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Echoes from Heavenly Strains

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A hush fell over the darkened auditorium as the lights dimmed in anticipation of the tradition set to unfold for the crowded room. At the head of each aisle at the back of the auditorium a choral member robed in burgundy began to walk toward the risers ascending on the stage while singing a medley of Christmas carols in a cappella. Each carried a battery- operated candle as they moved forward. A select group in the center aisle were robed in white.

As the nearly 150 – member choral group began to file into the eleven rows of seats on the risers, those in white robes formed a cross in the sea of burgundy robes. With everyone in place, the last carol began. As the strains of “Silent Night” began to echo through the room the choral members began to extinguish their candles beginning at the edges and moving toward the center where those robed in white formed the large cross. In the end as the humming of the carol continued only the candles in the cross remained lit.

The notes then began as the instruments played the overture to begin the memorable performance of Handel’s sacred oratorio, “The Messiah.” One might expect this was happening in a grand cathedral, but it was actually my high school auditorium where an exceptional choral director trained his young musicians to rise to exceptional skill in singing this classic work each December for many decades. The opportunity to participate was coveted and often alumni would join the current select a cappella choir made up of sophomores, juniors, and seniors.

December 1961

It was a different time, a time when sacred musical selections were regularly included in the repertories of public-school choirs along with musicals, popular tunes, and assorted musical styles. It was a time when the choral director taught the significance of this great classical work by Handel and students knew and heard the scriptural lyrics leaping off of each page of the work.

All these years later those months of preparation for the performance and what we learned of the music and the story the music told still echoes in the hearts, minds, and spirits of those who had this privilege. Though this oratorio is celebrated and sung by choruses and choirs with great orchestras in many places, this local tradition was unique.

One might wonder what Handel would have thought as these young musicians tackled this impressive work that he composed in three or four weeks between August and September 1741. What inspired such majesty or that of the text of words by the prominent librettist, Charles Jennens, for a planned first performance for Easter in 1742? Clearly, the scripture that flows on every page with all the glory of Handel’s crescendos must have been inspired by God to last and maintain such enthusiastic loyalty for nearly 280 years.

The pandemic of 2020 will leave stages silent of performances this year whether in orchestral series, university choral schedules or concerts by churches large enough to conquer the large work. Despite all the Christmas music played on numerous media all day and night, few will offer this complete work, but those who are caught up in its power in lyrics and sound will dust off recordings to enjoy as they reflect on the songs that echo from heaven.

The opening tenor solo from Isaiah 40: 1-11 brings good news in the words, “Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people; Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people, saith your God…” How much we need his comfort this difficult year. And the good news doesn’t stop there as the first chorus begins, “And the glory, the glory of the Lord, shall be revealed…” Oh, that we could see and sense that glory and focus on it rather than the other darker things that seek to overtake our thoughts.

As people of Advent the scriptures flowing on every line of this grand musical score should lift up our hearts and heads long before the first part of the oratorio ends. We must remember.

“God is the reason why we are living in the not yet.”

Mary Geisen in The Advent Narrative
Photo by Pixabay

Will you not awaken and rise up long before the end of the second part of the oratorio when the grand Hallelujah chorus begins?

That glorious chorus brought King George II to his feet in the 1743 London premiere of the oratorio and the rest of the audience joined him. So great was the impact that this tradition continues every time this end of the second part of the oratorio is sung.

But the message and the oratorio doesn’t end there even though not everyone has heard the entire work. Part 3 speaks of Easter and the Lord’s coming in the Advent yet to be in the choral works entitled “I Know My Redeemer Liveth,” “Since by Man Came Death,” “Behold, I Tell You a Mystery,” “The Trumpet Shall Sound,” and more, ending with “Worthy is the Lamb” with the grand progressions of “amen’s.”

This grand oratorio tells the Gospel to the strains of Handel’s composition and for many decades it was etched in the hearts of groups of high school choral groups in a small midwestern town in Ohio. The call of the Gospel – let us never forget, even in seasons of shadow and darkness – especially then.

“What matters is the call of the gospel, the promise of God, and your task of being faithful and patient in the present, ‘until it be thoroughly finished.'”

