A Poem for Christmas

God's Son was thrust into our World--
The world He helped create--
Out of the birth canal of an unmarried woman,
Into the musty stench of a ramshackle barn.
It was just his mother there to welcome Him
along with the man whom he would call father.
Domesticated livestock surrounded him;
The smell of their food and refuse filled the air.
Their water trough was used to wash
The newborn infant.

He suckled at his mother's breast,
she held him close, tenderly.
His new father, unsure of what to do,
Sat down next to them
Gazing upon the face of the infant.
He was wrapped in cloth
And laid in the animals' food trough
Atop a fresh pile of straw.
He cried, expelling air from his newly used lungs.

He gave up His divine powers,
Drawing instead upon the strength of His Father.
Completely human God came to us,
To walk amongst us, teach us, know us--
Most importantly to love us
And show us how it was meant to be.
He came, not born of nobility in a palace,
But of commoners in the lowest place,
Accessible to all. One of us.

I know it's not December 25th, but historically the church has celebrated Christmas for 12 days (hence The 12 Days of Christmas).


Foreign Visitors

We had our first visitors at our house from Canada tonight. It was Nate & Johanna--a young couple with whom we had done some premarital counseling last year. Nate's family is from Wisconsin, just across the border from here. It was a treat to get to see them again. Our boys have always been really taken with them.

I've been wrestling lately with what the future holds for me: something in ministry, something in education, something entirely different. Their visit tonight (as well as one a week ago from Mike & Holly) was a reminder that one of the things I enjoyed in ministry was getting to be a part of couple's lives like that.


Merry Christmas

Beth worked until a little after 6pm last night. Since our church meets in a school, they don't have a Christmas Eve/Morning service. The ones I could find around here were either before 6pm last night or after 8:30 (which would be late for the boys' bedtime). I ended up walking with the boys a few blocks over to a church in our neighborhood for their 5pm candlelight service. It was nice; not quite the same when you're not in church with family (whether blood or your regular church family). It was also harder having both the boys myself, but they did really well. After walking back home and having a bite to eat, Beth came home. Once she had fed herself, we had, what we like to call, a "pajama adventure." We carried Anders and Nils out to the car in their pajamas and drove around a looked at lights. A favorite spot was the city park where we go to use the splash pad in the summer. They had lights on all their oak trees. We also found a house with a yard-full. Nils called it "Candyland" because of the candy cane and peppermint lollypops that lined the sidewalks (probably because he's been asking to play the Candyland board game recently as well). Really, just the simple lighted trees and eaves were enough to please the boys. (Good reminders that the Light has come into the world.)

This morning, after a breakfast of Swedish pancakes and sausage, we gathered around to listen to the Christmas story. The boys each had one main present under the tree (plus a few things that were too big for their stockings) and a stocking full of small toys and games. We had a lovely lunch together (after playing with the new Thomas the Train pieces and putting together the Lego set). I think this afternoon may hold some sledding for us.

I was reminded last night as we sang carols at the church we were at, how Christmas isn't just about celebrating the birth of Jesus by gathering with family and opening presents, but by making sure that Jesus is born in our hearts. We don't have to have things in order for that to happen: the stable was a messy, smelly place; the manger was a rough and scratchy for lying in. But God is ready to give the greatest gift in His Son if we are ready to receive Him.


Where's My Bailout Package?

(Rant alert)
I'm not much into economics or politics, so I admit I haven't paid attention to all the details of the economic crash and the subsequent bailout plans the government has been packaging up the last couple months. Personally, I think it's about time that we have some responsibility out there; sometimes we need to accept the consequences of our actions.

I don't understand completely how the economy works. It seems to be based on greed for the most part: it's doing well when people are spending a lot of money on things they don't need. Frugality doesn't cause a good economy.

Frankly, automobile manufacturers should have to deal with having made gas-guzzling vehicles that people don't want more of. I think it's ridiculous to take out of funds for helping produce more fuel-efficient/alternative fuel vehicles so that we can help out manufacturers who are failing because they haven't done that (I also think it's ridiculous that the average mpg of Ford vehicles is the same as their very first car almost a century ago--we can warm our seats, but we can't average better than 25 mpg?).

I know lots of jobs are effected by the bad economy. We're acutely aware of that. And I don't wish anyone to lose their job. People need grace; corporations don't.

I was reminded in church last Sunday that we say we live in the best country, with the best economy and the best military, etc. But we don't. The Kingdom of God has the most might. It's economy is better than anything else on Earth. It truly is the best place to have your citizenship. That may sound like pious sermonizing; I don't mean for it to be that way. Patriotism can easily become idolatry. Our duty is to transform this place, not conform to it.

And on this Christmas Eve, we must be mindful that God gave us the best bailout plan of all (I know--that sounds like some cheezy saying on a church marquis). Our greatest security is in Jesus. May he be the One who stimulates your life--not some check from the government.


