Pieces Go Missing

first wrote this post two years ago. There have been years in my life when I have deeply needed the encouragement to welcome December with tireless hope. Perhaps this is a year like that for you; if so, I pray these words speak to your soul. -Cg-


I was reminded this morning that tomorrow, December 1, marks the day of an accident two years ago that took a beloved and friend and mentor from this earth. It was the start of a hard Christmas season. One where tears held their own against the joy and the laughter.

It was the start of a year of sorrow followed by sorrow—a year that changed my whole life in many ways. A year that I can look back to now with a measure of joy, seeing the hand of the One who shapes all my experiences with His grace and mercy, but a hard year, nonetheless.

There are pieces missing from my life now which were all comfortably settled in place just two years ago.

I could say the same thing about a cold, snowy January day almost five years ago. And another one four years back. And a hot, humid July one sixteen years back. I’m certain many of us can point to those days—those periods or moments—in our lives when everything changed, when the bruises formed for the first time, when we began to carry our burdens, when the cracks fissured our hearts.

And Christmas is a time when those bruises, those burdens, those cracks tend to lose the veneer we’ve washed over them for the rest of the year. Some of us have families who we can honestly share our burdens with. Some of our families are the source of those bruises. Some of us have found communities of friends that have helped heal our broken hearts. Some are still seeking them.

But, somehow, we still enter Christmas thinking perhaps this year will be different, this year will be the year we’re far enough from the hurt not to feel it anymore. We still look to January first as a new page, a new opportunity to try again.

I was struck this morning by the lyrics of Sleeping At Last’s song “Snow.”

The branches have traded their leaves for white sleeves
All warm-blooded creatures make ghosts as they breathe
Scarves are wrapped tightly like gifts under trees
Christmas lights tangle in knots annually

Our families huddle closely
Betting warmth against the cold
But our bruises seem to surface
Like mud beneath the snow

So we sing carols softly, as sweet as we know
A prayer that our burdens will lift as we go
Like young love still waiting under mistletoe
We’ll welcome December with tireless hope

Let our bells keep on ringing
Making angels in the snow
May the melody disarm us
When the cracks begin to show

Like the petals in our pockets
May we remember who we are
Unconditionally cared for
By those who share our broken hearts

The table is set and our glasses are full
Though pieces go missing, may we still feel whole
We’ll build new traditions in place of the old
’cause life without revision will silence our souls

So let the bells keep on ringing
Making angels in the snow
May the melody surround us
When the cracks begin to show

Like the petals in our pockets
May we remember who we are
Unconditionally cared for
By those who share our broken hearts

As gentle as feathers, the snow piles high
Our world gets rewritten and retraced every time
Like fresh plates and clean slates, our future is white
New Year’s resolutions will reset tonight

“We’ll welcome December with tireless hope.”

We humans are a people of hope. In light of everything that has happened in the course of human history, it seems a bit foolish. Why would we hope when we know that every lifecycle ends with death? Why would we hope when we see broken relationships all around us? Why would we hope in light of war, famine, nature’s destruction?

We hope because we are made in the image of God. We are a broken, fallen people, and we are offered wholeness and restoration.

We hope because the Son of God came to earth one Christmas and fulfilled His calling:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

–Luke 4:18-21, ESV

He came to this earth to partake in the human condition and to overcome it. He came to share our broken hearts and to make us whole. He came to rewrite the world.

May your December be filled with hope. May you remember who you are: You are unconditionally cared for by One who shares your scars.

Watch Sleeping At Last’s video for “Snow”

Sleeping At Last is offering a Christmas Collection (including “Snow”) for download at Noisetrade. I’m loving listening to it so far this season. Go get yourself a copy and leave a tip!

Kamikaze Squirrels and Zinzi’s Cat

I drive through a quiet neighborhood on my way to work. This morning I was forced to drive it like a mad woman, dodging squirrels right and left that jumped out from the side of the road that ran across in front of me. They scooted by as my tires rolled through the leaves scudding across the road. One had dropped his nut right in the middle of the street. I did my best to avoid him, swerving to one side, and he worked hard to get his paws around the acorn and get it into his jaws. Just as I passed, he scampered off, his tail barely clearing my wheel.

