“Ars Moriendi” – The Good Life vs The Good Death – Lessons from the Civil War for COVID-19

A few nights ago, I made the mistake of watching a short Washington Post news video documenting the tragic conditions of those dying from COVID-19 in one of New York’s overwhelmed hospitals. I had a restless night and woke early, troubled. As a pastor I’ve encountered death, I’ve visited hospital rooms where I had to put on a complicated hazmat suit to enter, I’ve sat with a family as they disconnected life support, I’ve been to funerals with coffins just slightly larger than a shoebox, and I’ve even had a couple of my own near-misses. But seeing those ICU rooms with precious human beings straining to breathe their last breaths haunted me more than I thought it would. The few medical personnel who had time to enter patient rooms did so as rarely as possible, separated by layers of protective gear. Even more tragic, the severely sick could have no family or friends with them and no pastor or chaplain holding a hand. They were alone in this world, as they passed from it. Maybe a few were spiritually well-prepared for that moment. Whatever kind of life they had lived, they certainly seemed to be undergoing a very BAD DEATH.

A GOOD DEATH? – As we face COVID-19, even if we only experience the lowest estimated death tolls, we are all thinking more about health and sickness, life and death than we were 2 months ago. Of course it is fitting to mourn this loss, to be concerned for our wellbeing and that of loved ones, and to be stressed by the new framework of daily life into which we have been thrown. None of these seems particularly “good.” If we do see any good in the global pandemic it is in the sense of commonality we experience, or the blessing of added family time. Perhaps, we also have taken time to reflect on what is happening from a Christian posture, no doubt considering afresh the general truth that we are not in control as much as we thought. And this Easter season our pastor will probably help us to realize how the resurrection can have special meaning at this time. These are reasonable Christian thoughts. Yet they may lead us away too quickly from the powerful message God could want us to hear – about the hard-cold reality of death and the error of our normal practice of pushing it out of our sight. What if we are being beckoned to look head-on at what we could learn about the longstanding powerful perspective on death – the ARS MORIENDI – the “art of dying” – or as everyday Christians used to commonly understand – the GOOD DEATH.

THIS REPUBLIC OF SUFFERING – Most academic histories probably do not end up the subject of light-hearted dinner parties or casual water-cooler discussions at work. But merely the title of Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, would be unwelcome at any carefree social engagement. These are not “carefree” days though, and maybe our current “distancing” will allow us the context to give Faust due attention. In any event, Faust, was the first woman president of Harvard, the first from the South, and the first since 1672 who did not have a degree from Harvard. So maybe she does not have to care if her writings would be a big hit at our social gatherings or not. She wrote, “The concept of the Good Death was central to mid-nineteenth-century America, as it had long been at the core of Christian practice. Dying was an art, and the tradition of ars moriendi had provided rules of conduct for the moribund and their attendants since at least the fifteenth century: how to give up one’s soul “gladlye and wilfully”; how to meet the devil’s temptations of unbelief, despair, and impatience, and worldly attachment; how to pattern one’s dying on that of Christ; how to pray.” (Page 6 of the abovementioned) What can we learn from Faust’s account of how American’s, from both North and South, generally viewed their “man-made” wave of death, one that took over 600,000 American lives, or what today would be 6 million deaths? And how can this help us with COVID-19?

OUR MORTALITY REALITY – Prior to the Civil War, most Americans faced their mortality much more regularly than we do. Today we have vaccines for many of the illnesses that threatened them daily, we have a massive medical infrastructure and they had almost no medical care. Infant mortality rates were so high that in any given family the number of children that died commonly outweighed the number who survived. But just as we have gotten used to the fact that most of us won’t make it past age 95, and we might get in a car wreck, and terrorist threats could take us out, the believers of the 1800s had grown used to “typical” mortality. The Civil War carnage changed all that, and forced them to reconsider not only human frailty, but how they processed death. Maybe this pandemic could do that for us.