N.T. Wright
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Preparing in the Midst

It can be easy to become lethargic in a waiting season and only look at the waiting, to forget we are waiting for or on something. The more whatever or whoever it is means to us, the harder the wait. I wonder what that looks like this season of Advent for us when the world around us has turned upside down and languishes in shadow.

When we are waiting on someone or something we value a great deal, the things we always did before the waiting season can diminish in seeming importance as we yearn for what is not yet.

As I begin to bring out Christmas decorations, I recall so many other Christmases. I am sure that is true of you. Some of these are the most precious ones while others are the hardest ones. Living more than a few years will give us samples of both. Some we recall as if we are reliving them all over again.

One of those etched in my memory was one more than 50 years ago during a fourteen-month period when military duty called my husband halfway around the world. While he was away our first child was born and that Christmas should have been such an exciting “first” for us, but my husband’s absence cast a shadow over the season of decorating, shopping, baking, and caroling. My heart was not able to get caught up in all the joy of those things, but I began to shift its focus to it as a time of preparation for the day he would return despite not knowing the exact date.

Yes, we celebrated Christmas and I sent my husband gifts of all sorts including a small Christmas tree and a variety of goodies. Yes, we lavished special things on our son and our extended family did their best to make the season as bright as they could for us. I prepared for that season, but my focus was on the one ahead when he would prayerfully return and our life as a family in one place truly begin.

There have been many hard seasons since then, but every year at Christmas that year so long ago replays in my memory. And this year it reminds me of what I learned about focusing on preparing in the midst of waiting on someone or something more important to me than the Christmas traditions that I love.

If we are truly Advent people, should that not be true of us as well despite the state of the world both near and far, despite the grief we may feel, despite the malaise that threatens to jump right over Christmas this year?

Have you considered that we are not the only ones waiting?

“God is always on time. He waits for us at the same time we are waiting for Him. God is the Keeper of the Vision and the Author of what will come next. Rest in knowing He is writing your story and is ready to call you up to prepare the way for others.”

Mary Geisen in The Advent Narrative

It can be far too easy to forget that He is waiting in our self-focus and wearied waiting. He has been waiting on mankind to turn to Him and discover not only a babe in a manger and soon-coming King, but also to learn that He is a companion to journey with us in the waiting.

Our desire loses sight of the grand story playing out, of the bigger picture that delays his coming. He sees how many have yet to choose Him. He sees we are too often slumbering. He sees too many are not ready despite the words they may say.

“Our compulsive timetables collide with God’s leisurely providence. We tell God not only what to do but when to do it. We take him seriously – why else would we be praying? – but we take ourselves more seriously, telling him exactly what he must do for us and when.”

Eugene Peterson in Run with the Horses

Perhaps in this darker season He is seeking us to awaken from the routine life we are living. Perhaps this year our attention should pivot.

“He continues to teach that we do not know when the Son of Man will come again so we must remain vigilant. The call to stay awake is not always a physical vigilance. God calls us to an awareness that prepares us to dive deeper into relationship with Himself and others, and to better understand ourselves.”

Mary Geisen in The Advent Narrative

This is a season for not just reading your favorite scriptures about that first Advent or recite prayers reflective of a more casual relationship with the Lord. He longs for more than that. Do we?

“Prayer is never complete and unrelieved solitude; it is, though, carefully protected and skillfully supported intimacy. Prayer is the desire to listen to God firsthand, to speak to God firsthand, and then setting aside the time and making the arrangements to do it.”

Eugene Peterson in Run with the Horses

Yes, it is a different season, but it is also a season for each of us that should be different for other reasons than those that come to mind. It will require a choice, a sacrifice of our own disappointment with what is for what will be.

God loves waking up our sluggish hearts.

Mary Geisen in The Advent Narrative

It is not easy to be alert and awake when we are weary, but sometimes we can miss that the weariness can come not only from our own living but also from the evil one who would desire us to stay asleep, sluggishly dozing in a stupor, when the “not yet” is just ahead. Evil wants us to be distracted by the scary shadowy pall it casts over the world and our own neighborhood, but God’s call to us urges something else even as He urged his disciples in the time He was praying before He went to the cross.

What does “awake waiting” look like?

