Tuesday, December 27, 2016

From My Nature Journal: I’ll Be Home for Christmas


If I hear that song once more this season, I may just shut it off. I first started feeling a low-grade sadness about it a week ago while I sat in a concert, and since then it has amazed me how often it is played. Every single radio or Pandora station that features Christmas music, whether secular or sacred, runs it, and often. Yes, it is certainly way preferred to Christmas Shoes and Santa Baby, but since when did I’ll Be Home for Christmas become so popular that absolutely everyone includes it on their holiday album? Is it the one with the least copyright protection? And while I’m at it, who chooses the on-air playlists where it seems to play every tenth song? Or less?

Or is it that it’s just being played to the country’s somber mood these days? Or mine? Is there some kind of nostalgic ‘home’ we all long for?

By contrast, I think that when it comes time for me to Need a Little Christmas, it’s not I’ll be Home that cheers me, but Joy to the World that would truly raise my hopes.

So, I confess: this is a strange Christmas for us. We are feeling somewhat homeless. Yes, I admit, in a very, very western affluent sort of way, but still, homeless. We’ve relocated to the Pacific Northwest to pursue a new season in life, but it came up quickly enough, and a new ministry call among wonderful people has demanded enough, that we have not yet been able to put a home under our feet. Oh, we’re not ungrateful, by any means: we’re living under the generous and plentiful graces of dear friends who had some lovely space available, and our daughter’s family, time with whom we treasure immensely. But this region has just not yet seemed like home. The culture is yet to be learned, the strangeness of the place has not yet subsided. And then there’s just this gnawing and seeming inhospitality and unwelcomeness caused by the weather.

We’ve been in the Pacific Northwest going on three months now, and I think it has rained for all but about thirty minutes since we arrived. Yes, I exaggerate. But imagine my giddy delight a week or so ago when the weak sun shone so brightly upon my early morning commute that I actually had to put on my sunglasses for what I realized was the very first time!

Have you ever noticed how people in different regions of the country have these key, local phrases that make light of their absolutely horrible weather? Think about it. In Phoenix, they say, “Oh, but it’s DRY heat.” By contrast, in Atlanta they say, “Oh, but I LOVE the humidity!” In New England, “Oh, nevermind the weather, just wait three (or ten, or sixty) minutes and it will change.” (Chicago says the same thing. Of course, Chicago also says, “Yes, but we have the CUBS!”) In Minneapolis, it’s “Oh, but the SUMMERS are so wonderful.” (Apparently no one here is taking the mosquitos into consideration.) Denverites say, “Oh, but the snow is always GONE in three days.” (We even said that a lot ourselves while we lived there.) But here in Seattle, the key phrase of weather denial is, “Oh, there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad gear.”

Again, whatever…

As if good gear can substitute for the good feel of God’s good sunshine on one’s good, bare skin. Yes, one is outside. No, one cannot hear the birds due to the layers and the Gore-tex over one’s ears. Latent in all these regional phrases is the need a person has to make peace with the things about home that one does not like, or that actually may even be quite miserable, but must be lived with anyway.

I’m sorry. The weather here is Bad with a capital B. It’s absolutely gorgeous in some other ways. And we adore the people we are working and living with. But the climate has caused us to ask occasionally why people would want to live here! Perry Como’s local booster tune says, “The bluest skies you’ve ever seen are in Seattle.” I think I would beg to differ. Maybe they’re thinking of the cobalt blue from hiking up near magnificent Mount Rainier fifty miles away. Or maybe the skies just seem the bluest to Seattleites because the hue so rarely presents itself. Along the way this fall, many have told us it has been an unusually cloudy, wet and dark winter. Curiously, they started saying that to us in mid-October, so perhaps we should have taken that as a clue.

So I’m overstating my case, to be sure. (Overstatement IS a communication form, you know. Truly.) But the rain is getting old. Commuting is getting old. Living out of suitcases is getting old. And in spite of the  fact that Gail and I are pretty positive people, we both have been feeling a bit melancholy, not yet sensing like we’ve come home in the way we would like by now. Which brings me back to the overplayed Christmas song that a lot of other people may be enjoying this year more than me.

