Between the Ears

Life Notes—December 31, 2009 

“You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness”   Ephesians 4:22-24 

I have vivid memories as a child watching the Beatles perform on the Ed Sullivan Show.  I was in our living room, sprawled on the floor in front of our grainy, black-and-white TV, mesmerized by this band of rebels from England, their shaggy hair and new brand of music.  I watched them play guitars and sing and knew I wanted to do that one day. 

As I entered my teenage years I was captivated by the music and lyrics of singers and songwriters like Bob Dylan, Cat Stevens, Gordon Lightfoot, Jim Croce and others, and I dreamed of doing that one day.  I was obsessed with their songs, playing them over and over and over, listening and studying the nuances, trying desperately to figure out their secrets.  I wanted to write and sing songs that moved people the way these artists moved me.  It was a driving passion, and it all began in the ‘spirit of my mind.’ 

I’ve never been very good with New Years resolutions.  In different years I have vowed to lose weight, exercise more, stop complaining, be more attentive to those around me.  You name the positive change, I’ve probably vowed to make that change—and consistently failed.  Am I alone?  Where do I go wrong?  I think Paul’s letter to the Ephesians provides a clue. 

Paul tells us to be “renewed in the spirit of (our) minds, and to clothe (ourselves) with the new self…”  Change begins between the ears.  It requires a desire strong enough to overcome the comfort and security of remaining the same.  My desire to be a singer/songwriter was strong enough to carry me through many years of practice and discouragement.  Granted, I never became a famous artist, but I went far enough to know it wasn’t the type of life I wanted anyway.  But I do still enjoy the fruits of those labors, Sunday mornings at First Church.  And if my music occasionally moves another, my blessing is doubled.  For me, as with Paul, I cannot ‘put away my former life’ until I have a vivid picture in my mind, ‘clothing myself’ with the new life I desire.  What will I clothe myself in for 2010?  Hopefully, something in the likeness of God. 

Tom’s sermon this Sunday is entitled, “New Beginnings,” and will utilize the scripture found in Ephesians 4:17-24.  Life (Living in Faith Everyday) service is at 10:45 in Brady Hall.  Traditional worship in the sanctuary is at 8:30 and 11:00.  Contemporary worship at the west campus begins at 9:30. 

Come home to worship this Sunday!  New self or not, begin the New Year with us!

Greg Hildenbrand, Life Music Coordinator

A Room With A Phew

Life Notes—December 23, 2009 

“While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child.  And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”  Luke 2:6-7  

I am told one of the major ‘growth’ industries in the US today is storage.  It seems many of us have no place for all our stuff. As a nation we spend billions of dollars per year renting space for our things, and the construction of storage units continues unabated. 

For many of us the story of the birth of Christ is so familiar we miss its raw brutality.  We think of the stable with cuddly lambs and tame donkeys and we think, “Ah, how quaint!”  We see a baby wrapped in clean, soft cloth, lying in a manger of fresh hay and think, “Oh, isn’t that nice!”  We think how romantic it was, perhaps, there was no room at the inn, so our Lord could be born in such an ecologically diverse environment. 

But the reality of the stable was probably very different.  It was likely a dark, dank cave that smelled like an unventilated feed lot.  It was probably very noisy, dirty, crowded and disgusting.  If there was fresh hay in the manger it certainly would’ve been claimed by one of the animals long before Jesus was born.  Although I do not know for certain, I suspect the words manger and mange have similar origins. 

A few years ago our church adopted the theme, “Making Room” for Advent.  I wrote a song based on the theme and the first verse went like this:

        Is there room in my heart for you?  Is there love enough here for two? You send a baby, how could I refuse? But is there room in my heart for  you?

What about us?  If a very pregnant Mary and Joseph, claiming to carry Divinity, a peasant family from far away, knocked on our door tonight, would we find room for them?  Would we even say, “Oh, you can stay in our garage!  There’s no heat, and the concrete floor will be hard and cold, and watch out for the oil spills from the cars; but at least you’ll be out of the elements!”  Or would we just say there is no room at our inn? 

