The road to Success

In the northeast corner of the state is a town called Success. It was established around the beginning of the twentieth century, when the lumber industry was harvesting trees from the area and opening farmland. Success is not on the main highway—that road enters the county seat from the west, then angles to the north. Both north and west of the county seat are local highways that lead to Success. When the family travels through the area, as we did again this holiday season, I can never resist pointing to those highways and calling out, “There it is: the road to Success.”

I have driven through Success twice. There are still a few houses there—including two on the National Register of Historic Places—as well as a church, a post office, and a grain elevator. This year we did not visit the town. I was more interested in buying and eating pizza in the county seat than I was in taking the road to Success. (I know that Bitter Ben would approve of that decision.)

Some of my children and I spent the weekend at my sister’s place. The weekend featured a four-generation family gathering and celebration. Of course we had a gift exchange and a large fancy dinner. Aside from spending time with family, last Saturday was special for me because I did not use a key to open or close or start anything; I did not touch a computer keyboard or mouse or gaze into a computer screen; I did not wear a watch or keep track of the time (although there were enough clocks around that I generally knew the time); I did not speak with anyone on the telephone or send anyone a text. It was a pleasant, off-the-grid day, the kind that is far too rare in my life.

We were not stranded in a cabin out in the woods. We had the benefits of indoor plumbing, central heating, electricity, and a fully-equipped modern kitchen. My father, my brother-in-law, and I watched football on TV. I read a lot. I visited with family, including my niece’s two young children. I relaxed.

Even though we failed to take the road to Success, my children and I had a good weekend with the family. That’s about it. Now a new year has begun, and life is returning to normal. J.

Merry Christmas

For the next few days, I will be living “off the grid” so that I can focus this Christmas season on Christ, on Church, and on family. I will return next week to continue my series on Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, and to write of other things.

Let me take this opportunity to wish each of you a merry and blessed Christmas. May God richly bless you and those you love during this holy season and in the coming new year. And (as I said yesterday to two coworkers who are retiring), may you have as much fun and excitement as you want and as much peace and calm as you want. J.

The first six days….

On the first day of Christmas, I fasted from the Internet. It was a premeditated and deliberate fast. We had church in the morning and family the rest of the day. We exchanged presents, ate together, visited, played a game or two, and enjoyed each other’s company. There was a time when I was one of six people sitting in the living room, the only one of the six not looking at a handheld device, but even that was okay.

On the second day of Christmas I caught up. Nothing had happened on email or Facebook or WordPress that needed my immediate attention, so that was fine.

On the third day of Christmas I traveled to a relative’s house. Every year between Christmas Day and New Year’s Day the extended family tries to gather, and this year was no exception. In fact, a certain group of seven close relatives was together in the same place for the first time in more than five years, jobs and school and other commitments keeping one or another away from the family gathering each of the last several years. Again, we exchanged gifts, ate together, played a game or two, and enjoyed each other’s company. This is the closest I have ever come to a Christmas celebration involving “kids from one to ninety-two”: my father is ninety (ninety-one in a little more than a week), and my niece’s son is two.

Other years when we have gathered for a family Christmas, I have taken advantage of access to an almost-abandoned desktop computer with Internet access, and I have kept up with email and with social media. This year I decided on a whim not to touch that computer. For three days and three nights I was off the Internet. I have some catching up to do, but I gather that nothing happened in the last three days that required my immediate attention. One of my favorite sports teams may have made a change while I wasn’t paying attention, or there might have been some news I missed—although I did have access to the daily newspaper. I didn’t even go online to play nonograms or sudoku; I did do one sudoku by pencil in Saturday’s newspaper.

A holiday fast from the Internet is surprisingly refreshing. I was not completely without electric stimulus: some of us watched football on TV, and if someone wanted to show me a clever meme or video, I obliged. But during those three days and three nights I was interacting with people only if they were in the same room as me, only if we could hear and see one another as we spoke.

Tomorrow I will again catch up. Meanwhile, the chance to catch up with family was a good way to enjoy the Christmas season. And six days of Christmas remain to be celebrated. J.

Of writing many books there is no end

A merry Second Day of Christmas, St. Stephen’s Day, and Boxing Day to all!

This morning I updated my page “Books written by Salvageable” to add two books that came out late this year. The first is “Martin Luther’s Small Catechism with additional commentary,” which began as a series of posts on this blog in October 2017 and ran well into 2018, celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. The other is “Salvageable: A Collection of Short Stories,” which also includes material that has appeared on this blog, generally under the category of “First Friday Fiction.”