Christmas with a Beat

The snow subsided last early last night so getting to church this morning wasn't a problem at all. I was grateful we could make it. I hate missing church during Advent (even if our church doesn't go through the church calendar)--plus, it's an opportunity to get out of the house. I knew today was going to be the Christmas celebration at church. It also is the 3rd Sunday, which usually means Hip Hop Sunday. I wasn't sure how that would play out, but they ended up going with both. And I can truly say it was the best Hip Hop Christmas worship service I've ever been to. I really wish I had means of video recording Nils dance. He made his way up front for a couple songs to "bust a move." I don't like to use the word "cute", but it was.

The worship contained so many art mediums: singing, rap, freestyle, poetry, hip hop dance, ballet, liturgical dance, painting, instrumental music . . . I feel like I'm missing some. Not everything spoke to me, but I enjoyed the variety and the authentic worship behind it. Pastor Efrem spoke on worship as well, of course from the standpoint that all life should be worship. he also mentioned how our giving should be an act of worship. Not just giving to the church, or giving of our time, but even of giving presents to others (which shouldn't just be a Christmas thing). And our gifts should bring the recipients closer to the Kingdom of God (which may mean just spending time with a child instead of buying a new video game system).


An Advent Poem

Through exile and Roman occupation,
Israel awaited for a Messiah to come
And bring salvation and healing
To the land and the people.
The Messiah, however, came humbly
With no pomp and circumstance,
Born amidst the squalor of a stable.
Few people took notice--
Just some shepherds caught unaware
By the heralding of the heavenly host,
And a group of astronomers from pagan lands
Who watched the skies for signs
And responded to a heavenly announcement
As given by a distant star.

We still wait for the Messiah today.
His first coming ended with
A promise of return.
May we not be caught unawares
Because we ignored the signs.
May our hearts be prepared
To receive the fullness of His glory
No matter how humbly
Or ceremoniously His return is.
With yearning hearts and redeemed lives,
May we herald the Messiah's coming.
Not just during Advent
As we lead into the celebration
Of His birth,
But everyday may we live
In anticipation of the coming
Of God's only Son.

Be Strengthened

"The eyes of the LORD search the whole earth in order to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to Him" (II Chronicles 16:9 NLT). I'm taking a break in my reading for today to reflect on this verse that jumped out at me. Sometimes I know I pray, "Lord, give me strength." But I pray it flippantly, expecting God to just give because I ask. But the Bible says that we have to do our part as well. Isaiah 40:31 that strength will be renewed for those who hope in the Lord (or wait upon the Lord). The Chronicler says that we must have hearts that are fully committed to God. Then, God searches us out to strenghten us. That's encouraging--if I am truly committed to God. A good reminder, though: do your part and God does His. And His part enables us to keep doing our part. How can we go wrong?


Ancient Art, Swiss Guards and Papal Vestements

This afternoon Beth and I had a date. I know. It was exciting for us, too. A good friend whom we've met through church watched the boys for us. Through a radio station (KTIS) I obtained free tickets for Vatican Splendors exhibit at the Minnesota History Center (which would have been a $40 cost otherwise). The parking lot was unattended, so we didn't even have to pay there! Which is also exciting for us, right now.

It was a fascinating exhibit. It started with ancient art works, depicting the gospel story and Christian history. We even saw a reliquary which supposedly holds a bone fragment from Saint Peter. It went on into art and architecture from Saint Peter's Basilica (the first cathedral as well as the current one). There was a display of the uniforms, weaponry and history of the Swiss Guard (which, if you get a chance to see their outfits, you'll understand why Switzerland doesn't fight in any wars).

It then moved into some of the papal history and items from several of the Popes including many from Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI. It helped gain a deeper appreciation for the history of many rituals and the meanings behind them (which I think are often forgotten).
It was fun to see works by Giotto and Michelangelo among others. I enjoy seeing how scenes from Jesus' life are depicted differently--how many artists place those events in their own time period and settings or the little details they add to a scene. It was neat to see items that haven't been displayed to the public before.

The Vatican itself isn't a huge draw for us, but we appreciate the history of the church and the meaning behind the traditions and rituals. We enjoyed learning more of the faith many of the church leaders exhibited (one of the Pope's sold the papal crown in order to give the money to the poor). It was just cool to be connected to so much Christian history (especially if that really was St. Peter's bone!). The church's history (by which I mean the Body of Christ universal throughout time) hasn't been perfect--just as none of us are perfect. But God has used it despite that. Just as He uses us to bring about His will in this world. Just as He used a stinky barn in little Bethlehem to give the world the greatest gift it has ever known. That is where the Splendor of God starts. In humble beginnings.


There's No Place Like Home for The Holidays . . .

Which is why my family goes somewhere else. For the past few years, my parents have started taking everyone to a weekend away instead of buying us presents (of course, the grandkids still get plenty). It cuts down on some of the stress of finding beds for everyone and orchestrating meals and activities. So, this past weekend we were at a hotel with a water park in Okoboji.

The boys had a great time with FarFar & FarMor, uncles & aunts, cousins and Bella (my sister's dog & Nils' favorite cousin it seems). Really, they could get by without getting any presents, but of course people buy for them. Just to make our job of teaching them that Christmas isn't about the presents, it seems. But of course, the boys enjoy the gifts (they've been wearing the new clothes, reading the new books and playing with the new toys nonstop), and we can't take away from others the joy of giving. It is fun to watch kids open presents.

