Category Archives: Observations

11.29.2020 – Advent: Not Yet the Bleak Midwinter

The first Sunday of Advent.

I have been thinking about Advent. Our pastor here in Auburn graciously asked if I might be willing to create the readings for the lighting of the Advent candles on the four Sundays of Advent and Christmas Eve.  It was a generous offer, and I gladly accepted.

I’ve also been talking with a friend whose background is in a non-liturgical church, but who has a new position this year must lead his church, like Saint Andrew, an otherwise low church, through an observance of Advent.

Traditionally, Advent is the season that begins with the fourth Sunday before Christmas and continues through Christmas Eve.  The old readings and prayers have a double focus on Christ’s first Advent at his nativity in Bethlehem and on his second Advent at the end of time, coming as judge of the living and the dead and bringing with him a new heaven and a new earth.

The lighting of a candle each Lord’s Day in Advent and then, finally, on Christmas Eve is only traditional; the purple, pink, and white candles also only traditional. Likewise traditional, the name assigned each candle: Hope, Faith, Joy, Peace, Christ. The traditions are helpful, however, in our much distracted and distracting world. We light candles to remind us of light coming to a dark world.

So I wrote five short liturgies, one for the lighting of each of the Advent candles.  I did not change the purple, purple, pink, purple, white or the Hope, Faith, Joy, Peace, Christ order of things. I am a traditionalist.

Pastor Adam suggested that we stick with some of the themes of our Living as a Christian in a Deeply Divided world Sunday School class. They are 2020 liturgies, after all, never to be used again. When I had finished writing, I read what I had wrote, I was stuck by how gloomy it all is. Maybe that’s the point.

Each of the next four Sundays and then on Christmas Eve, we will light a new candle. The light will grow brighter Advent worship by Advent worship. The readings are not about Christmas, Jesus, Santa, or otherwise. They are about finding hope, living faith, experiencing joy, sharing peace. They are about Christ who came and will come again. They are about 2020, and have a gloomy feel to them. How could they not have a gloomy feel to them and still be about 2020?

The Prophet Isaiah dreamed of the coming Messiah long before he came. He described that coming, that advent, as light shining on a people who lived in a land of deep darkness. He saw a people covered with thick darkness and in great need of comfort. Luke tells us Augustus was emperor and Quirinius governor when Jesus was born. The Roman occupation was heavy on God’s people.

We are not the first people to live in a gloomy time.

The traditional Advent hymns are the like of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” and “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus.” I like them very much. But during Advent 2020 I will listen to Christina Rossetti’s haunting “In the Bleak Mid-Winter.”

Winter will have hardly begun when Advent ends, but the hymn about the bleak mid-winter seems written for our time and not so long ago:
In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan;
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Long ago.

Ours is the world to which he came and to which he will come again:
Our God, heaven cannot hold Him
Nor earth sustain,
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When He comes to reign.

Purple, purple, pink, purple, white. Hope, Faith, Joy, Peace. Christ. Advent comes at exactly the right time.

Take a moment to listen to this recording of Corrine May singing “In the Bleak Midwinter.” it is my favorite.  It is was recorded in a coffee shop in Los Angeles several years ago.

11.26.2020 – It’s Not Just About Covid

For many of us, Thanksgiving Day is the best holiday of the year.  Family. Food. A time to pause and remember and give thanks.  But Thanksgiving 2020 is not going to be a traditional Thanksgiving. The family circle will be smaller. Sure, there will be food, but the family members who always bring the pumpkin pie or the cranberry salad won’t be with us this year. No other pumpkin pie will be quite as good and, frankly, we might as well pass on cranberry salad if it’s not that cranberry salad.

As for thanks, we’ll be tempted to cast blame rather than to offer thanks. We’ll blame a heavy-handed government or fate or maybe even God for a Thanksgiving that is not going to be what we planned. If we’d been given a choice, we would have skipped all that 2020 has brought to our favorite holiday and so much more.

We cast blame rather than offer thanks at our own peril.

2020 is about Covid and lockdowns, the election and George Floyd. 2020 is about all sorts of things not going according to our plans. 2020 is about death and loss. But even in 2020 we are able, indeed, we must, give thanks.

We rightly date the first American Thanksgiving to 1621 and that harvest feast enjoyed by the Pilgrims of Plymouth Plantation and their Wampanoag friends who had helped them so much. Only 50 of the original 102 Pilgrims had survived their first year on the shore of Cape Cod Bay.  Still, they gave thanks. Edward Winslow wrote to friends back in England, “And although it be not always so plentiful, as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want, that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”

Our fourth Thursday in November Thanksgiving tradition began in 1863 by Abraham Lincoln’s presidential proclamation.  It is printed in full at the end of this post.

