Pilgrim Notes

Reflections along the way.

Month: December 2013

Christmas Trees in Advent


Advent rhythms gently beat in my heart while Christmas carols boom in my ears. I feel torn between the deep ache of Advent longing and the joyful outbreak of Christmas festival. How do I hold these two distinct rhythms together? How do I journey from the Jews crying out in exile to shepherds rejoicing at the manger?

Last Monday night we visited some friends who live in a 150-year-old family cabin. Stepping into their home felt like stepping into the past. It was as though I stood in the present and the past at the same time. Is there a way to keep standing in Advent reflection while also standing in the middle of Christmas trimmings?

Christmas joy lights my city. I see bright blue, green, red and white trees glowing atop the buildings. Shiny, happy trees spring up in homes, in yards, in stores and even in some churches. Like hearty fruit trees, the branches of these evergreens hang low with the colorful ornaments and glistening lights.

Ezekiel also sees trees all around him, but these trees are not shiny or happy. They are burning. They are falling. They reveal a world coming to an end. Looking back at the sparkling Christmas tree, I begin to see shadows of another age, a sad struggle, a world falling, a prophet crying. Egypt and Assyria who once stood tall like proud Cedars of Lebanon came tumbling down when the ax was laid at the root. One by one the nations around Judah fell. Then Judah toppled. The people of God were dispersed into the darkness of Babylon. Eventually Babylon falls.

The kingdoms of the world fell and will continue falling till the end of the age. No matter how great, how glorious the powers of world may be, they will not always stand. Kingdoms topple before the King. Wicked rulers who oppress their people, wicked managers who take advantage of their employees, wicked parents who abuse their children: all kings and kingdoms will fall. Evil will not prevail. The ax is laid to the root. Only one kingdom will stand: A kingdom of love.

I continue to gaze into the Christmas tree, and I am remembering a tree stump that came back to life. Isaiah looks at that stump of the House of David where the tree once was, and boldly says,

“There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.
                        And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him,
the Spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and might,
the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.” (Is 11:1-2)

From a dead stump, the Kingdom of God springs forth with life eternal. He is the tree that appeared the least of all seeds. So often His kingdom looks weak, failing, falling and fading. Actually, His tree, his kingdom will one day grow greater than all the trees, “so that the birds of the air will come and nest in its branches” (Matt 13:31-32).

I gaze back at the Christmas tree, and I think that maybe it is standing in two places at once. The plainchant of Advent longing stills sounds in our Christmas joy and glimpses of Christmas joy penetrate the plainchant of Advent longing. Joy and sorrow are distinct and yet bound up in one another.

During Advent, I long for the king who is coming and whose kingdom of love and life will prevail. The colorful ornaments on the Christmas tree remind me of a fruit that bring will bring healing to the nations. Beholding the lights, I rejoice that His kingdom of light will shine brighter than the noonday sun.

image by duane schoon (used by permission via Creative Commons)

I’ve Got a Mansion

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen I was growing up, we would sing,

“I’ve got a mansion just over the hilltop
In that bright land where we’ll never grow old
And someday yonder, we’ll never more wander
But walk on streets that are purest gold.”

I liked that idea: moving into a big mansion someday, sitting on the veranda, gazing out over the rolling green hills of my estate. In fact, I thought it would be nice to enjoy that mansion sooner rather than later.

We visited the Biltmore House, and I thought, “Now this is where I’d like to live.” There’s plenty of room to spread out. Friends could come to visit, enjoy a feast of food, play a few games, chat until the early morning hours and sleep late. We’d be living the life of Riley, er Vanderbilt.

I started dreaming about houses. For years, I’d dream about gigantic houses. The inside of the house always seemed so much larger than the outside. Inevitably, I’d discover rooms that I didn’t even know existed. Many of these dreams were spent exploring. Last summer, I went down to the basement of my “dream house” and discovered a warehouse-sized room. The room was filled with young people and a band was playing at the far end. Cool. I never realized there was a band playing in my basement.

As we wait in Advent anticipation, I’m thinking about those houses. Maybe it’s the cold outside. I’m thinking about staying with my bride and cuddling up on a cold night in front of the fire. What a blessing. A house provides protection from the wind and rain and snow.

What do you do in a house? You live there. You eat meals. You talk, tell stories, laugh, and maybe cry. You relax. When you’re in your own home, you can let down your guard. Walk around in your pajamas. Watch TV. Read a book. Play a game. You might decorate the house with pictures of friends and relatives. Your house is one of the key places for remembering. From looking at pictures to celebrating birthdays, you have rituals of remembering the family. It’s a place of refuge and protection from the elements and from intruders. The house is a place where you care for your body, your physical needs: from cleaning to resting to healing from sickness. A house is or should be a safe place. It’s a place to enjoy your friends and family. You could say that a house is built to hold a family.