ELEMENTS OF “THE ART” – Since most Americans before 1860 rarely traveled more than a day’s horseback ride from home, when a loved one took gravely ill, the family was customarily nearby. For Christian’s who sensed they were nearing death, they would have initiated the normative steps to ready themselves to give up their soul. In a time when “secular” would have been a perplexing concept to most, Christians recognized the devil was real and were particularly sensitive to how he might work through the threat of death. They guarded against discouragement, doubt and worldliness, to protect their final witness. Many of them, in a far less busy time than our own, had learned to pray, in greater depth and dependence. As the Civil War threatened to disrupt their patterns for encountering their day of reckoning, they, and their loved ones fought hard to keep hold of those practices. In short, they embraced a GOOD DEATH as a central concept for all Christians and prepared for it just as we spend hours with the school guidance counselor to help our child take the steps for college or we gather at least annually with our financial planner to organize our affairs for retirement.

THROUGH DEATH TO RESURRECTION – In our time, the threat of death from COVID-19 is not just redefining how we live, but maybe it could have the potential to recalibrate how our culture, including many Christians, comprehend death. We have all heard the saying, “He’s too heavenly minded, to be of any earthly good.” As Christians, we know the reverse is actually true. The more we “set our minds on things above,” the better we are equipped to live now. But how can we as 21st Century First-World Christians begin to have the heavenly mindset if we don’t first embrace our mortality? What if we don’t just take a quick glance at it, but a hard stare and even a sobering preparation for “giving up our soul?” What if we if we put on God’s armor through much deeper prayer lives so we can face COVID-19, or whatever will one day be our demise? What if we learned the art of walking in step with our Savior the path he took when He died, on that “good” Friday, that we might better appreciate the glorious resurrection He grants to us?!

2020 Churchwide Spiritual Growth Plan – “New Morning Mercies” Devotional Book

As we saw in our recent sermon series in Colossians we are called to “seek the things that are above, where Christ is…to set your minds on things that are above…For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” (3:1-3) Later in the same chapter we read, “Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly…and whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus.” How do we fulfill this? Through the daily Christian 3-step dance of repenting, believing, and striving, in the Gospel.

The past several years, all in our church family have been encouraged to join in this dance of spiritual growth individually or as a household, which is also linked to readings in our weekly church worship service. With our lives often scattered and our attention easily distracted, carving out even just 10 minutes a day to learn something new from God’s Word or remind ourselves of things we forget, is vital. Having resources in hand to pursue that teaching during the week, is as important as it ever was. To that end, in the past, we have invited everyone to walk together through the Westminster Shorter Catechism (English from 1640s) and the Heidelberg Catechism (German from 1563), using the daily readings from Starr Meade, as well as the Read Scripture app for daily bible reading, and last year the New City Catechism (American from recent years!).

This year we are doing something similar and different. Similar in daily content that is easily accessible, but different because it is not in the question and answer format of a catechism. I hope everyone in our church will take a moment right now to purchase the book “New Morning Mercies” by Paul David Tripp through Christianbook.com or Amazon, in good ole fashion paper, or e-book if you prefer. If you have children old enough to read a one page devotional each day or several days a week, you may want to purchase extra copies for them as well. See video for an introduction.

The devotion runs Jan 1 – Dec 31, daily, but each stands on its own, so no worries if you missed the Jan 1 kickoff. (Our family has been on vacation so will be getting a start a few days late, while we are on the road). If you are a highly disciplined family, you may want to read the devotionals as a family, once a day and discuss, perhaps in the morning before the days activities or around the dinner table. Or it may make sense to block out 3-4 times a week to read together as a family and allow for individual reading the other days of the week.

For those with children, I would encourage you not to be the least bit surprised if your children are not excited about this! Ha. Just like us adults, they are not always enthusiastic about the means of grace we know we need for spiritual growth. As children do not usually love to eat a healthy meal, or go to the dentist, or yield their precious screen time, they will not necessarily see why they should read for spiritual growth on their own, or join in family devotional time, or for that matter, go to worship service or youth activities! Ha. They will need loving but clear direction from parents who care about them, and are okay with not always being perfectly liked by their children.

If you have another devotional plan for the year, this certainly does not need to replace that, but it would be awesome if everyone in our church engaged with this process at some level, beyond our Sunday morning worship. As we do, we will look for the truth of God’s Word to transform us, and make us a blessing to those around us for God’s Kingdom. John 17:17 “Sanctify them in the truth, your word is truth.”

