“songs in the key of christmas,” November 29, 2015

I'm dreaming

Responsive Call to Worship
The seasonal songs we recognize
with joyful appreciation—
to which we sing along
in both fond remembrance and anticipation
contain within them
a measure of deeper truth than we might expect—
a measure of longing and sadness
within apparent celebration—
a measure of yearning and melancholy
within the expected joy—
a measure of depth far below
the trappings of the season.
So we sing along
our singing the sighing of the Spirit
guiding us ever into more truth.
So may we hear not just that we sing,
but the deep truth of what we sing,
and, then, the divine response to our longing
that is the very story we proclaim.

Witness of the Closed Canon, i.
Psalm 63:1-8
A Psalm of David, when he was in the Wilderness of Judah.
O God, you are my God, I seek you,
my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you,
as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary,
beholding your power and glory.
Because your steadfast love is better than life,
my lips will praise you.
So I will bless you as long as I live;
I will lift up my hands and call on your name.

My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast,
and my mouth praises you with joyful lips
when I think of you on my bed,
and meditate on you in the watches of the night;
for you have been my help,
and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy.
My soul clings to you;
your right hand upholds me.

The Sung Response to the Closed Canon
How marv’lously—how brilliantly, the wondrous gift is given.
So God imparts to human hearts, the blessings of the Word.
We see—we hear—we wonder—at grace made manifest,
and in response present ourselves, to truth as God’s own guests.
[ST LOUIS]

Witness of the Living Word, ii.
Most people don’t know it’s Advent.
Most people don’t know what Advent is.
Most people don’t care.
That’s just not where the seasonal energy is.
It’s meaningful to us,
but it’s an internal meaningfulness—
like a private joke
that only we get—
that mystifies anyone else.

That’s not a very good thing for the church to be doing—
private jokes—
private meaningfulness—
particularly the evangelical church, right?—
the evangelical church that’s supposed to be ever rehearsing
a good word of good news of great joy for all people.

You know, there’s one of the local news programs
that leads off its evening news with this quote:
“Here’s what people are talking about”—
which has always kind of bothered me—
at least up until this worship series
which is kind of doing the same thing—
asking what it is people are talking about right now—
asking where the interest and energy of our culture lies—right now,
and not assuming it has to do with scripture!
Well, so then I had to think about why I found it offensive
(with regards to the news),
and why I don’t with regards to what I’m doing
(besides the fact that I’m doing it!).

My initial reaction to the news was
you’re not supposed to tell us what we are talking about.
You’re supposed to tell us what we don’t know to talk about.
You ought to be informing us,
not confirming what we think we know—
and certainly not conforming
to particular ideologies of familiarity and comfort.
But if our immediate reaction to what is unfamiliar and uncomfortable
is outright rejection, then maybe we do need
a starting place everyone can agree on?

I was talking to my dentist this past week.
here’s what he’s talking about—
editing out all the stuff about brushing and flossing and my gums!
After all the scraping and probing
and poking and fluoride and spitting,
we were chit-chatting about the week—
he was picking up the turkey after work that day,
and he said, “Thanksgiving is really what Christmas should be.”
“Hmmm. Really?” I replied.
“Yes. Family oriented without all the gift giving.”
“Hmmm.”
“Christmas is commercial,
and that’s about all it is.”

Now, we can disagree with that,
but it’s hard to argue!
Especially when the pope,
preaching in a Mass at the Casa Santa Maria, said:
“We are close to Christmas. There will be lights, there will be parties—”
Did y’all hear this?
“There will be bright trees, even Nativity scenes – all decked out –
while the world continues to wage war.
“It’s all a charade. The world has not understood the way of peace.
The whole world is at war.”

101.9 is playing Christmas music all day everyday
having started Thanksgiving Eve at 5:00 p.m.,
and the pope says Christmas is a charade.
But here’s what people are listening to—Christmas music.
Not Advent music.
There’s not much call for Advent music outside the church.
There’s not that much call for Advent music within the church!
It’s apparently the musical equivalent of a very private joke!

