Sunday, December 25, 2011

Joy to the World – Including Taipei

This has been the hardest Christmas season of my life.

That’s not saying very much – most of my Christmases have been anything but hard. I love everything to do with Christmas – the music, the decorations, the Christmas tree, the food, buying wrapping and getting presents, etc.

But what I’ve always loved most is being able to spend extra time with my family , both because I had a break from school, and because when I was a child my family always traveled to visit family members I rarely saw. Which brings me to the reason this has been a hard Christmas.

Last summer, I moved to Taipei, where I will be working for at least two years. I enjoy my job and have many wonderful friends here. And yet … I find it hard to be completely happy because I still miss my family and friends from home. A lot.

When the Christmas season first started, it felt like I had an open wound. Anything that had to do with Christmas felt like someone had just touched that wound, sending a spasm of pain and loneliness through my heart. One day, I felt slightly depressed all day because someone had sung “I’ll be Home for Christmas” in chapel that morning. (I still think it was a weird choice because it talks about both being home and snow. Most of our coworkers are from Taipei, so they would not have snow, even though they will be home for Christmas. Those of us whose homes would have snow, wouldn’t be home for Christmas, except for two foreigners who took vacation. So the song really only applied to the two out of the 250 or so people in the room. But I digress.)

This Christmas season has included lots of good things too. I’ve grown less and less homesick as it has progressed. I’ve really enjoyed several parties with friends here, as well as an amazing Christmas performance put on by my coworkers. My roommates and I put up a Christmas tree, and I love seeing it every time I go into the living room. I went to a church service on Christmas Eve where we went onto the roof of the church and sang carols by candlelight. Spending Christmas in Taipei has been a great experience overall, so I don’t want it to sound like I’m always miserable here.

Nevertheless, the moments of homesickness have made me realize that, for all my talk about how I know that Christmas is about Jesus’s birth, in practice much of my love for Christmas comes from things other than the point of the season.

This isn’t to say that parties, food, music and family are bad – far from it. These are good gifts that God has given us, and we should receive and enjoy them with thanksgiving. But as I wrote in my Thanksgiving post, being grateful includes recognizing these blessings as grace – things we don’t deserve and wouldn’t normally get, not things that we are entitled to.

For me, that means enjoying Christmas even without my family and the other things that I don’t have here. Because as important and wonderful as family and all the trappings are, they are not something I’m entitled to, and they’re not what Christmas is about.

Christmas is about God becoming human and experiencing everything we experience. That includes the joys of delicious meals and time spent with family and friends, but also the sorrows of loneliness and poverty. This Christmas, I am taking comfort in the fact that God Himself knows what it is like, not only to move to a new country, but to do even more. He moved to a whole new planet, a whole new way of existing (as a physical, mortal human being). The Son of God, Who is so close to His Father that they are a single being, lived as a human, communicating with God only through prayer and the occasional message that God sent to him. And the purpose for which He came was to eventually be completely abandoned by the Father as he hung dying on a cross for us! As His follower, I enjoy the blessings of a new family with God as my father and the promise of perfect peace and eternal life. And this is true no matter where in the world I am.

So this Christmas, I am choosing to rejoice. I am basking in His incomprehensible love that gave up everything for me. May this love surround you and fill you with true joy this Christmas and throughout the year.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Christmas Mystery

We have now reached the last week of Advent, which also means that I am posting the last of my Christmas hymns. For most of my hymns, I use all or part of the first line as a title. But this one is instead entitled “Christmas Mystery,” a title which more or less summarizes what I love about Christmas.

 When I was 10, my father volunteered to preach at a church we had been going to for about four months. It was near Christmas time, so he was preaching on the Incarnation. One part of his sermon particularly stood out to me. He listed a series of paradoxes about what happened when Jesus was born: “The One who had no beginning is born, the Almighty becomes weak, the unchangeable God changes, the One who has everything gets something he didn’t have before – a human nature.” I was blown away by the amazingness of Christmas, and by how much of a mystery it is. For years, that awe remained with me, mostly unconsciously, until I began writing hymns. This hymn tries, as best I can, to capture the beauty of Jesus, especially in the miracle of His birth.

Christmas Mystery

He who forged Earth’s iron core
And scattered stars to distant skies
Came shattered beauty to restore
And answer lost ones’ mournful cries.
A God who stands among the weak
To lift each burden that they face
To lift away their bondage bleak
And give them strength in holy grace.

The star of hope for all the years
Though spoken of through ages past
Lies born in dust and blood and tears
Without His glorious trumpets’ blast
Yet in His tiny hand He holds
The power that built the mountains high
His glory shatters earthly molds
As angels’ voices split the sky

The angel heralds call out clear
To tell us of the infant King
Who comes to crush the power of fear
And let the notes of justice ring
Yet first He comes to serve and die
Not yet to take His rightful place
That those who chose to crucify
Their king might still receive his grace.

He calls us now with signs and stars
To find the child born a king
To give him all that once was ours
And songs of love and praise to sing
So as we journey through the night
And seek our true Desire’s star
We find that Jesus, through His might
Has sought us from our exile far.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Voice that Called

I posted this poem on Christmas day last year, but since I only have four Christmas/Advent hymns, I’m posting this again. Plus, more people are reading the blog now than last year at this time.