2019 Churchwide Spiritual Growth Plan – New City Catechism

John 4:24 “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” The past three or four years, all in our church family have been encouraged to pursue a pathway for spiritual growth individually or as a household, which is linked with our weekly church worship service. The goal has been to grow in spirit and truth. With our lives often scattered and our attention easily distracted, repeating a passage of the Bible or from a historic teaching tool, like a catechism, and then having resources in hand to pursue that teaching during the week, is as important as it ever was. To that end, in the past, we have invited everyone to walk together through the Westminster Shorter Catechism (English from 1640s) and the Heidelberg Catechism (German from 1563), using the daily readings from Starr Meade, and this last year, using the Read Scripture app for daily bible reading and helpful summary videos.

This year we are doing something similar and different. Similar in the catechism format (it just means using short questions and answers to learn important stuff), but different because it uses contemporary wording accessible in an app format. I hope everyone in our church will take a moment right now to download “New City Catechism” from your app store. Best of all, it is free. We will start the journey on Sun, Jan 6.

As you look at the app you will see 52 questions total…so, you guessed it…one question/answer per week. You will also see that for each question you can view a supporting scripture reference, read a short section from a helpful commentary, and listen to a little song. The songs can help everyone of any age, but in particular could be useful for moms and dads of young ones as they drive around town to activities, or spend time around the house. Even better, if you permit your child to have a device, let them download the app. I know at our house this last year we set a simple concept in place for our boys – 10-15 min of Read Scripture app each day, before any video game time. Can’t remember if you call that positive reinforcement or negative reinforcement, but it sure worked like a charm!

You can also find the videos here on a Youtube channel if you want to watch them as a family on a laptop or smart TV. We will have samples of several books for adults and kids that accompany the New City Catechism app. These are helpful for those who like to have an ole fashioned dead tree in their hand (like me), and because they provide supplemental content. They can be ordered here. The large one with the white cover replicates the exact content of the app.

One way to approach it might be to pursue a different element of the material Mon-Fri. Mon read the question and answer that you will have heard on Sun, Tues read the accompanying scripture passage, Wed pray over the application of the truth in your life, Thu read the first commentary entry and Fri the second. If you use a calendar on your device you could program these in as repeated weekly activities with a daily reminder to help. If you are doing it as a family or couple, your could each share questions it raises for you, or how you hope to apply it, or something new you learned.

If you have another devotional plan for the year, this certainly does not need to replace that, but it would be awesome if everyone in our church engaged with this process at some level, beyond our Sunday morning worship. As we do, we will look for the truth of God’s Word to transform us, and make a blessing to those around us for God’s Kingdom. John 17:17 “Sanctify them in the truth, your word is truth.”

How to Harness Our Struggles – Sermon Series Follow Up

Just over 8 weeks ago we began a journey through what the Bible teaches about not wasting our struggles. Another title for the series could have been “How to Harness Our Struggles.” If you missed the blog I wrote about my personal struggles and how I felt God was leading and preparing me to preach that series, you can find it here.

If you missed a message or live out of town or just want to go back over where we have been, you can connect to the podcast here. I’ve also found the following two versions of the same song personally encouraging in times of struggle (introduced to me by Jeff Koonce)

This upcoming Sunday we will start a new series, but I know many have shared with me how “Don’t Waste Your Struggles” affected them. For further growth in these areas I recommend these resources. Several copies of each will be available on the welcome table at church this Sunday.

A Bruised Reed – a classic on struggle from a Puritan writer that is very accessible

Kiss the Wave – written recently by a man who struggles with severe physical limitations and serves as a pastor in Dubai. Based on a quote by Spurgeon that in suffering we learn to “kiss the wave that crashes us against the Rock of Ages.”

Walking with God through Pain and Suffering – by Tim Keller…nuff said.

The Silent Man

[Written by Christine Cox]

As I set out our Nativity crèche, I recalled the time when my daughter as a toddler loved to play ‘house’ with our Nativity set. The figurines were so realistic, and, fragile. Only one guess what happened to one of the figurines – there he lay on the floor, shattered. The Nativity scene was so lost, looked so sad, without Joseph.

Joseph is the Silent Man, the stoic man; often under-rated, too often misunderstood, but the faithful guardian of our Redeemer, Jesus Christ, protector of his family, and, like the rest of us, a sinner, in need of God’s grace for salvation.