In the new year I hope to pick up two projects that I began this year and set aside for a time. One is “Revelation Unveiled,” a study (but not a commentary) on the last book of the Bible. This book will show an understanding of Revelation as a guide for Christians living in the present age, not a countdown of future events that are yet to be fulfilled. It will connect Revelation to the other sixty-five books of the Bible, using them to interpret Revelation rather than the other way around. It will also demonstrate how the Day of the Lord is approached seven times from different directions in the book of Revelation, with a rewind into present times the first six occurrences and a jump into the future new creation only after the seventh view of the Day of the Lord.

The second book I began and hope to complete is a study of how Christians worship. It will look at the traditional form of worship that has been used by Christians over the centuries, the Biblical roots of each part of that service, and some other Christian traditions associated with worship, including the Church calendar of seasons and holidays, architecture, church furniture, and clothing.

Next November I expect to publish the recently completed “Advent thoughts,” with a slight rearrangement to wind up with Isaiah 7:14 and Isaiah 9:6, rather than having them appear around the middle of the season.

I have several other books written long before I began blogging, and I might select one of them to round out my pattern of four new books a year. But one other book I hope to outline and perhaps begin writing (especially if Revelation or Christian Worship get mired again) is tentatively titled “Embracing the Dark Side.” This book would reflect the mistake many Christians make, thinking that their lives in this sinful world must be marked always with joy and peace, that any episodes of anxiety and depression are sinful and are not part of the Christian life. In part, I plan to refer to Christian works from other times, such as The Dark Night of the Soul, to show that every day in the life of a Christian isn’t required to be sunlight and flowers, and that Christians often grow spiritually during the dark times of their walk more than during the joyful and happy times.

I hope and pray that everyone had a good First Day of Christmas and that all are now enjoying the following days of the Christmas season. J.

Advent–the calm during the storm

If frantic preparations for Christmas are wearing you down and sapping your holiday joy, stop for a bit, take a deep breath, and enjoy a little dose of Advent.

Centuries before businesses and families began putting up Christmas decorations in mid-October, the Church created a pre-Christmas season called Advent. Stretching three to four weeks, Advent always begins on a Sunday and always ends at sunset on December 24, Christmas Eve. The theme of Advent is not counting down the days to Christmas; Advent is time to consider why Christ came to this world. The Old Testament prophecies of the Messiah are considered, as is the work of John the Baptist. Advent hymns tend to be calm and reflective—“Oh, Come, Oh, Come, Emmanuel,” is a well-known example. Blue or purple cloths are placed on the furniture at the front of the church. These colors represent the somber tone of the Advent season; but they are also royal colors, saluting the coming of Christ the King. Congregations that do not have Wednesday night services year-round often have special Advent services on Wednesdays as well as Sundays.

A relatively recent tradition for the season of Advent is the Advent Wreath. It takes several forms, but it is always a circular candelabra parallel to the floor rather than vertical, often decorated with evergreen branches, holding either four or five candles. If there is a fifth candle, it stands in the center of the circle; the other four are arranged equidistantly at the edge of the circle. The central candle is always white; the outer candles are either blue or purple, except that sometimes one of the four is pink. An Advent wreath can be used in the home or in the church. The first Sunday of Advent, and all the days of that week when people are present, one outer candle is lit. The second Sunday of Advent, and the days following, two outer candles are lit. The third Sunday of Advent advances to three candles; if a pink candle is used, it is lit this week. The fourth Sunday of Advent, and the remaining days until Christmas Eve, all four outer candles are lit. The night of Christmas Eve, the four outer candles and the white candle in the center of the wreath all are lit; after the service, the wreath is put away until Advent returns. (Some churches put replace the blue or purple or pink candles with white candles and continue to light the wreath during the twelve days of Christmas.) Various writers have proposed names or themes for the candles, but no single version has been widely accepted.

Some Christians speak of the Lord’s three Advents. Old Testament believers waited for the promised Messiah to come; their waiting was rewarded with the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, his first Advent. New Testament believers await the glorious appearing of Jesus on the Day of the Lord, the last day of history as we know it. This is often called the Second Coming or Second Advent of Christ, although the Greek word “Parousia” describes an appearing rather than an arrival; Christ is present today, but unseen. His presence constitutes the Third Advent. When Christians gather in his name, Christ is with them. When forgiveness is announced, Christ is present to grant his forgiveness. He is present in Baptism, and whenever a Christian remembers his or her Baptism, Christ is there to bestow forgiveness. He is present in a special way in the Lord’s Supper, also granting forgiveness and eternal life.

