspeakable

Unspeakable

There are some things that are……..unspeakable.

You have unspeakable things in your life’s story.  Things that are so painful, they cannot be uttered.  Things that are so slashing that there really are no words for them.  You have things you are deeply ashamed about, things that-if dwelled upon–can send you reeling in seconds, things that just hurt.  That ache.

I do, too.

We sometimes refer to these things as being “unspeakable” because to give voice to them lies in the nearly unbearable category.  To put them to words is an extremely rare event, and one that seems dangerous to us.

If we do so, it is a sacred moment.  A hallowed moment.  Even in the searing-ness of it all.

There are other things, as well, that are………….unspeakable.

We don’t always describe them as unspeakable.  We may even be much more apt to try to put this “something” into words.  We are certainly inclined to try to do so.  But often we cannot.  Often, there are not words to adequately describe these moments that are unspeakable.

They are moments of joy.

Joy is not happiness.  We can capture happiness in a picture, or in a few words, “I’m so happy to see you!”  “I was so excited to read that book!”  “It was a thrilling ride!”  But joy?  Joy is something quite different.

In this Advent season, we set our souls to Joy, on this third Sunday.  We—or I—look at it sideways, actually, like so many other things.  Afraid, as always, to look at it full on.  To look joy in the eyes.  Because, joy comes not as an object but in the form of a person–a tiny human, veiled deity, sleeping in a manger.  A person I can barely gaze upon.

Unspeakable.

Joy is not dependent upon circumstances.  It just isn’t.  Just tonight, at our church’s Christmas musical, a dear gentleman who is dying of the ugly that is cancer, greeted people from his wheelchair–weakly yet in joy.  And, maybe that is how we, too, should be found.  Weak, in joy.  Weak, because of the hard things of this life:  cancer, abuse, poverty, crime, grief.  Weak because of our sin.  Weak because of our shame.   Weak because of our abject neediness–our very dependence upon the very God.

It’s the joy that comes in the form of a weak, dependent baby.  Our Savior, once a child.  Always our God.  Once needy Himself; a helpless babe, yet clothed in majesty and all things strong.

Our own abject neediness goes against the grain of who I am.  It grates against my fiber like nails on a chalkboard.  And yet, I can’t deny that some of the most intense moments of joy in my life have been when I’ve been the weakest.  Holding a newborn baby, after giving birth.  On an isolated and lonely beach, staring at the ocean and thinking “Maybe God is real.  Maybe He knows my name.”  On my face in a darkened sanctuary at 3:30 am, with my ex-husband in prison and my children deeply hurting and nowhere to turn.

Those moments of joy simply cannot be described, and some certainly cannot be explained.  They just can’t.

And that’s why they are unspeakable.

Sometimes joy is so unspeakable, that it hurts.  Our English language is inadequate in this situation, but the Chinese have a word that expresses it perfectly:  “tung-kuai”, which means “painful joy”.

Yes, that’s it,  Painful joy.  Joy found in weakness.  Joy in the midst of pain.  Joy that is pain.  Joy that cries out for the coming Messiah–the one who has come and the one who is here with us and the one that will return someday.  Soon, please.

And, so.  And so we see in Isaiah again, in 61:10, what is and what is to come:

I will greatly rejoice in the Lord;
    my soul shall exult in my God,
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation;
    he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself like a priest with a beautiful headdress,
    and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.

There are no words to capture the joy of salvation.  There are no words to wrap around being covered with the robe of righteousness.

These things–they are unspeakable.

15 Thanks be unto God for his unspeakable gift.

2nd Corinthians 9:15

“Lost Baby Jesus”, Christmas Cookies, Fashionable Wise Men: The Joy of the Christmas Musical

Musical

Every year, the thought crosses my mind:  Maybe I’ll not participate in this year’s Christmas Musical at church.  There’s always a litany of (completely illegitimate and erroneous) reasons–I’m busy, they don’t need me, work is intensely insane, I can’t make all of the rehearsals, and blah, blah, blah.

And, every year, the pull to participate thankfully wins out.