Reflecting on a devotional reading originally from Rev. Gray Bean, PhD, we can learn and grow in virtues that Joseph, a man who spoke no words in Scripture, had exemplified.

Model of faith and compassion: In the angelic dream, Matthew 1, Joseph was troubled that his betrothed Mary was pregnant but being a ‘just man’ he desired to ‘send her away quietly’. However, “an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” As Joseph immediately follows the command, we see his faith in God’s word and his obedience. We also see how he exemplified gentleness and compassion to Mary, to someone he thought, at first, had betrayed him.

Model of silence and adoration: Matthew 2 relates the visit of the Magi. Though not mentioned here in Scripture, but visible in all our Nativity scenes, we can imagine that Joseph was there in the background, diligently watchful, with awe and wonderment. “In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength.” (Isaiah 30:15) Joseph would need this time of quietness, for the trials that were to come.

Model of strength and courage: Continuing in Matthew 2, Joseph is commanded by an angel to flee into Egypt for Herod was “about to search for the Child, to destroy Him.” In obedience, Joseph courageously leaves everything behind – everything! – his home, his livelihood, his friends and other relationships to move his family to a foreign land in order to protect them from the diabolical threat. How willing are we to leave everything behind for our Lord? “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; He will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Deuteronomy 31:6)

Model of fatherhood and daily work:  Though Scripture is somewhat silent on the life of Jesus as a child, we can glean from Scripture, that Joseph was indeed a godly family man with deep love for his Son.
As a godly man, he followed the Law of Moses bringing Jesus to the temple to present Him to the Lord at the time of His purification. As father and leader of his family, Joseph, provided for his family as a carpenter (Matthew 13, “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son?” and taught his Son the trade of his livelihood. (Mark 6, “Isn’t this the carpenter?”).  His fatherhood and deep love is so visible when Joseph and Mary lost their Son in Jerusalem after the Feast of the Passover when in ‘great distress they went in search for Him.’ Through all this, Jesus, God and King, was submissive to His earthly parents (Luke 2). We too can find dignity in our work and daily tasks, to share our talents, to know and do His will in our lives – “be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to Him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.” (Colossians 1:9-10)

And, yes, I still put out the old Nativity set – several of the animals are missing an ear, or a tail, one Magi clearly glued, but with a new and much bigger Joseph … a sweet reminder, a sweet memory.

 

Suburbia - Death By Suburb

Satisfying Our Souls In Suburbia

It was the middle of a winter night, perhaps 10 years ago. The dry air circulated by the furnace in our house left me parched. I rolled over in bed grabbing for my trusty bottled water on the night stand and clumsily removed the lid, taking a quick swallow. The immediate painful burning sensation in my mouth and throat made me choke and cough my way from grogginess, to fully awake. My first thought, “I’ve just poisoned myself!” While reaching for the lamp, I called out loudly to my bride.

There on the night stand was my bottle of water, and there in my hands was the similar shaped container of HYDROGEN PEROXIDE! Ah the burn! As a pastor, sometimes you take the call in the middle of the night, and sometimes you make the call in the middle of the night. My poor M.D. friends have received more than one. What a relief to find out, that although hydrogen peroxide will certainly clean you out, it won’t take you out.

Some things seem toxic, when in fact they are not.  Other things seem harmless and in fact can be toxic.

We recently launched a new Adult Sunday School semester with the same title as this blog post.  As I teach each week my plan is to draw from David Goetz’s book, “Death by Suburb.”  Whether someone lives in actual suburbia or is simply a member of lower-upper middle-class American society, the application points are powerful and relevant. Suburbia seems harmless but can be deadly for our souls, or at least highly detrimental to our spiritual growth.

It did not take us long in a class of 30 adults to come up with a list of things in our suburban society that doesn’t look all that bad on the surface, but in fact, threaten to strangle our pursuit of what Goetz calls the “thinker” spiritual life – a closer relationship with God.

Busyness, Comparison, Selfishness, Conformity, Materialism, and yes, even religious activity.