Relationships require time, attention and space.  If we want to cultivate a closer relationship with Christ, we must arrange our lives to make accommodation.  And there is no better time to begin than Christmas Eve.  The baby is looking for a room… 

There are five Christmas Eve services at First Church this Thursday evening.  The Celebration Center will have services at 4:00 and 6:00.  Traditional services will be in the sanctuary at 7:00 and 9:00.  The Life service will be at 10:45 PM in Brady Hall.  The theme for all services will be “The Promises of Christmas.” 

Come home to worship!  Make this the year you make room for your Savior!

Greg Hildenbrand, Life Music Coordinator


Humble Appreciation

Life Notes—December 17, 2009 

“…My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant…”  Luke 1:46b-48a   

These words are the beginning of a passage called, The Magnificat, found in Luke 1:46-55.  It is Mary’s song of praise as she reflects on being chosen to carry and give birth to Jesus.  She is staying with her cousin, Elizabeth, who is also feeling favored by God as she is pregnant with the child to become John the Baptist.  It is a beautiful, joyful passage that has been set to music by many composers, myself included.  

There is nothing in scripture to hint that Mary is anything but a typical teenage girl. Aside from birthing Jesus, she performs no miracles or healings.  She does not challenge the religious or political authorities. She weeps, like any mother would, at the crucifixion of her son.  Yet, two thousand years later she is held in only slightly lower esteem than Jesus, worshipped as a saint by many denominations. 

However, there are subtle, yet notable characteristics of Mary, the first contained in the passage above: humble appreciation.  She confesses her unworthiness to be favored by God in this manner, yet rejoices that she has been so favored.  The second is faithful obedience.  To see this we go back to the 26th verse, where the angel Gabriel appears to Mary to tell her she will be conceiving the Son of God.  Her ultimate response, found in verse 38, is “Here am I, servant of the Lord, let it be with me according to your word.” 

Humble appreciation and faithful obedience is how Christmas began.  A regular teenage girl, looking forward to a regular life with a regular husband, in a regular home in a regular town.  Until Gabriel appears to tell her life was about to become anything but regular.  How do we respond when we find our lives are to become something other than normal?  For me, probably not with humble appreciation or faithful obedience.  I tend more towards kicking, screaming and complaining when I see my life heading somewhere I don’t want to go.  Perhaps these traits were why God chose Mary to begin the greatest story ever told.  Perhaps through these traits we, too, can become favored participants in this same story, as it continues to be written through our lives today. 

This is the last Sunday of Advent, the Sunday of Love.  Tom will be preaching from Luke 1:26-56.  His sermon title is “Have a Mary Christmas.”  Life Worship in Brady Hall begins at 10:45.  Traditional worship in the sanctuary is at 8:30 and 11:00.  Worship at the west campus begins at 9:30.  I will sing my version of the Magnificat as a prayer response this Sunday in Life worship—close your eyes and imagine a fourteen-year-old girl with a fifty-something year old man’s voice… 

Come home to worship this Sunday!  Let your spirit rejoice with ours!

Greg Hildenbrand, Life Music Coordinator

Terrifying Encounters

Life Notes—December 10, 2009 

“In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.  Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.”  Luke 2:8-9 

One of the counterintuitive directives of the Bible is to fear the Lord.  But it is difficult to be afraid of the God who created and loves me and looks out for my best interests.  However, the Hebrew word for fear can also be translated as awe.  Holding God in awe makes more intuitive sense.  Holding someone or something in awe respects the mystery, or unknowability, of their/its confounding nature.  Awe is the natural reaction bestowed on that which is immensely greater or more powerful than anything we know.  