Rob Kapilow is a composer, who developed a program
called “What Makes It Great,” which explains why musical pieces
effect the response they do.
In the article Susie forwarded me that I read,
Kapilow was actually writing about what makes
“Over the Rainbow” such a brilliant song,
and it has to do with the parallel affect of both lyrics and music.
It’s a song about longing, right?
EY Harburg’s lyrics:
“Somewhere over the rainbow
the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true”
(E.Y. Harburg, “Over the Rainbow,” Wizard of Oz soundtrack
[Decca Records] 1939).
And then in Harold Arlen’s music, you have those first two notes—
the first one “some”—low, and then the next one, “where”—up high.
Kapilow calls that the leap.
Then he talks about the circling yearning of the music
where the melody goes back and forth between the low and the high—
arriving in the end on that high note:
“If happy little bluebirds fly
Beyond the rainbow why, oh, why can’t I?”
(Harburg)

The same logic applies to our Christmas songs.
We heard one sung earlier,
and it’s both Irving Berlin’s lyrics and music, right?
“I’m dreaming of a white Christmas
just like the ones (there’s the high)
I used to know.”
Then there’s the circle yearning for the rest of the song,
but, here’s the thing,
that high is not gotten back to.
That yearning is not fulfilled.
“And may all your Christmases be white.”

There is an energy in that
unfulfillled longing—
that wistful wishful yearning of the seasonal music.
It’s a yearning for so much more than stuff.
Oh, it’s manipulated for stuff—
manipulated for more than stuff.

It’s a powerful thing—
looking back and looking ahead,
and there’s a nostalgic power
to a memory you may never actually have had,
right?
A bunch of pieces we gather from story and song,
and some bits and pieces of our own experience—
to give us a sense of what to look for—
what to anticipate.
And there’s a melancholy power
to the realization that it never seems to be quite
as good as dreamed or anticipated,
and yet the dream and the anticipation aren’t denied—
aren’t rejected—remain ever affirmed.
That’s Advent, no?—
whether so called or not.

Benedictine nun, writer and speaker, Joan Chittister, writes:
“Advent relieves us of our commitment to the frenetic in a fast-paced world.
It slows us down. It makes us think.
It makes us look beyond today to the ‘great tomorrow’ of life.
Without Advent, moved only by the race to nowhere
that exhausts the world around us,
we could be so frantic with trying to consume and control this life
that we fail to develop within ourselves a taste for the spirit
that does not die and will not slip through our fingers like melted snow.
It is while waiting for the coming of the reign of God,
Advent after Advent, that we come to realize that its coming depends on us.
What we do will either hasten or slow, sharpen or dim
our own commitment to do our part to bring it”
(Joan Chittister, The Liturgical Year: The Spiraling Adventure of the Spiritual Life [Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2009] 62).

And that’s wonderful—and that’s true,
but maybe—maybe, I wonder, if that’s just time—
not Advent—not these four weeks.
because it’s true, after all, after Advent—before Advent.
It’s true day after day—
week after week—
month to year to years.

One of our meditations in the bulletin this morning
comes from the book of Amos,
noting a hunger—a longing—for the word of God.
Preachers have traditionally made of this—
(I was thinking, by the way,
how often, anything I begin with the phrase
“preachers have traditionally …”
ends up suggesting it’s all wrong!),
but preachers have traditionally made of this
a pitch for more Bible study—more memory verses.
Nothing wrong with that.
A lot that’s good.
We’ve missed out in the more progressive churches
deemphasizing that,
but—but, a deep hunger for the word of God
means more, I’m convinced, than a hunger for Scripture
made manifest in Bible study and sword drills
and a star for a memorized text.
It’s a hunger for alternative words
to the ones we hear all around us
in a world starved for an alternative word—
a different story.
Not one that divides us into us and them—
winners and losers—successes and failures,
but one of blessing—
a story of the grace that welcomes all to the table together—
always making room for more to be added.
Next Door Rodgers Forge is our neighborhood’s online—
well, chat room, I guess?
You can post information or questions.
“What’s that helicopter doing circling up above?” is a favorite.
And it’s often a whole lot of nothing.
But Thursday, someone posted this:
“I just wanted to offer a seat at my table
if you find yourself alone and hungry today.
Or maybe you are working and have no plans after your shift.
My door is open. Dinner is around 4-5ish.
Or come later to make a plate of leftovers….
Full disclosure: we will have 4 rowdy kids 5 and under.
But they are cute.”