What is a person, sincerely wishing to know God and walk with God, to do? Head for the monastery? Find a quiet rural town? Sign up for the next Nasa launch to the moon? Goetz says, “No,” and I agree. He puts it this way, “Even in suburbia all moments are infused with the Sacred. God really is present where I live on Ranch Road. Reality is not flat, but thick, deep, full… You don’t have to hole up in a monastery to experience the fullness of God. Your cul-de-sac and subdivision are as good a place as any.”

The solution, he argues, is to partake of the spiritual antidotes which have stood the test of time and offer to offset the toxins we find unavoidable to imbibe.

If you can be with us for our series this semester, we will journey through the following, and if not, I highly recommend the book:

  • Feb 5 – Introduction to the “Thicker” life
  • Feb 12 – Toxin – I am in control – Antidote – Prayer
  • Feb 19 – Toxin – I am what I do or own – Antidote – Battle self
  • Feb 26 – Toxin – I want my neighbor’s life – Antidote – Friends with needy
  • Mar 5 – Toxin – I need to make a difference – Antidote – Actions, not results
  • Mar 12 – Toxin – My church is my problem – Antidote – Staying put
  • Mar 19 – Toxin – I need more time – Antidote – In love with a day

But I Live in Birmingham

[Written by Ben Halbrooks]

Missions Month at Cross Creek Church just came to a close this past Sunday – so now we can all finally stop living missionally and get back to our regular lives.

Just kidding.

Of course, there’s no separating God’s people from His mission, no matter what the time, no matter what the place, no matter who the person, no matter what the context. But you already knew that. And our theme verse for the month makes that message clear:

“Sing to the LORD, bless his name;
tell of his salvation from day to day.
Declare his glory among the nations,
his marvelous works among all the peoples!” (Psalm 96:2-3)

But, you say – “Day to day?”… “Among the nations?”… “All the peoples?”…But I live in Birmingham, Alabama – the second most Bible-minded city in America! There are more churches here than Alexander Shunnarah billboards in the Southeast!

I hear you. I get it. I’ve thought the same. (And I’ve seen the billboards.)

But lest you think this pond’s been fished out, and our work here is done, or that maybe Jesus meant to say, “The harvest is few but the laborers are plentiful,”… let me show you something. In the last few weeks, I’ve been filming a series of street interviews a few blocks from Fixed Point Foundation’s downtown office just to get a sampling of answers to spiritual questions. I thought, It’s Birmingham. I know what I’m gonna get. Right?

Turns out I was dead wrong. Case in point: here’s ten random people answering the question, “What do you think happens after death?”

Wow. Such uncertainty! Why does it feel like many of these individuals have never deeply considered the question at all? And where is their hope? My heart aches for them. Friends, this is Birmingham, Alabama!

“When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.’” (Matthew 9:36-37)

No, Jesus didn’t get it wrong. There’s a lost world, a hurting world, a broken world – a mission field – in our own backyard. And you, me, the church – we are the few. I’ll close with a passage of scripture Pastor Chris spoke of this week. It’s fitting:

“How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’” (Romans 10:14-15)

2017 Church-wide Daily Spiritual Growth Plan – “Comforting Hearts, Teaching Minds”

As the story goes, a disgruntled man wrote an editorial, published in the local newspaper, about his plans to quit participating in church.  He pronounced, “I’ve been going to church about 50 Sundays each year for decades and I don’t know if I can recall what the message was last week let alone 2 years ago.  I don’t think it is having any impact on my spiritual health so I’m finished!”  A few days later another fella wrote into the same paper and shared, “I’ve been eating the meals my wife has prepared for 365 days each year for decades, and I don’t know if I can recall what the meal was last week, let alone 2 years ago.  But I know I’d be dead if I did not eat!”  A humorous reminder of the nature of spiritual growth.

Like organic growth, spiritual growth is sometimes not all that visible.  My four boys are age 13 down to 8.  We have fed them similar types of meals for years and for the youngest physical growth is so gradual we can hardly see it.  But all of the sudden, my oldest is eating more of those same meals, and growing at a much more rapid rate.  In the same way, you and I cannot know when and how the Lord might produce significant periods of spiritual growth and when He might have us in a place of more gradual development, but if the nutrients of the Gospel message are not there, we will likely lack the raw spiritual materials for gradual growth, and certainly for substantial growth.