“It’s wearing a sense of watchfulness throughout our lives, and when we do, our Advent lives of waiting are filled with seeing Jesus in our every day ordinary.”

Mary Geisen in The Advent Narrative

*Photos are from a few places I have decorated in our house as of today. Our daughter made the stockings years ago as a special treat that I still treasure because we had no fireplace growing up and no stockings hung by the tree.

In The Midst of Darkness

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Driving along the highway we now see the beginnings of lights adorning homes, lawns, trees, and rooftops. It starts in mid to late November and gradually increases as Advent begins and points toward the celebration of Christmas. And it can seem that Advent lights up the sky and our world in a special way unlike any other time of the year. It pierces the darkness and lifts our spirits when it happens and many who have already begun to add lights to celebrate do so now despite the dark times that seem to surround us.

We look toward Advent and perhaps pause to consider how nothing seems the same this year due to the pandemic and so much chaos and turmoil that swirls around us. How can we possibly turn our hope to that of the coming of a Savior?

We focus on the birth of Jesus in a stable in Bethlehem, but what do we know of the world He was entering beyond knowing his birthplace was determined because Mary and Joseph had to travel there to pay taxes to the Roman Empire?

Not a great deal is spoken of, but the work of Josephus, a first century Roman-Jewish historian who was born in Jerusalem gives us a glimpse of what was a very dark time and place when Jesus came as a babe in a manger.

Herod the Great’s bloody reign of terror was coming to an end. It was marked by mass terror and widespread surveillance resulting in not only killing those reported as enemies, but members of his own family as well. When he finally died there was hope the new ruler would punish those who had carried out the evil devices of Herod including a reduction of the burdensome taxes levied by him. Many were impatient for justice and when Herod’s successor, Archelaus, saw the growing outcry of the people and how those teaching the Jewish law stirred up the people and how they began to attack his soldiers, he sent an army to destroy them. They killed 3,000 men and others fled to the mountains.

To look at that first Advent and begin the story on the road to the inn in Bethlehem is where we often start, but to do so would miss the context for those who looked and waited in the darkness for the Light of the World. It would miss how great their hope despite the darkness and how that hope was planted in their hearts at another place and time. Because the beginning of the story is key to the celebration of Advent, we must begin at the beginning of the story – the place where God starts and remember that He is the author of the story. It is after all, his story.

“Everything begins somewhere, and to go from a knowledge of Advent traditions to becoming an Advent people we must start where God starts – with creation.”

Mary Geisen in The Advent Narrative

The word Advent causes us to look back, but if the Lord dwells within our hearts, this season should also propel our eyes forward to the Advent yet to come when the Lord returns for us.

“God takes the story of the world and shows us details that lead us forward into the place of waiting where we find ourselves now. He prepares our hearts, souls, and minds for the time when Jesus will come again. Our story as God’s chosen children is one that is woven into HIS story of love and peace.”

Mary Geisen in The Advent Narrative

In this season of preparation that is Advent, I think the Lord would have us less focused on the darkness of the world around us and more involved in preparing for his return and the role each of us is to play as his light shines through our brokenness to speak to the hope so many need to hear and see.

“This Advent we are walking into story. The binding of God’s story into our own. The unfolding of God’s grace-gift and the receiving of this beautiful gift as our own. For it is with and by grace that we will find our own way along the path of our lives. Advent marks our own arrival into God’s story.”

Mary Geisen in The Advent Narrative
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Even in darkness, one small light can shine the way to the path toward home. The darkness makes the light that much brighter and small as we may be in the scheme of things, He has written us into his story, and we have a role to play as a light shining when the world is searching for some light of hope. Our path is forward. Our hope is in Jesus not in what we see around us.

It is not only now that we tell the world around us that Jesus came to earth in Bethlehem more than 2,000 years ago to show us who God is, light the darkened path before, and offer us the hope of grace, but also to tell them He promised to never leave us and is coming again for those who are a part of Him.

“He continues to teach that we do not know when the Son of Man will come again so we must remain vigilant. The call to stay awake is not always physical vigilance. God calls us to an awareness that prepares us to dive deeper into relationship with Himself and others, and to better understand ourselves.”