There are two overlapping Christmas holidays that overlap. The world’s Christmas of buying and selling, cooking and cleaning and decorating, singing about Rudolf and Frosty and Santa Claus, comes to an end on December 25, Christmas Day. On that same day the Christian Church begins the twelve days of Christmas, celebrating not just the birth of Jesus but also his Incarnation, the fact that he became human to rescue and redeem sinners. If Christmas were merely the birthday of a notable historical figure, it would not be worth all this attention. But the victory of Good Friday and Easter—the Lord who vanquished death and is risen to prove his victory—gives greater meaning to the seasons of Advent and Christmas.

Yes, we need a little Advent, right this very moment. May we find tidings of comfort and joy in the Advent of our God. J.

It’s beginning to sound a lot like….

My youngest daughter jinxed my car radio this week.

We were traveling together Tuesday afternoon, and I was listening to my favorite radio station. It’s an “Adult Contemporary” station which plays hit music from the 80s and 90s up to the present—usually with a minimum of talk, although the morning drive hosts do tend to chatter, and they have give-away contests with listeners phoning in to get their voices on the air. But I digress….

I made a comment about the song that was playing, and my daughter remarked, “You’re lucky they haven’t started playing Christmas music wall-to-wall,” to which I agreed. That was Tuesday.

Wednesday they started playing Christmas music “24-7” as they periodically announced, “from now until Christmas Day.”

I may be a curmudgeon, but I don’t hate all Christmas music. I am fairly tolerant of Christmas music at the right time and the right place. I once knew a man who was retired and who played Christmas music twelve months a year in his basement while he added to his model train landscape and tinkered with the trains. I think that if and when I retire, I might get into model trains. I’d listen to my own favorite music, though—classical one day, Beatles the next, and hits from the 80s some other days… and in December, Christmas music. But, again, I digress….

I will say one good thing about the music I’ve heard on this station Wednesday and today: they are mixing a few carols in with the secular Christmas songs. Christ the Savior is being proclaimed along with Frosty and Rudolph and Santa Claus. My patience with Christmas music is generally exhausted when only the secular songs are played.

There truly are two holidays called Christmas. One marks the coming of God’s Savior to rescue and redeem the world. The other is about gifts and decorations and the winter solstice. Because they happen around the same time, people tend to blend them together. But the tradition of the Church since ancient times has been to celebrate the holiday of Christmas with twelve days, beginning on December 25 and extending to January 5. The four weeks before Christmas are called the Advent Season. When observed in the traditional way, Advent is known for somber hymns and for Bible readings about why we sinners need a Savior. This year Advent begins on Sunday December 2. Tomorrow is not yet even Advent yet: it is the Last Sunday of the Church Year, also known as Christ the King Sunday and as the Sunday of the Fulfillment. We will not be singing about the baby in the manger or the herald angels for another month inside the church.

Yet because of the blending of the two Christmases, the tree will be going up early in December even in the church building; and the children’s Christmas pageant will be in the middle of the month, before school dismisses and families begin traveling to other places for the holidays.

On the second day of Christmas, the radio station will return to its usual music. By the sixth day of Christmas, many families will have taken down their decorations and put them in storage until next November. In our house, the tree and other decorations will remain out at least until after the twelfth day of Christmas; some of the more durable decorations will stay up until Candlemas, also known as Groundhog Day. But once again I digress….

The Last Sunday of the Church year is a time for the Church to consider cosmic eschatology: the glorious appearing of the Lord, his Judgment, and the dawn of his new creation. One of the hymns we will sing tomorrow is the harvest hymn, “Come Ye Thankful People, Come,” which begins with talk of the worldly harvest and then shifts into a discussion of the harvest of the earth on the Last Day. When this hymn is sung on Thanksgiving or the night before, people tend to focus only on thanksgiving for earthly blessings. Sung again on the Sunday of the Fulfillment, people will change their focus to that final harvest that awaits us all. Then we are ready for Advent, another way to regard the coming of our King. We will not let the world rush us; we will leave time in the hands of the Lord. J.

Update and season’s greetings

I cannot predict my WordPress status for the next several days.

My home computer and WordPress are not interfacing well. When I go to my Reader page and try to scroll, the screen alternates between freezing and rolling uncontrollably, making it hard for me to click on a visit button before it escapes my pointer. Since I will not be able to use my work computer for the next few days, I may have problems visiting all the blogs I love and enjoy.

I have a project in mind, though, that I will try to post over the twelve days of Christmas. It involves picking up where I left off with Martin Luther’s explanations of the Ten Commandments and the Apostles’ Creed. The next topic will be prayer.