As we enter 2017 this certainly applies to Sunday morning worship services, Sunday school, and small groups.  However, one of the areas we want to invite our congregation to “put ourselves in the way of God’s grace” this year (to have a meal to enjoy throughout the week) is through daily devotional material.  We are happy for folks to use whatever sound method of spiritual development works for them to get into Scripture.  But frequently one of the reasons we do not get on a pathway spiritually individually, as a couple, or as a household, is because we do not know how to cook our spiritual meals very well.

A few years ago we participated collectively as a church body (at least 30 bought the book) in spiritual growth on the home-front, using Starr Meade’s book, Training Hearts, Teaching Minds.  In a similar manner, but for just 1 year duration, we are making her newer book, Comforting Hearts, Teaching Minds, available for purchase on Sunday mornings.  The format is very user-friendly, with one spiritual growth question (catechism is the church word for that) from a carefully written document, The Heidelberg Catechism, which believers have found Biblically sound and beneficial for centuries.

To help fuse the life of our church body during the week with our worship services on Sunday, we will include the focal question for the week in our service every Sunday, and then the book walks through short readings, including Scripture, each day.  In past years, when we utilized the previous book at the Peters household, we just kept it right by the dinner table.  Like a lot of families with busy activity schedules, we only end up sitting down all together 3-4 evenings of the week.  So if we missed Monday, we just moved on to Tuesday.  If we missed a whole week, we just started with the current week.

Maybe as an individual, couple or household, you will be able to be a bit more organized with it, or maybe you have another plan already.  But if not, or if you just want to join the journey of our collective church family, I hope you will pick up a book this Sunday and dive in.  We will even provide a card to guide you if you get lost on what week we are on!  My sincere wish as your pastor is that this will bless your family, and especially for those with little ones, these time-tested questions and answers about the Lord will give them really healthy spiritual meals that they can build Gospel health from an early age, for lifelong spiritual vibrancy.

If you like Kindle and want to save a penny or know you will be out for a few weeks and want to order it directly, here is the link.

And to read an article from Christianity Today about the impact of this approach for churches, go here.

Burnt Orange Pine Trees – Harnessing the Means of Grace in the New Year

A serious drought struck our region of the country, beginning back in August and extending until just a few weeks ago.  I imagine a lot of spiritual lessons could be drawn from observing and considering the impact of no rain for weeks and weeks on end.  It certainly gets everyone’s attention when we realize that something essential for all life, that is usually available in plenteous supply, might actually run out – a reminder that God’s presence and His saving grace are blessings He chooses to give as a gift.  And the picture of how hardened the earth becomes when it has not been watered drives one to think on the hardness of our souls without spiritual moisture in the forms of Word, Sacrament, and Prayer.

But what struck me lately, in this Christmas Season, was the mix of burnt orange dead pine trees on the hillsides, intermingled with the usual vibrant green ones.  Like other parts of the country, Alabama’s leafy trees (my “forestry” major sister would not be excited with that terminology!) get brown and lose their leaves in the fall, even when moisture is overflowing.  But the pine trees in our region rarely shift colors from their steadfast green.  Since pine trees sprout up here like dandelions do in other regions, it is hard to avoid the sight of the burnt orange blighted scenery.

As I think about my spiritual life this last year, and look to the upcoming year, I am convicted about the message these scorched “never-greens” send about growth in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  I cannot say that I have ever had a stellar year of spiritual vibrancy, and in some ways, this past year has probably been better than others.  Spiritual growth is not something we can put on a scale to weigh or time around a race track, so only God ultimately knows what is happening in each of our souls.  But this past year has certainly been a battle to maintain the means of grace:

  • to keep up with my good plan to read through the whole Bible for the first time in several years (my app tells me I’m at 38% and yes I started in January, not July! Ha)
  • to carve out regular focused time in prayer (I’m glad there is no app to tell how I’ve done with that!)
  • and to draw close to God in worship, including the sacraments God provides (as a pastor, my attendance record is usually pretty strong, but heart and body are not always in the same place).