God builds houses and teaches his people to build houses. The writer of Hebrews tells us, “For every house is built by someone, but He who built all things is God” (Heb 3:4). He taught Noah how to build a house that floats (the ark). Think about it. He showed Noah how to build a house that was still standing after Judgment Day.

Judgment Day, oddly enough, is connected to Advent. The Book of Common Prayer Daily Office Lectionary focuses on the book of Amos for the first two weeks of Advent. Two weeks of reading passages about God’s judgment and fire, burning down the houses of Israel’s neighbors and finally consuming Israel. When judgment falls, the houses built on sand fall, “Splat!”

Some really big houses have been built on sand. Think about Pharaoh’s house. It was big. Really big. It was also a house of slavery and it would not, could not stand.

As it turns out, our world is filled with houses of slavery, houses of anger, houses of pain and toil. The world is full of empty houses of loneliness, absence, and forgetfulness.

If a house holds relationships, think of all the broke-down houses: families, business, communities where people are hurt and hurt one another: No warm cuddly fires; no joy-filled music; only painful words and painful actions.

The Lord redeemed Israel from that house of slavery and guided his people, his children, his family, to a house on top of the world. From this house of love, true wisdom would be taught and true justice would be administered. From this house of love, the world gone wrong would be set right, peace and hope and joy would finally prevail over the endless echoes of war.

During Advent we look for the coming, the unveiling of this house, this kingdom, this city. During Advent we hope in the coming Christ who has redeemed all those broken down houses and is building the City of Peace. He is building it through his own body, through his own people. He is fashioning living stones: precious rubies and sapphires and emeralds that will gleam in the full light of His glory.

When this house is fully unveiled, when Christ himself comes in all his glory, the world will not learn war anymore. As we wait with hope this Advent, let us walk in and toward the light of His love.

Isaiah 2:1-5
The word that Isaiah the son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.
Now it shall come to pass in the latter days
That the mountain of the LORD’s house
Shall be established on the top of the mountains,
And shall be exalted above the hills;
And all nations shall flow to it.
Many people shall come and say,
“Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
To the house of the God of Jacob;
He will teach us His ways,
And we shall walk in His paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth the law,
And the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
And rebuke many people;
They shall beat their swords into plowshares,
And their spears into pruning hooks;
Nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
Neither shall they learn war anymore.
O house of Jacob, come and let us walk
In the light of the LORD.


Advent Begins in Darkness


Advent begins in darkness.

The light of Advent reminds us of how dark the dark truly is. Over time our eyes have grown accustomed to the dark. This is another way of saying that darkness blinds us to the glory of light, to thickness of color, to surprise of beauty. We’re not totally blind. “We live in the age of glare,” according to the poet Rod Jellema. The “age of glare” blinds us to the dazzling whiteness of white in the face of our Savior.

To enter into the story, the movement, the rhythm of Advent, we go by way of story. We rehearse the story of a people forsaken by God in the dark waters of Babylon. We lean into the words of the prophets. In the mouth of these witnesses, we hear the terrible drumbeat of a world gone wrong, of mountains crumbling into the sea, of nation after nation falling to the beast of Babylon. Where is God when our world comes to an end?

Sitting by the waters of Babylon, Israel cannot voice her songs. Blinded by the glare of lesser gods, Israel stumbles into darkness. The Lord turns his back as the evil empire crushes and consumes the apple of His eye. The smoke of a burning Temple eclipses the light of Zion. Who can sing praise in the place of the dead?

Jeremiah gives voice to the Lamentations of God’s people dispersed into the four the winds, driven into exile, left to wither on foreign soil. He moans,

I am the man who has seen affliction
under the rod of his wrath;
he has driven and brought me
into darkness without any light;
surely against me he turns his hand
again and again the whole day long. (Lamentations 3:1-3, ESV)

The anguished cry of God’s prophet still resounds today. Deep darkness smothers our world: Over one million Syrian refugees are dying to find a place of safety. Thousands Eriteans flee the unthinkable conditions of their own land only to be kidnapped and suffer unimaginable torment by traffickers seeking money. Countless people struggle in a perpetual state of war. By some estimates over 30 million people live in slavery throughout the world (with about 60,000 in the United States). The undoing of sin infects and affects every human on this planet.

We cannot even fully bear the darkness of sin. It would kill us. It did kill Jesus. He entered into this darkness with the only Light this world will ever truly behold. He is the luminous darkness. During Advent, we face this luminous darkness: remembering the exile of Israel and the coming redeemer.

We behold the place of exile where God’s people and God’s planet grieve in exile. In this exile, we face our own desperate need for the Light of God. We remember Jeremiah’s hope in the midst of Lamentation,

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
“therefore I will hope in him.” (Lamentations 3:22-24, ESV)

The light of God penetrates our dark smog and opens our eyes both to his glory and our desperate need. The true hope of Advent strips away the false promises, false delights and false hopes that distract our age. There is no hope outside of the love of God in Christ. We cling to that hope, longing for justice, for healing, for redemption, longing for the true Light that gives light to everyone coming into the world (John 1:9).

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