If I don’t have the opportunity to visit your site and wish you a Merry Christmas, please accept my best wishes all that same. May the Lord bless your celebration of His holy days. To Jesus be the glory. J.

Prophecy, fulfillment, and time

During this Advent season, many Christians contemplate the prophecies of Jesus in Moses, the prophets, and the Psalms, comparing those promises to the ways they were kept in the birth, life, passion, and resurrection of Jesus. This meditation is good, but it can sometimes be approached in a misleading fashion. Some Christians speak of God first making the promises and then finding ways to keep them, like a planner checking items off a list.

“Let’s see – I said he would be born of a virgin – Mary of Nazareth will do nicely. (check)

“I said he would be born in Bethlehem. I can prompt Caesar to call for a census so that Joseph will be compelled to take Mary there before the birth.” (check)

“I said that he would be honored by Gentiles bringing gold and incense and myrrh. Here’s a group of wise men who will fit the bill.” (check)

“I said they would be led by a star. How on earth am I going to lead them to Bethlehem by a star?”

Peter wrote, “Do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (II Peter 3:8). God does not move through time as we created beings move through time; he can step into and out of the time stream at will. When the Holy Spirit spoke through the prophets, he was not setting up conditions that would have to be met. No, he was telling what he had already seen of future events, for he had already been there. Judas was not fated to betray Christ because of some promise God made centuries earlier; Judas chose to betray Christ, and then the Holy Spirit told prophets about the betrayal centuries earlier.

Some say that, hanging on the cross, Jesus quoted the first verse of Psalm 22. A more theologically sound position is that Jesus prayed sincerely from the depths of his anguish, and then the Holy Spirit inspired David to write the Psalm which vividly describes the crucifixion and quotes Christ’s prayer one thousand years earlier.

When the prophecies and fulfillments are seen from this perspective, deeper and richer meaning appears in those prophecies. Mary was a genuine person, a historic figure, who conceived and gave birth to a son while still a virgin. At the same time, Mary stands in the place of the Bride of the Lord—Old Testament Israel and the New Testament Church, one Bride distinguished only by the before-and-after of Christ’s Incarnation in our time stream. This Bride is betrothed, still awaiting the coming of her Husband on the wedding day. Although a virgin, she has already given birth to the Son of God, now Incarnate, who has fulfilled the promises that would claim his people and bring about the royal marriage of Christ and his Church.

Jesus was born in Bethlehem so he could claim the throne of his father David. David had been promised a son who would rule an eternal kingdom (II Samuel 7). Solomon does not match the son described to David—Solomon became king while David was still alive (v. 12), although Solomon sinned he was never disciplined with stripes and rods (v. 14), and after ruling for forty years, Solomon died, and his kingdom was divided—it was not eternal (v. 16). Jesus fulfilled all the requirements of the Son of David and remains a true Son to God the Father (v. 14). Though he did not sin, he took upon himself the sins of the world and was treated accordingly, including the stripes and rods borne by Roman soldiers.

But Bethlehem was more than the hometown of David and therefore of his descendants. The name of the town means “house of bread,” and it became the birthplace of the Bread of Life, the Living Bread that (like manna) comes down out of heaven (John 6). After he was born, Jesus was placed in a manger, a trough from which sheep eat, signaling that the Good Shepherd would feed his sheep with his own body (I Corinthians 10 & 11).

The wise men bearing gifts who were guided by a star probably knew the prophecy of the Gentile prophet Balaam, who said in the days of Moses, “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near; a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel” (Numbers 24:17). The wise men knew that the King of the Jews, whose birth was signaled by that star, would also be a priest and a sacrifice, so they honored him with royal and priestly gifts.

All the Old Testament descriptions of the Messiah add up to more than a checklist of things God had to do, or ways to identify the Messiah when he came. They were given as instruction to the saints of Israel, so they could believe in the coming Savior and have a place in his eternal kingdom. They remain for our instruction today, expanding upon what was written by the apostles to describe Jesus as Savior. God’s Bible is full of rich interconnections which never stop teaching us about the glory and grace of God, who came among us to be one of us, to rescue us, and to claim us for his kingdom. J.

Advent

Last year Christmas was on a Sunday and the season of Advent was as long as it can be—twenty-eight days. This year Christmas is on a Monday and Advent is as short as it can be—twenty-two days.