What a joy, then, to realize that the security of my salvation is not dependent on my perfect follow-through on these, or any other good spiritual practices – that the tree of Jesus’ righteous life and sacrifice for me is the most remarkable green, and I have his vibrancy credited to me by faith.  And what a joy to realize that although sun-charred pine trees may not recover in the new year, God’s gracious empowering can renew me and anyone else who needs it.  And what a conviction, that God is always offering rain – word, prayer, sacraments – for His people, and we are foolish to extend our roots in the direction of the world’s dryness, when his streams of water abound.

“Still, Still, Still …”

[Written by Christine Cox]

Whenever I hear this Austrian Christmas carol, I see my mother leaning back in her armchair, listening to her favorite German Christmas carol record. A sweet stillness caressed over her, the sound of the music soothingly filling the room. As a child I ‘thought like a child’, (1 Corinthians 13:11-14), wondering what she was thinking and feeling, why the music was so soothing; now I know fully the spiritual depth of the music – that in this peaceful manger scene, as mother cradles the infant Jesus, she knows that He is the hope of salvation who now had been brought to mankind through The Incarnation.

Tradition, both written and pictorial, shows that in the stillness of prayer, Mary was greeted by the angel Gabriel. In the stillness of deep sleep, her earthly spouse, Joseph, was visited by an angel in a dream – twice. He should not fear to take Mary as his wife and then later warned him to take his family and flee to Egypt for Herod was about to destroy the Child. In the stillness of the night, our Savior was born. Still, yet the heavens were filled with angelic hosts, declaring the Glory of the Lord singing great Hosannas, Glory to the King!
In the stillness of the Upper Room, our Lord ushered in the New Covenant – a respite before they all would experience the greatest trial in history. After the Crucifixion, darkness and, I imagine, a still eeriness and a loneliness engulfed the whole land, until the Lord burst forth from the grave. It was a stillness preparing the way for His Resurrection. Saul – Paul had to be still before God was able to work through him. Peter, too, in the stillness of prayer saw the heavens open and the Lord calling him to minister to all peoples, showing no partiality that the Good News is for all nations!

In this Advent season, let us take this wonderful opportunity to break from the busyness of the season to embrace ‘stillness.’ Ponder upon His Word penetrating our souls, our interior life. And as we await with joyful expectation of this year’s Christmas celebrations, let it also be preparation as we await His second coming.

Be still and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth. Psalm 46:10

———————————————————————————————————————–
Audio  link,
Traditional Melody 1819
Lyrics and Translation by Tradition by Action and German Way

Still, still, still,
Weil’s Kindlein schlafen will.
Maria tut es niedersingen
Ihre keusche Brust darbringen,
Still, still, still,
Weil Kindlein schlafen will.
Still, still, still,
Let Baby sleep its fill.
Maria sings a lullaby sweet
And lays her true heart at Your feet
Still, still, still,
Let Baby sleep its fill.
Schlaf, schlaf, schlaf,
Mein liebes Kindlein, schlaf.
Die Englein tun schön musizieren
Bei dem Kindlein jubilieren,
Schlaf, schlaf, schlaf,
Mein liebes Kindlein, schlaf.
Sleep, sleep, sleep,
My precious Baby sleep.
The Angels are all music making
By the Manger jubilating
Sleep, sleep, sleep,
My precious Baby sleep.
Groß, groß, groß,
die Lieb’ ist übergroß!
Gott hat den Himmelsthron verlassen,
und muss reisen auf der Strassen.
Groß, groß, groß,
die Lieb’ ist übergroß.
Great, great, great,
the love is enormous!
God has left his heavenly throne
and must travel on the road.
Great, great, great,
the love is enormous!
Auf, auf, auf,
Ihr Adamskinder auf.
Fallet Jesum all zu Füssen,
Weil er für uns d’Sünd tut büssen.
Auf, auf, auf,
Ihr Adamskinder auf.
Rise, rise, rise,
All Adam’s children rise.
O, kneel at the feet of Jesus now,
Our sins to atone He did vow.
Rise, rise, rise,
All Adam’s children rise.
Wir, wir, wir,
Wir rufen all zu Dir:
Tu uns des Himmels Reich aufschliessen,
Wenn wir einmal sterben müssen.
Wir, wir, wir,
Wir rufen all zu Dir.

We, we, we,
We all implore Thee:
Open for us heaven’s gate
Let Your Kingdom be our fate.
We, we, we,
We all implore Thee.