We drove back yesterday on the edge of a major blizzard system. Thankfully the DOT websites weren't accurate--the roads were fine. And now its back to real life: washing clothes, putting things away, serving coffee (not me, but Beth's doing that today). It's too bad we can't spend more time in the celebration and revelry of the holidays. Of course, maybe these short times together help us appreciate and want to be with our family a little more.


Beyond the Lamp Post

This week Anders and I finished reading the last book in the Chronicles of Narnia series. We've been at it for a while, reading a chapter here and there during rest time of all seven books. He doesn't get everything yet, of course (they're a bit beyond his age level), but he enjoys the adventure and imagination in the stories. I think he even understands some of the deeper meanings. He likes to put on some of the knight costume pieces we have, don a sword and be High King Peter.

It's great to get to share stories with him and re-experience them myself. I find I gain more and more appreciation for how the Shadowlands give us glimpses of eternity.

Small Things Hide Greatness

"Yes," said Queen Lucy, "in our world, too, a stable once had something inside it that was bigger than our whole world."
- C.S. Lews, The Last Battle


Let It Snow

It's been snowing since mid-afternoon and doesn't look to be letting up until early tomorrow morning. We'll maybe get 3-5 inches out of it. My poor wife had over an hour commute home (which is normally 20 minutes). After she finished her supper, we took the boys out to the park next to our apartment to do some sledding on the hill. It was well past sunset, so we didn't get any pictures of it, but sledding in the dark is kind of fun. Of course, it wasn't that dark--I enjoy the glow created by city lights between the snow on the ground and the snow in the sky. It was good to get out of the house--we need that during this time of year (as you can tell by their glazed-over expressions in the picture). And when I live in a climate with cold winters, I want the snow (the wind can go elsewhere, however).


'Tis the Season

Yesterday, Anders got to go with a friend to a concert. Before hand they could try some instruments, learn about conducting and gain the knowledge that the violin bow string is made from horse hair (Anders' favorite fact for the day). The concert was the Nutcracker with some jazz music as well. Apparently, the music was the best when there were dancers along with it.

Last night we went over to another couple's home. It's nice to start having some of those opportunities again, now that we've been here a while and are getting to know people. We had a family we've gotten know well over after church today as well.

Right now, if I knew how to do stuff with video on here at all, you'd be watching Nils do his version of dancing (which he has picked up through the hip hop services at church) to Nat King Cole singing Christmas songs.

Yesterday was St. Nicholas Day. We didn't have time yesterday to observe it all together. So this morning, before church we did our presents. We first talked about who St. Nicholas was, how he gave people gifts instead of using his wealth to buy more for himself, and how his name became "Santa Claus." We told the boys about how he gave to others because he loved Jesus; we talked about how God gave us Jesus and how Jesus wants us to give to others. Anders and Beth had recently taken a box of presents we had purchased down to the local headquarters for Operation Christmas Child (through Samaritan's Purse) which we learned would be sent to a boy in Trinidad who wouldn't get presents otherwise. So we discussed how we did that, like St. Nicholas did, because Jesus wants us to take care of others instead of focusing on the things we want others to give us.

Anders had recently seen some of the old classic Christmas specials on TV. He's got some things from those stories mixed into St. Nicholas's story, but over all he knows that Jesus is the best present we could receive. So, Santa Claus won't be visiting our house on Christmas morning, but hopefully we're all learning about giving instead of focusing on what we want for ourselves. I know for myself, though, that's it's not an easy habit to break.


Growing Up

Yesterday morning I got to watch my niece, who is now two months old, as my sister returned to work for the first time. It was a treat--as well as a new adventure. I haven't watched a baby (especially a girl!) by myself for a while--and definitely not with two other boys to take care of. She slept the majority of the time. Which was good, except she wouldn't sleep on the bed, only on my shoulder. So I re-learned doing chores around the house with just one hand. The boys were good helpers. And they love their cousin.

Last night I went to a Kindergarten information meeting. It's different for us being in a large city where we have a choice as to which school we send Anders to. The one that we're in the district for seems really good--we're also going to look out the city's Spanish immersion school. It's hard to believe we'll have a kid in school already. But he's ready for it. He's reading and writing some words already. And he'll love being with other kids.

Nils had apparently found the right buttons on the camera. I found this picture on it last night. That's our Nils.


Der Tannenbaum

We put up the tree and decorated the house yesterday (it really doesn't take all that long in our apartment). It's pretty early for us. It seemed fitting, being the first Sunday in Advent and all. Speaking of, that's the part of "contemporary worship" that I miss: celebrating the church calendar. We found some family Advent devotionals online that we're going to try using.

It's fun to watch Advent unfold through the boys' eyes. Nils doesn't really remember any of this, so it's all new. We'll see if the tree survives him, though. Anders knows what it's all about. He knows all the characters in the nativity scene and what their roles are. I think he's even getting the "giving" aspect of Christmas: we enjoyed putting a shoe box together for Operation Christmas Child.