Lincoln acknowledges the pain of 1863 – the loss and the sorrow of a “civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity.” He also recounts the bounties of that same year, “the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies.” With sober remembrance, he says of the blessings of the year, “They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.”

1621. 1863. 2020.  Three years. A year difficult for the people of Plymouth Plantation, a year difficult for the United States, and a year difficult for the whole world. We need not compare the difficulty.  Difficult years. Perhaps, though, the Pilgrims of Plymouth and our greatest president might remind those of us living through 2020 of the importance of giving thanks – and not just thanks for, but thanks to. Thanks to God. Thanks for bounty even in the midst of loss. If we don’t offer thanks, we will cast blame, and blame is poisonous.

2020 is not just about Covid and lockdowns, the election and George Floyd. 2020 is not just about all sorts of things not going according to our plans. 2020 is not even just about death and loss no matter how close it has come to us. Even in 2020 we are able, indeed, we must, give thanks.

One of our new friends in Auburn (shout-out to Chad Gramling) challenged his social media friends to share one reason for which they are thankful as Thanksgiving Day 2020 approached. I don’t know most of those who replied, but reading their comments was so encouraging. Even in 2020, maybe especially in 2020, we must give thanks. Thanks for and thanks to.

Washington, D.C.
October 3, 1863

By the President of the United States of America.

A Proclamation.

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.

In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union.

Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.

No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.

It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.

In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the Seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the City of Washington, this Third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the United States the Eighty-eighth.

By the President: Abraham Lincoln

11.20.2020 – Is Change Automatic?

I’ve always been a stick shift person.  Seven of the ten cars I have owned in my lifetime have had manual transmissions, beginning with a three-on-the-tree 1966 Mercury Comet.  I like a stick shift. But they are hard to come by these days. While 13% of all car models sold in the U.S. offer a manual transmission, only 2.4% of all cars sold in the United States actually have a stick shift. None offer three on the tree. And, to do a little generation bashing, few millennials or gen-Zers know how to drive a car with a manual transmission. Of course, it’s not the stick shift, it’s the clutch that gets them into trouble.

All that is to say I was sad when I saw the headline in the paper saying they were closing the local clutch factory.  They made clutches for big-rig trucks at the Auburn plant. It turns out that neither the politicians nor the shareholder capitalists, neither government regulation nor woke sensitivities are responsible for the shuttering of the clutch plant.

Blame change. Or maybe blame the millennials.

More and more semis are being sold with automatic transmissions mostly because they are more efficient and partly because too many young drivers have no idea how to drive with a stick shift. It’s the clutch that gets them into trouble. Or maybe it’s the double clutch.

Clutch factories are going the way of buggy whip factories a hundred years ago or more. Blame change. Continue reading

11.13.2020 – When SNL Preaches Forgiveness

Saturday Night Live has been around 45 years. I’ve never watched it. Until four months ago, I had a Sunday morning job that got me up too early to even think about watching SNL.  SNL’s trademark comedy is built around current events and cultural issues.  The comedy is often scathing and sometimes controversial. Those who watch it regularly say it’s a hit or miss thing, with more misses than hits of late.  It’s the controversy that often lands Saturday Night Live in the Sunday morning news, and that’s where I’ve gotten to know SNL.  From the news.

Saturday Night Live was in the news this past Sunday for the monologue that opened Saturday’s show.  Comedian Dave Chapelle had been asked to do the monologue that Saturday after the election, just as he had four years ago.  Unlike four years ago, Saturday’s studio audience was in a celebratory mood, as was the comedian.

Sunday’s headlines said Chappelle was brilliant and cynical. Others accused him of poor taste and doing more harm than good. Continue reading

11.06.2020 – The Amazing Thing About Common Grace

We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.
The Nicene Creed

The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. (ESV) Luke 16:22–23

To be sure, the Gospel concerns itself with eternity among other things.  It tells the truth about life being something not limited to what we live in this vale of flesh.  We look forward to the life of the word to come, we say in the creed. But Scripture also makes it clear that the life to come is decidedly more pleasant for some than for others.  As in the story of Poor Man Lazarus, some will spend eternity at the side of Father Abraham , while for others, like the rich man, the world to come will be a place of torment.

The elect and the reprobate. The saved and the lost. Those who receive salvation by grace – God’s unmerited favor – through faith, and those who receive the punishment due us all. The modern mind is often at a loss when it comes to life in the world to come, but even when it accepts the proposition, it prefers to see all humanity as part of the “some” like Poor Man Lazarus or to simply cancel the idea of eternal torment. Reprobation does not exist but as a temporary state while things work themselves out to a happy ending. Continue reading