The close encounters with furry woodland creatures put me in mind of one of my favorite memories: my introduction to Zinzi’s cat.

In May of 2001, I went on a Reformation Tour with my college. There were about twelve students, mostly girls, and the rest of our tour bus was filled with friends of the university—many of them senior citizens, quite a few retired naval officers. It was a quality combination that led to lots of entertaining encounters. But this story only includes the younger generation.

We spent our second night in Herrnhut, Germany, at a guesthouse run by the Moravians there. Technically, Count Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf und Pottendorf was not a part of reformation history, as he lived about a hundred years too late, but, since Herrnhut was a good stopping point between Prague (where we studied Jan Hus) and Luther’s territory, we paused there and learned a little bit of Moravian history.

The observation tower in the Herrnhut cemetery.
Aussichtsturm Hutbergaltan auf dem Hutberg, Herrnhut

We’d toured a large cemetery in the center of the village that afternoon and had seen the sarcophaguses of Zinzi (as we affectionately named the Count) and his family in the center of the main path. In addition, we’d seen a hill on the far side of the cemetery with a white observation tower above it. When it grew dark that night, we discovered that the stars were shining brilliantly—small towns like Herrnhut not having quite the light pollution of major cities—and someone got the bright idea to make our way to the hill and the observation tower to see what we could see.

Eight of the girls jumped on board with the idea, and Mike, as the conscientious brother that he was, decided that we could not go alone. So, the nine of us jauntily made our way from the guest house, along the path through the cemetery, and up the hill to the observatory. Upon arrival, we discovered the observatory tower itself was locked, so we were forced to stand about on the ground—still high above the town—and enjoy the sight of the night sky from there.

After half an hour or so of stargazing we turned back to the path down the hill on our way to return to the guesthouse, and all suddenly had a realization: it was pitch black, we had one flashlight, and we were about to walk through a cemetery.

Spooked, we each grabbed a buddy. I linked arms with Kate and we set ourselves second in line behind Emily and Crystal with the flashlight. Behind us Deanne and Claire paired up, and Mike, with Bekah on one arm and Jamie on the other, brought up the rear.

We navigated down the hill carefully. Emily and Crystal would spot a root across the path and whisper it back to the rest of us, “Root!” and the message would pass along. We’d hear “Turn!” at each bend and pass it on back, “Turn!” “Turn!”

All was well until we reached the sarcophagi in the middle of the main path. We’d skirted the path edge, giving them a wide birth as we went, and it was only when most of us were beyond them that Mike could hold it in no longer.

“Is it just me,” he asked, “or is that coffin opening?”

Simultaneously, in sepulchral whispers, eight girls said, “SHUT UP!” He was vigorously swatted by Jamie and Bekah as he laughed.

A few more minutes down the path, we could see the edge of the cemetery ahead and the comforting lights of our guesthouse across the road. The end was in sight, but something in the beam of the flashlight had caught Emily and Crystal’s attention. They slowed, peering ahead.

“What is it?” Kate and I asked.

“I think—” Emily moved the flashlight and dragged Crystal another step forward. “I think it’s a hedgehog!”

Delighted, we passed the word back, “Hedgehog!” “Hedgehog!” and we gathered closer to the tiny woodland creature. None of us had ever seen a hedgehog before, and they really are as adorable as they look in all the pictures. We’d formed a small clump around the edge of the path near him, traumatizing him and paralyzing him with fear as we trained our flashlight upon him and whispered our excitement.

“I’m going to take a picture of it!” said Kate. She reached for her camera, one arm still hooked in mine. She brought the camera to her eye, focused, and pressed the shutter.