Today I woke long before dawn, walked to the farmhouse living room window and surveyed the advent of the last day of Advent. Disappointedly, I found that the sight matched my homeless mood. It was wet, cold and foggy, and I could barely see the road sixty feet away. Where am I? Why again am I here? I slipped on my feeble non-Gore-tex raincoat and took a long, long walk. By the time I was finished, the sun was beginning to burn through the fog, and as the fog lifted so did my spirit, just a bit. But it was also something else that happened, something timely for my need today. While walking through the dense fog, I had the chance to hear (but not see) great throngs of migrating, homeless trumpeter swans off feeding in a field to my left. And then to hear (but not see) even greater, more massive throngs of migrating, homeless snow geese off feeding in another field to my right. Lifting fog and contemplations of migrations brought some semblance of peace to my restless and homeless soul.

Maybe, in the grander scheme, we’re all still just migrating. Maybe that’s all we can do this side of things. The writer of the Bible passage puts it profoundly:

It was by faith that Abraham obeyed to go out to a place… in complete ignorance of his destination. It was faith that kept him journeying… For his eyes were looking forward to that city with solid foundations of which God Himself is designer and builder. (Hebrews 11:8-10)

I guess Abraham never made it home for Christmas either.

So, on we go. We all want a true home. This isn’t it.

~~ Migrating Heavenward, Weather Notwithstanding,
RGM, Christmas Eve 2016

Saturday, December 17, 2016

From My Nature Journal: A Nature Hymn in an Unlikely Place

It is another of the truly great Christian songs of all time – Joy to the World – with music and lyrics written by two of the greatest composers of all time, George Fredrik Handel (of Messiah fame) and Isaac Watts. Joy to the World is perhaps the most well known Christmas carol in the English language, but is verifiably the most published. My favorite rendition of it happens to be by The Canadian Brass in a recording given to me years ago by my friend Lowell; but since I cannot find that on YouTube, press here to listen to the classic version by the Percy Faith Orchestra. You have my permission to ignore the cheesy picture.

It is only in recent years, however, that I have appreciated the nature verses.

The nature verses? Yes. It’s a nature hymn in an unlikely place – the Christmas section of the hymnal. Perhaps something was lost to me in the song’s familiarity, or in the simple joy of singing something so magnificent at such a wonderful time of the year. But the more I ponder the nature verses the more astounding the song seems to me, absolutely brilliant lyrics. Enjoy the whole prayer of praise, but note especially the lyrics highlighted:

Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her king.
Let every heart prepare him room
And heaven and nature sing!

Joy to the earth, the Savior reigns!
Let all their songs employ,
While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains
Repeat the sounding joy!

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground:
He comes to make his blessings flow
Far as the curse is found!

He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of his righteousness
And wonders of his love!

It is really good theology, actually. The last line of the first verse and all of verse two remind us that all heaven and all nature join in the celebration. In other words, we sing, and, somehow, all creation sings with us: Jesus said that if the people failed to praise him, the very rocks would not be able to hold back (Luke 19:40); Isaiah said that the trees of the field would clap their hands as God led us forth with such joy (Isaiah 55:12); and Paul said that all of creation even waits as on tiptoe to see the marvelous coming of the King of Kings (Romans 8:19)!

And what’s that in verse three about a curse? You have to go all the way back to Genesis 3 for that one: the curse is the woe to the world that came with Adam and Eve’s sin in the Garden of Eden, and the salvation of the promised Messiah is the curse’s breaking as ‘far as the curse is found.’ Add to all this the fact that Watts was said to have had Psalm 98 in mind when he wrote the lyrics, and it is no wonder that they have lost nothing of their richness over the three centuries since their writing.

I don’t know about you but I will sing this song lustily this season, thrilled with these thoughts. As you sing it, too, imagine all of creation joined in praise along with you!

Blessed Advent!
~~RGM, December 14 2016,
Reprinting an earlier post