Mary Geisen in The Advent Narrative

As Advent people, let us not fail to be looking for Him again as we live in the time of the now and not yet.

Mindset: The Key to Hope

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It can be so easy to forget the powerhouse that sits above our neck encased in our skull can grow and change throughout our lifetimes. This powerhouse is often a field of battle between negative and positive thoughts that are often whispering quietly without our notice or at other times loudly screaming at us.

Those thoughts have created a mindset that began developing from our earliest years of life. Unfortunately, not everything that goes into the brew is truth, but we didn’t realize it and took some of those lies as facts. Their impact can affect us for years to come.

Perhaps that is why so many books have been written about how to improve or change the habits of our minds, to spiritually war against the enemy’s taunts that he plays out there. Psychology also seeks to help us with cognitive-behavioral techniques that help us identify negative self-defeating thoughts and tools to help us replace them with truth. No quick fix appears to be listed in any of the resources available.

One of the challenges for us is that our mindset ultimately gravitates into one of two types. These affect how we view every mistake, disappointment, setback, and failure and either move us forward toward hope or cause us to halt forward movement and give up.

Angela Duckworth in her book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, identifies these two mindsets as a growth mindset or a fixed mindset.

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If we have a growth mindset, we believe we can do better, that it’s possible if we work harder, get additional support, and receive encouragement that we can get smarter and do better. And guess what? We get up and try again!

Research shows that if you have a growth mindset, you’ll be more likely to do better in school, enjoy better emotional and physical health, and have stronger, more positive social relationships with other people. It doesn’t mean we don’t fail or face challenges. What matters is our response to those defeats.

If we have a fixed mindset, we believe that those failures, setbacks, disappointments, and mistakes mean we don’t have the “right stuff”, aren’t good enough. And guess what? We give up. That belief can be so strong that we don’t ask for support, we don’t risk trying, we become resolved to a sense of our inadequate performances. We decide we don’t have what it takes!

One of the keys to determining which mindset we develop is how those around us respond when we slip up and make mistakes. The more powerful the position of authority the person has in our lives, the greater the impact not just of what they say or don’t say but also by the facial expressions they exhibit.

If we struggle with a fixed mindset about our spiritual lives, the enemy is gleeful because he knows that he can defeat our hope over and over again as soon as we get up from praying or reading in the Bible. Too often our spiritual lives also get stalled because of how our brothers and sisters around us respond to our struggle. Instead of real encouragement, we might experience quite the opposite for any number of reasons. Sometimes the person isn’t really accurately listening to us to hear the nature of the struggle. Sometimes the person doesn’t know enough of our story to understand why we were defeated….again!!

All of this reminds me of what I love about Paul’s words to the Corinthians:

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We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and  take every thought captive to obey Christ,” 2

2 Cor. 10:5 ESV

What we don’t always recognize is that eliminating negative patterns of thinking will not automatically bring about positive, “can do” patterns of thinking. We need to deliberately replace them with positive truth that we affirm to ourselves.

Archilbald Hart has written seven paraphrases of such truth based on scripture that gives a picture of what I mean so let me share them with you:

  • “God loves me more than I can ever imagine, and I can never travel beyond the reach of this great love.” (Rom. 8:39)
  • “No matter what my sin, God forgives me if I repent, confess, and return to Him.” (1 John 1:9)
  • “There is nothing I can do that will cause God to turn away from me.” (Heb. 13:5)
  • “Whatever I attempt to do, if it is God’s will for me He will give me the strength and wisdom I need to accomplish the task.” (Phil. 4:13)
  • “If I seem to fail because circumstances are against me. God will always give me another opportunity if I return to the starting point.” ((Psa. 37:24)
  • “God never wants me to give up. Never, never, never, never.” (Josh. 1:5,7,9)
  • “Hating myself doesn’t make God love me more; it just makes it harder for me to see his love.” (Psa. 103:10-12)

God has created our powerhouse brains to be resilient and adaptable. If we have had a fixed mindset, replacing lies and negativity with truth from God’s Word can change it. We also can choose to spend time with those who encourage us and believe in us even when we don’t believe in ourselves and remember that it is those very struggles that God can and does use to produce more endurance and resilience in us.