The Voice that Called

The voice that called to unformed light, commanding it to be,
The wisdom that for ages planned creation’s destiny,
The might that holds the earth in place, suspended in the sky,
How can they be the essence of this helpless infant’s cry?

The hand that molded every star and guides it on its way
Clings, helpless, to his mother at the start of newborn day.
This ordinary moment all of history transforms,
Molds terror into beauty, and brings peace to all life’s storms.

For in the darkened void of sin, the shadowed land of death,
To You, who into us breathed life, we cry with every breath.
For even in Time’s darkest hour, when life seems ruled by wrong,
The light of life, the word of hope, has given us a song.

The child who chose his birth into a world of toil and pain,
Who gave up heavenly garlands for this body’s choking chain,
Lies crying in a manger as the answer to our cries,
As angels sing the infant’s might and fill the star-flecked skies.

I really love talking about the theology of Christmas. The idea of the all-powerful God becoming a human, with all the weakness and suffering that entails, is amazing to me. The main theme of this poem is Jesus was God, and therefore all-powerful, but was also human, and therefore as helpless as any other newborn baby. One common feature in most of my hymns is paradox – I love writing about things about God that don’t seem to fit together but are true. I think the Incarnation, which we celebrate at Christmas, is one of the greatest paradoxes.

Whenever I read the third verse, I remember the experience of writing it. The words came more and more quickly, in an almost frenzied rush, and to me it still reads that way. I think that’s because my emotions played a larger role in writing that verse. I’ve struggled with depression for several years, so the experience of crying out desperately to God is quite familiar to me. The first line also alludes to Isaiah 9:2 “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”

I think the last verse speaks for itself, marveling in Christ’s love that chose to deal with all the struggles of a human life. It points out that God chose to answer our struggles by sharing in them, and returns to the paradox of Christ’s power and weakness (the infant’s might).

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Child of Heaven

Many churches celebrate the season of Advent during the four Sundays before Christmas. It is a time when we remember the people who waited for Jesus’ first coming, preparing our hearts to celebrate Christmas. As I mentioned last week, it is also a time when we look forward to the day when Christ will return.

Advent was a big deal in my family. In early December, my mom would fill the house with Christmas decorations – garlands around the windows, a snow village on the mantle, and of course a manger scene. I loved decorating the house. I loved choosing an advent calendar from the pile we had at home and opening the doors one at a time to see Bible verses relating to the Christmas story. But my strongest Advent memory is of the advent calendar that we would light before dinner once a week. (That is, in theory. We didn’t always do it as consistently as we’d wanted to.)

The Advent wreath had four candles – one for each week before Christmas. Each one had a different symbolic meaning, and a story associated with it. This hymn has one verse inspired by each week of Advent. I go into more detail about each verse below.

Child of Heaven
Tune: Finlandia

Children of Earth await the child of Heaven
Throughout a thousand thousand empty years.
The mountains’ weight is piled on their shoulders.
The ocean’s waves are salted with their tears,
But in the dark, a single candle shining,
Proclaims, “God comes to banish all your fears.”

The child of Heaven without an earthly father
Within a virgin’s womb enfolded sleeps.
While fragile flesh enfolds eternal spirit,
His loving mother patient vigil keeps.
May we as well, courageously submitting,
Yield ourselves to the father’s love so deep.

Now as we hear the child of Heaven approaching
We leap for joy to honor Earth’s true king.
A barren woman pregnant with His herald,
From frozen ground, hope’s tender bud shall spring
He lifts the poor while casting down the mighty
Ashamed no more, His humble servants sing.

On Earth’s bare planes, a voice of heavenly power
Tells poor and powerless shepherds not to fear.
Their awestruck eyes behold bright hosts in glory,
While songs of worship echo in each ear.
At peace, Creation joins the holy chorus;
To make Earth whole, the child of Heaven is here.

The first candle represented hope. On the first Sunday of Advent, we spoke about the prophets and others who waited for thousands of years for God to send the promised Messiah. I tend to associate this week with the hymn “O Come O Come Emmanuel.” So during the first stanza, I tried to evoke the sadness and darkness of the world we find ourselves in, in which God’s promise, like a single candle, provides us with the hope we need to go on.

The second week, we talked about love and the Annunciation. The two are connected because of the love that Mary, like most mothers, had for her child. But I also wanted to point out that the greatest love shown in this story is God the Father’s love in sending Jesus in the first place.

The third week was one of my favorites as a child, because it was the only time when my name was mentioned in our Sunday School lesson. That week, we talked about Mary going to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who had been barren but was now pregnant with John the Baptist. When Mary greeted Elizabeth, John leapt for joy in her womb, which is why the third week is about joy. Following this incident, Mary sang the Magnificat, a song about how God has lifted up the humble and cast down the proud.

The last week celebrates the angels telling the shepherds that the baby Jesus had been born. The theme for that week is peace, because they sang, “Peace on Earth, good will to men.” The last line plays on the Hebrew concept of shalom. Usually translated as “peace,” shalom is actually a state of wholeness and flourishing. As I point out in the last line, Jesus came to give that kind of wholeness to the whole world.