This year is no different.  I had the very same misgivings way back in August or September,  when we did the initial run-through on a Sunday afternoon in our church gymnasium, festively decked out in spite of the summer dragging on outside.  I had the same thoughts as work and other trips and kid activities and extreme vehicle challenges kept me from attending the rehearsals like I should have.  I had the same thoughts even two days ago as I frantically finished up a last-minute work task and flew to the church for dress rehearsal, arriving 20 minutes late, sheepishly and harried.

But, here it is Friday “Opening” night again, and in one hour we’ll begin final prep for this year’s musical.  And, once again, I am thankful for this opportunity.  This gift.  And, here’s why:

Music

Usually by this time in the season, my warmth for Christmas music is wearing a little thin.  Not this year, though I’m not sure why.  I’ve had a great time blasting Christmas tunes while working and cleaning and driving around town.  And, although I lost my musical practice CD, um, several several several weeks ago (a yearly thing for me), I’ve located a couple of the songs we are singing in the musical and added them to my daily play list.  Have you ever wondered why music is such a part of the Christmas season?  I have, many times.  I wonder if it has anything to do with Psalm 71:23 and so many other similarly worded verses from other Psalms:

My lips will shout for joy,
    when I sing praises to you;
    my soul also, which you have redeemed.

Joy.  That is what the story of the birth of Jesus entails.  Joy unspeakable, for his birth facilitated the redemption of our souls.

Creativity

I. am. not. an. actor.  I couldn’t be in a skit or a play if my life depended upon it.  I’ve done them before.  I hate doing them.  I don’t get nervous or scared, I’m just no good.  I am awkward and ridiculous.  But, goodness, I admire those who can elegantly create a role on stage that conveys a story to the audience.  And, it is so much fun when it is done by people you know and love–getting to see such creative acting talent is always so much fun.  My favorite character this year?  Grover, the county police man, with the Southern-Bubba accent so thick you could slice it.

Baby Jesus

What’s a Christmas musical without the somewhat-typical-and-sometimes-not-always-completely-accurate-in-setting-and-depiction “Nativity Scene”?  And, what’s a nativity scene without a “Baby Jesus”?  I love seeing who baby Jesus is going to be played by each year.  Each of my crew have been Baby Jesus when they were itty bitty (and shepherds, and angels, but I don’t think we’ve had wise men.  We have had Biscuit the sheph-dog.)  In Hawaii, we had a baby Jesus who went on to play Claire’s baby in the hit TV show “Lost”.  This past Wednesday night during dress rehearsal, “Mary” brought me baby Jesus (she was just so cute).  I’m not a big “baby” person because they usually cry when around me, but oh, goodness, he was so cuddly to hold, with his shock of the blondest hair you’ve ever seen and his sweet, chunky baby rolls and big eyes.  I even kissed his chipmunk cheek and left my over-makeup-ized lip print (see note below on makeup) on his cheek.  Yep, baby Jesus is definitely a highlight of the Christmas musical each year.

Wise Men

Which, brings me to the wise men.  You know the ones–sometimes they are deacons, maybe Sunday School teachers, Ushers, Stewardship Committee members, Elders, Building and Grounds workers–a variety of backgrounds.  I don’t know why, but the wise men always crack me up.  I love watching them be told where to stand with their gifts, in their gold painted, jewel encrusted paper or plastic crowns and their lovely robes.  This year’s most fashionable wise man is sporting a peach lame’ (I don’t even really know what lame’ is, but it sounds good), shimmering gown.  Giggle.

Orchestration

I don’t know how they pull it off, but every single year, our church band pulls out all the stops for the musical and blows us away with their performance.  And I know we don’t thank them enough.  They are incredible.  This year, I’m particularly enjoying the addition of two violins, a french horn, and our drummer’s son, who has taken over the chimes, jingle bells, the other pretty thing that I can’t think of the name of it, and a couple of cymbals.  He’s doing a fantastic job, as are the rest of our band members.  I’m also envious of them, cause they get to wear black every year.

Make-up

Ok, this part I don’t like.  At all.  I don’t like to wear make-up in real life; mainly because I really don’t know how to put it on.  The idea of caking it on for the musical (which I know is necessary so those on stage do not look like Casper), well, let’s just say that I put an extra layer on at home, then try to avoid the make-up room at all costs once I arrive.  This was worked for years.