“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”

Rom. 5:1-5 ESV
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The Final Quarter

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How are you running today?

You may be saying that you’re not a runner and in the usual sense of that word, I am not either. I sometimes wish I had done that when I was younger, fitter, and stronger so I could be doing it now, but that didn’t happen, so I am a walker instead. But I am inspired by our daughter who didn’t start running until mid-life and diligently trained to develop that habit and skill.

The truth is that as believers we are all runners. We hear that in so many passages in Paul’s epistles and we hear it very clearly in Hebrews:

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.”

Hebrews 12:1 (NIV)

This has always been a favorite verse of mine because it reminds me each day of the truth upon which I base my life. Each of us has a race marked out for us in this life. Mine likely does not look like yours nor yours look like mine, but it is a path set before each of us designed by God for our place in his Kingdom and our purpose within it. And clearly the race is important, or this verse and others wouldn’t be telling us there would be hindrances and things meant to tangle us up before we finish the race.

Within that race there are many parts and to finish the race well, each part of it will require something of us. The longer we run, the farther we are along on the field, the harder the race will feel. It can cause us to want to stop, give up the whole idea, and quit.

This year has been one where many of us have had more than a few hard places on the course set before us. We hoped as the year wound down that we would be near the end of this part of the course, but it isn’t clear just when this part of the course will end. Depending on our training, our endurance may be strained about this point.

I get that! But then I look at some of the other runners in close proximity to me and I am reminded not to give in to fatigue or any other hindrances as I push forward each day. I look in one direction and I see our son who was diagnosed with cancer in early summer and whose path included rounds of chemo and a life upended from what was anticipated. In him we watched the faith he has nourished since childhood dig deep into the roots already there and sustain him along with those “running” with him to finish this part of the course set before him.

I look in another direction and I see our daughter managing multiple changes in the path before this year for this part of her path and I see her grab hold of the faith founded on other seasons of challenge. I see her pick up running again after laying it down for some seasons so that she can run to be a part of raising money for the 60 Mile Challenge for the American Cancer Society in honor of her brother’s race with cancer.

The examples of people I can see on the course set before them are many and I see the challenge each faces, and I am reminded of that verse in Hebrews and the need for perseverance, endurance, to push forward. I am reminded of how the letters to each church noted in the early chapters of the book of Revelation speak of the rewards given to those who endure to the end.

I think of the words of Samwise Gamgee written by J.R.R. Tolkien in the first book of the trilogy of The Lord of the Rings – The Fellowship of the Ring as the film version draws to a close:

“It’s like the great stories, Mr. Frodo, the ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were, and sometimes you didn’t want to know the end because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing this shadow, even darkness must pass. A new day will come, and when the sun shines it’ll shine out the clearer. I know now folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going because they were holding on to something.”

J.R.R. Tolkien in The Fellowship of the Ring

One of the things I am doing for my own physical health is to work with a personal trainer. I am not and have never been an athlete, but I am very aware that my aging body is not as strong as it once was, my posture is not as straight as it used to be, and my flexibility and endurance has suffered too. Working with weight training under the guidance of a trainer is not “fun” for me, but if I am going to steward this physical body it requires I add weight training to be able to finish the path set before me as strong as I can, and training is the route to that.

Beyond that there is the significant training in the spirit realm that must go on daily in order to push back entanglements and hindrances that would slow me down, throw me off course or tempt me to stop. It means putting on the full armor of God Paul writes about in Ephesians 6 and taking every thought captive he writes in 2 Corinthians 5.

When do you notice the benefits of training? When you come to the tough places on the course, when you are in the final quarter of the game and you’re exhausted and feel totally spent. Good players of sports know that well. They understand the words of Chris Fabry:

“…you have to play for the final quarter of the game and not halftime.”

Chris Fabry in June Bug

This year as we approach the Thanksgiving holiday in the United States unlike many we might have celebrated, we need to remember we need to play the final quarter and the Lord’s strength in us will be there as we endure. Endurance will not be easy but have its rewards.

In our family there will be a long list of those including our son’s news from his oncologist that he is in remission following chemotherapy.

“This is about life being ahead of you and you run at it! Because you never know how far you can run unless you run.”

Penny Chenery in the movie, Secretariat