In traditional congregations, Advent is a time of preparation, not merely for the celebration of Christmas, but for the presence of Christ himself. When Advent is treated as a countdown to Christmas, it provides little comfort or peace. Advent can instead be an oasis, a quiet place in the midst of the world’s mad rush toward its Yuletide observances that overlap the Christmas holiday. For many worldly Americans, the season of Christmas begins in mid-October (or, at the latest, on Thanksgiving) and lasts until the sun goes down on December 25 (or perhaps lingers a few days longer, maybe even to the end of the year). On the traditional Christian calendar, December 25 is the first day of Christmas and eleven more days follow that belong also to the Christmas season. Advent consists of the four Sundays before Christmas and all the other days that happen between the First Sunday of Advent and sunset on the night of December 24, Christmas Eve. (For that reason, traditional Christian churches this year will observe the Fourth Sunday of Advent on the morning of the 24th and Christmas Eve on the evening of the same day.)

The word advent means “coming.” Commonly, Christians speak of the season of Advent as threefold, involving a past Advent, a present Advent, and a future Advent. From a human point of view, the distinction is useful. The spirit of Advent Past recalls the Old Testament believers waiting for the promised Messiah, including John the Baptist, the prophet who prepared the way of the Lord. This Advent Past comes to fulfillment when Christ is born in Bethlehem and proceeds on a rescue mission which takes him to a cross and a grave in Jerusalem. The spirit of Advent Present recalls the ways Jesus is present for his people today: in the power of his Word, the Bible; in the proclamation of forgiveness in his Church; and in the Sacraments of his Church—Holy Baptism and Holy Communion. The spirit of Advent Future directs attention to the Day of the Lord, when Jesus will appear in glory with all the angels of heaven and all the saints. The dead will be raised, the Judgment of the Lord will be announced, and the new creation will begin—an eternal wedding feast of Christ and his Bride, the Church, and an unending celebration of the victory Christ won in his first advent and now shares with his people through his present advent.

Like all human beings, Christians move through time, from past to present and from present to future. Jesus is the Son of God. He created time; he exists outside of time, unchanging and eternal; he moves through time in ways that are incomprehensible to the rest of us. When Jesus ascended forty days after his resurrection, he “ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things” (Ephesians 4:10). Time is included among “all things,” so that the Son of Mary could eat with Abraham and wrestle with Jacob. The Son of Mary, hands scarred by the nails that held him to the cross, could shape the earth into the body of Adam and sculpt a woman, a teammate for Adam, from one of Adam’s ribs.

As I wrote here, the future advent of Jesus is not a return, because Jesus is always with us. His appearing to judge all people and to inaugurate the new creation is an important teaching of the Bible and the Church, but for Jesus it is a reality that has already occurred. As Christians wait for the fulness of the victory that was won in Jerusalem on Good Friday and Easter, Jesus says that we already have abundant and eternal life, we already belong to the kingdom of God, and we are already children of God (through the adoption purchased by Jesus on the cross). John wrote, “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he {Jesus} appears, we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (I John 3:2). The puzzle of time as it relates to Jesus and to his people cannot fully be solved this side of the Day of the Lord, but the season of Advent allows us to rest in the assurance that all is solved and secure in the hands of the Lord. J.

Santa’s helper

One December afternoon a number of years ago, I stopped by a nursing home to visit a member of my church. She happened to be attending a holiday program in the cafeteria, so I stopped by there to see her. The residents were being entertained by a jolly plump man in a fancy suit. No, the suit was not red, and the jolly plump man did not have a white beard. Santa was present, but he was not entertaining anyone. He was leaning against the back wall of the room with a bored look on his face. The man with the microphone was wearing a gem-spangled white suit. He had dark hair and long sideburns. He was singing one of his big hits—I no longer remember if it was “Love Me Tender” or “Heartbreak Hotel,” or which song it was.

Yes, the King was upstaging good old Santa Claus, and Santa did not seem to appreciate it one bit. But that passing moment opened a new chapter in my family’s holiday lore. Since that day, I have told my children that Elvis lives at the North Pole with Santa. During the year, Elvis makes toys for Santa to bring to children on Christmas Eve. Elvis helps Santa manage his database recording who has been naughty and who has been nice. Elvis is Santa’s helper, and if you thought Santa is assisted by elves, you have simply been hearing that name wrong all these years.

Of course we will have to rewrite some of the Christmas songs and poems and books. The man in red and the man in white are a holiday team, working together so that none of us has to face a Blue Christmas. Together they deck the halls, ring the bells, and rock around the Christmas tree. Together they bring Christmas joy to every girl and every boy around the world.

One of my favorite Christmas decorations shows Santa kneeling in prayer at the manger. Surely someone can create an image that has Elvis also at the manger, kneeling to honor the King of kings. That scene would go a long way toward bringing to the world the real meaning of Christmas.

To each of you, and to all those who are special to you, I wish a very Merry Christmas. J.