Even so, fear and awe are closely related. That which I hold in awe could, presumably, squelch me like a bug if it so desired (or if it wasn’t paying attention!).  So, if I am uncomfortable saying I fear God, it is only because I trust God’s motives regarding me.  However, I also reluctantly understand God’s love can lead me into fearful situations. In the Narnia series of books by C.S. Lewis the character representing Jesus is an untamed lion named Aslan.  The stories are peppered with instances where Aslan both terrifies with his fierceness and might, and comforts with his compassion and wisdom.  Aslan’s goodness is a given, but no one is ever completely comfortable in his presence.  There is a simultaneous sense of being drawn to, yet distant from.  Awesome, yet awkward. 

One night in the fields near Bethlehem a group of shepherds were fulfilling their routine duty of guarding sheep.  These shepherds were not wimps.  They had to fend off all manner of vicious predators seeking a lamb chop snack.  But this group of tough, hardened shepherds saw an angel of the Lord and they were terrified.  Not just uncomfortable; not a little scared.  They were terrified! 

Has God’s entry into our lives lost its terror?  As we prepare for Emmanuel, God with us, has the season become so commonplace as to have lost its awe?  If so, we need to reflect on the true nature of the season: incomprehensible love, redemption, new birth, grace.  These are not minor miracles.  These are gifts from a power beyond comprehension.  A power that can only be held in awe…and worshipped.  Terror is a reasonable option. 

This is the third Sunday of Advent, the Sunday of Shepherds and Joy.  Tom will be preaching from Luke 2:6-16.  His sermon title is “Living in Joy.”  Life Worship in Brady Hall begins at 10:45.  Traditional worship in the sanctuary is at 8:30 and 11:00.  Contemporary worship at the west campus begins at 9:30.   

Come home to worship this Sunday!  Experience the awe with us.

Greg Hildenbrand, Life Music Coordinator 

Conditional Contentment

Life Notes—December 3, 2009 

“…I have learned to be content with whatever I have.  I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty.  In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need.”  Philippians 4:11b-12 

Contentment.  With whatever I have.  Hmmmm.  That’s a pretty large expectation, and yet that’s what Paul claims for himself in his letter to the folks in Philippi.  For much of my life I had little, at least by American standards.  I grew up in a lower, middle-class home.  The six of us rented older, smaller homes in very modest neighborhoods.  Most of our vacations were to one or both sets of grandparents’ homes.  We were one of the last families I knew to have air conditioning (a single window unit) or color TV.  But I didn’t mind much.  For the most part I was content.  When I moved out on my own I had very modest apartments, duplexes, even a small trailer home.  Although I was doing my best to move up the socio-economic ladder, I was mostly content with my lot in life.  I never went hungry or without any of life’s basic needs. 

So, I like to tell myself, with Paul, “I have learned to be content with whatever I have…”  But have I?  If I were forced back into the studio apartment where I lived in the weeks before Carrie and I were married, would I be content?  If a fire wiped out our home and all its contents would I be content?  It is easy to look back on my past realities and say, “I was content, then.”  But Paul seems to be hinting at something very different.  That we should be able to find contentment regardless of our circumstances—even if we teeter between poverty and wealth and back to poverty, again.  It reminds me of Steve Martin in the old movie The Jerk.  He was “born a poor black child,” achieved tremendous wealth, and then fell back into poverty.  He found contentment in the relationships with his family that made poverty preferable to wealth. 

The punch line from Paul, not quoted above, comes in verse 13: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”  Contentment is directly related to that on which we lean.  If we lean on our environment we are setting ourselves up for unhappiness.  If we lean in faith on our Lord and Savior, we find stability regardless of our surroundings. 

This is the second Sunday of Advent, the Sunday of Peace.  Tom will be preaching from the scripture Philippians 4:10-13.  His sermon title is “Living With Peace?”  Life Worship in Brady Hall begins at 10:45.  Traditional worship in the sanctuary is at 8:30 and 11:00.  Contemporary worship at the west campus begins at 9:30.   

Come home to worship this Sunday!  Find contentment in fellowship with others.

Greg Hildenbrand, Life Music Coordinator