Matching Outfits

Ok, so this is another thing that I’m not crazy about.  But, hey, we look better if we’re all kind of sort of in the same similar kind of get-up (for the choir).  But, like I said above, the orchestra are the lucky ones.

Atmosphere

There is something unique in the atmosphere of the sanctuary during the Christmas musical.  A buzz, if you will.  I always love being in the sanctuary at night anyway.  Add to that the huge Christmas trees with their lights, the tones of the band warming up, and the hushed anticipation, and it just “feels” like Christmas.

Live Animals in the Sanctuary

Ok, so the church I attend today doesn’t have live animals in the Christmas musical, but man, I wish they did!

Dedication and Hard Work

Every year I’m astounded by the gifts of talent (see “Creativity” above) that are brought together for the Christmas Musical–or any Christmas Event.  Soloists, Actors, Children, Set Builders, Directors, Organizers, Instrumentalists, Costume Designers, Program Printers, Behind-the-scenes workers, Sound, projection and lighting technicians, custodian; the list of jobs is long and there are probably a zillion I am unaware of, and every year people give selfishly of their time to provide the best leadership and support possible.  It’s truly, truly amazing.

Children Singing

Ok, another cute-factor bonus.  All those little, ahem, cherubs, dressed in their Christmas duds, singing their hearts out.  Loudly.  I’m particular fond of the ones who wave at the audience, fall off of the risers, hit their buddies, and pick their noses.  Nose-pickers are my favorite.

New Faces

Granted, I can’t really see them from the stage because of the lighting, but I kind of take a peek into the audience before-hand cause I’m restless and am no good sitting in my assigned-off-stage seat.  I love seeing people I don’t know out in the auditorium.  Love it.  I love it on a Sunday morning, and I love it during the musicals.  I love seeing families attending together.  I love seeing my crew all there, attending together (even though they aren’t new faces to me).  There is just something very awesome about visitors at Christmas time….which leads me to my next point:

Gospel

It’s hard to imagine that there is someone in the United States that hasn’t heard the story of Jesus’ birth.  I know that there are; of course there are.  But here in Virginia, it’s hard to fathom, apart from some potential international students who may be attending.  But just because you know the birth story of Jesus doesn’t mean you know the core of Gospel.  “Gospel” essentially means “Good News”.  But, how can something be Good News to you, if you don’t understand it?  Or if you doubt its truth; its validity?  In those cases, it may still be Good News, but not to your soul.  Not to your mind.  Putting the Gospel into music and words and images combined with a clear explanation changes things up a bit.  It’s like shining a flashlight–the concentrated light blinds the periphery, allowing one to focus on the object in the circle of the light. Not that the periphery should not be taken into consideration–but many times it is so noisy that clear consideration can not be given.  The Christmas musical provides just that–clear consideration of truth.

Cookies

Most musicals I know of include some sort of cookie or dessert social following.  I’m not big on the social aspect of it, but gosh, I love cookies.  What’s not to love about Christmas cookies?

**Disclaimer:  The above stock photo is not a photo of the musical at our church.  The picture above contains “Jazz Hands”.  You’ll see that “Jazz Hands” is not on my list above.  If Jazz Hands were a requirement, I probably wouldn’t have a list to write.  Just say no.  To Jazz Hands.

Night of Hope

Hope Bracketed by Agony ~ Advent

Longing

I would have to say that the words of Psalm 38 are the first words I ever truly prayed in true longing–in hopes that the God I had heard about all my life was real.  Longing that the God I had determined did not exist, truly would exist.  The words of Psalm 38 were the first words I had ever truly thrown out into the universe, begging that there be a God big enough to hear them and to answer the anguish of my soul.

O, I had prayed to God long before that.  As a child.  As a teen.  I can barely stand to think of those times. I certainly cannot write about them.  And then, following those times, there was a seemingly endless stretch where I did not pray at all.  For years.