Rainer Maria Rilke is one of my favorite poets and writers.
The other two of our meditations in the bulletin today
come from his marvelous little book: Letters to a Young Poet,
and from another marvelous collection called The Book of Hours
sometimes subtitled love poems to God—
in which he wrote: “I want to be with those
who know secret things or else alone.”

In our culture, we’re the ones with a secret—
a secret about what’s important—
a secret about what’s not.
Asking why waste time with the superficial—
with the status quo?
Surely no one—let alone anyone who’s a follower of God,
would seriously suggest there is no vision of better?

This holiday weekend, on so-called Black Friday,
amidst all the talk of Syrian refugees and possible terrorist activity,
a white male with lots of guns
terrorized Colorado Springs.
Apparently misinformed by what passes as news,
fueled by a Christianity that has allowed ideology
to become more important than people,
this home-grown terrorist wounded nine, killed three people—
one police officer who also co-pastored a local church—
married with two young children.

When he called Christmas a charade,
the pope went on to say:
“We should ask for the grace to weep for this world,
which does not recognize the path to peace,” he said.
To weep for those who live for war and have the cynicism to deny it,”
he added. “God weeps, Jesus weeps.”

I agree with the pope and the dentist.
I think Christmas has become a charade—
a commercial
for a materialistic society
seeking to wrap its fixation on stuff in a syrupy sentimentality—
a superficial christianity and a shallow patriotism
that don’t question excessive focus on the individual—
justifying the status quo and those who benefit from it—
Christmas now so meaningless
people say our culture’s at war with it
to give it meaning it no longer has.

So I’m thankful
to be entering Advent with less of an emphasis on Advent,
not just singing Advent hymns
because the time of the year reminds us to,
but listening to the songs people are and will be singing,
and hearing in them the same truth
we try and write into Advent hymns—
making the claim that the waiting—the anticipating
is not just because it’s Advent,
but because it’s deeply human …,
and buried within it all,
there’s that longing for more—
that melancholy awareness of shallow—
that deep yearning for more—
for better—richer—deeper—truer.

So call it Advent if you want to,
it’s more than that—
more than four weeks—
more than preliminary to Christmas celebration.

It’s what’s honest.
It’s what’s true.

So when in a moment we come
to the next witness of the open canon—
the next Christmas song from the radio—
“I’ll Be Home for Christmas,”
it’s not that you’ll hear a paraphrase of some scripture text,
but maybe that you’ll hear that deep hunger
Scripture wants us to know—
hear that high note differentiated from the lows—
that circling yearning,
and the commitment of the unfulfilled
to keep singing—
to keep anticipating—to keep dreaming—
and to keep working
for that better story—
that truer home.

Preachers have traditionally affirmed
that we, those who follow God in the way of Jesus,
are those who gather week in and week out
to remember—to remind each other—
to be reminded:
it’s not stuff. It’s not about stuff.
You can’t buy anything that will fulfill
that basic fundamental longing you know deep within.
And we’ve done that Unplugging the Christmas Machine process enough
to have identified what is important at this time of year:
intentional time with family and loved ones.
We gather as well to remember—to remind each other—
to be reminded,
amidst the melancholy,
to hold on to the dream and the anticipation—
the alternative word—the story.
These things preachers have traditionally affirmed,
and you know what?
They’re right!

Witness of the Closed Canon, ii.
Isaiah 26:7-9
The way of the righteous is level;
O Just One, you make smooth the path of the righteous.
In the path of your judgements,
O Lord, we wait for you;
your name and your renown
are the soul’s desire.
My soul yearns for you in the night,
my spirit within me earnestly seeks you.
For when your judgements are in the earth,
the inhabitants of the world learn righteousness.

The Sung Response to the Closed and Open Canon
How marv’lously—how brilliantly, the wondrous gift is given.
So art imparts to human hearts, creative gifts inspired.
We see—we hear—we wonder—at truth made manifest,
and in response we find ourselves, in grace by God addressed.
[ST LOUIS]

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