Today, on this second Sunday of Advent, I’ve taken some time to examine Hope.  I’ve poured over Isaiah 40:1-11, and from there I took a look at previous notes I’ve made about Hope, which brought me to Psalm 39.  Which always, always, reminds me of Psalm 38, because of its proximity.  But today, a fresh connection was made in my mind.  And soul.

Psalm 38 is an agonizing Psalm.  Psalm 39 is as well.  Different from Psalm 38, and yet similar, too.  And, here is something very interesting and what I saw for the first time today.  Smack dab in the middle of both Psalms, lies hope.  Bracketed on both sides by pain, the kernel–the core–is hope.  Look first at Psalm 38:15:

But for you, O Lord, do I wait;
    it is you, O Lord my God, who will answer.

Right there ensconced on all sides by pain (Vs. 1-14 and Vs. 16-22) is Advent.  Right there, is longing.  Waiting.  Waiting for the only one who can answer.

Look secondly at Psalm 39:7:

“And now, O Lord, for what do I wait?
    My hope is in you.

Again, ensconced on all sides by pain (Vs. 1-6 and Vs.8-13) is Advent.  Longing.  Waiting.  Hope found only in the God who answers, according to Psalm 38.

It’s hope that is encased in agony.  In groanings.  It’s a world, waiting for the birth of the Messiah.

But the birth of Jesus without the death of Jesus, is meaningless.  His death for the forgiveness of our sins is what makes the hope–the longing, the waiting–so acute.  We may not recognize it as such; however, it is there, in the waiting.

Astoundingly, even that is found in both of these wrenching Psalms.

Return to Psalm 38…to verse 18:

I confess my iniquity;
    I am sorry for my sin.

I remember reaching these words in Psalm 38 and coming to a screeching halt.  For many reasons, but mainly because I could not find a way around them.  The need to confess sin.  The need to be sorry for my sin, and not in a “sorry, not sorry” sort of way.  Genuine repentance.  Repentance that costs something.  But I couldn’t pay for my sins, as much as I wanted to.  As much as I tried to.  I needed a Messiah.  A baby, born as God in flesh, willing to lay down His life for me.  For my salvation.

Now back to Psalm 39…to verse 8:

Deliver me from all my transgressions.

Deliver me yes, from the pain bracketing the hope.  From the agony.  But also from all my transgressions.  For only then is hope realized.  Fully.

Will He though?  Will this God-child, this gift to mankind that we can not begin to understand, be able to accomplish the very thing that our sin-sick and weary souls long for?

The answer is found in the words of the prophet Isaiah, who foretold the coming birth of the only one who could provide that forgiveness.  Who announced the coming Messiah.  Spoken to Jerusalem, yes.  True for us, yes.  When we call upon His name.  See these words here, in Isaiah 40:1-2:

Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
    and cry to her
that her warfare[a] is ended,
    that her iniquity is pardoned,
that she has received from the Lord‘s hand
    double for all her sins.

We are assured this in 1 John 1:9:

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness

This is wherein hope lies…a child, wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.  A child, who we are beckoned to gaze upon and live–“Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see; Hail the Incarnate Deity”.  The one who would suffer, and die for the forgiveness of our sins, and then be raised again to return some day, to take us home. Home.  The only one who sees and knows.  The only one who can offer hope in the midst of our pain.  The only one who can pardon our iniquities.  The only one who can bridge the yawning gap in our souls.

I have stumbled upon a new song this Christmas season–one that my youngest girl and I will have the gift of sharing with our church this Christmas season.  The words sum up entirely this hope and the lifting of our shame–the yoke of sin has been broken.  He has pierced the night.

He Who Is Mighty (Sovereign Grace)

Oh, the mercy our God has shown
To those who sit in death’s shadow
The sun on high pierced the night
Born was the Cornerstone

Unto us a Son is given, unto us a Child is born

He Who is mighty has done a great thing
Taken on flesh, conquered death’s sting
Shattered the darkness and lifted our shame
Holy is His name

Oh, the freedom our Savior won
The yoke of sin has been broken
Once a slave, now by grace
No more condemnation

Now my soul magnifies the Lord
I rejoice in the God Who saves
I will trust His unfailing love
I will sing His praises all my days