As she did so, a white cat came flying out of the darkness, aiming for the small prey we’d so conveniently trained in a spotlight for him. Simultaneously, the flash of the camera went off, startling the humans, the cat, and the hedgehog equally and sending us all reeling away from the center point where the hedgehog had been. Terrified back to action, it went scurrying off in one direction. The cat, shocked by the sudden bright light, ran the opposite way. And all nine of us jumped back in alarum.

It became an emblem of our entire tour, that night did. We told and retold the tale. We dubbed Kate the “Savior of Furry Woodland Creatures” (though “furry” may not have been the best description for the hedgehog). We honored Mike for his bravery in bringing up the rear, and chastised him for his attempts to terrify us.

And in every city we entered for the next two weeks, we saw a white cat, Zinzi’s Cat, who followed us across Germany, haunting our steps until we would provide him with another snack.

The Phone Booth

I stopped at a mountain gas station this morning, between hillsides spread with leaves about to turn spotted with the scarlet flashes of the precocious maples.

At the corner of the building, empty of its original instrument, was a phone booth.

I was reminded of the path from the road up to my university campus. The campus, prior to being bought by the college some twenty years before I attended, had been a Catholic boys’ school and monastery. Major renovations had taken place, but around the campus there were a few remnants of its former existence.

One of those remnants, at a bend in the aforementioned path was an empty icon shelf. It sat there, quietly growing over with vines, a reminder that things sometimes outlive their original purposes and find new existence as a ruin.

imageSomeone had set their empty coffee cup on the vacant phone booth. Another had graffitied the upper corner.

A few years ago, in another phase of renovation, the university tore down that old icon shelf, ending it’s physical existence altogether and leaving it a mere remnant of memory, a story I could one day tell my children if I took them to Homecoming.

I suppose someday all the empty phone booths will be torn down as well…and they will become just a remnant of cultural memory. And to keep them from passing away altogether, we’ll tell our children and grandchildren stories of trying to find a phone booth and hoping we could find a quarter in our pocket to make a call.

Pieces Go Missing

I was reminded this morning that tomorrow, December 1, marks the day of an accident two years ago that took a beloved and friend and mentor from this earth. It was the start of a hard Christmas season. One where tears held their own against the joy and the laughter.

It was the start of a year of sorrow followed by sorrow—a year that changed my whole life in many ways. A year that I can look back to now with a measure of joy, seeing the hand of the One who shapes all my experiences with His grace and mercy, but a hard year, nonetheless.

There are pieces missing from my life now which were all comfortably settled in place just two years ago.

I could say the same thing about a cold, snowy January day almost five years ago. And another one four years back. And a hot, humid July one sixteen years back. I’m certain many of us can point to those days—those periods or moments—in our lives when everything changed, when the bruises formed for the first time, when we began to carry our burdens, when the cracks fissured our hearts.

And Christmas is a time when those bruises, those burdens, those cracks tend to lose the veneer we’ve washed over them for the rest of the year. Some of us have families who we can honestly share our burdens with. Some of our families are the source of those bruises. Some of us have found communities of friends that have helped heal our broken hearts. Some are still seeking them.

But, somehow, we still enter Christmas thinking perhaps this year will be different, this year will be the year we’re far enough from the hurt not to feel it anymore. We still look to January first as a new page, a new opportunity to try again.

I was struck this morning by the lyrics of Sleeping At Last’s song “Snow.”

The branches have traded their leaves for white sleeves
All warm-blooded creatures make ghosts as they breathe
Scarves are wrapped tightly like gifts under trees
Christmas lights tangle in knots annually

Our families huddle closely
Betting warmth against the cold
But our bruises seem to surface
Like mud beneath the snow

So we sing carols softly, as sweet as we know
A prayer that our burdens will lift as we go
Like young love still waiting under mistletoe
We’ll welcome December with tireless hope

Let our bells keep on ringing
Making angels in the snow
May the melody disarm us
When the cracks begin to show

Like the petals in our pockets
May we remember who we are
Unconditionally cared for
By those who share our broken hearts

The table is set and our glasses are full
Though pieces go missing, may we still feel whole
We’ll build new traditions in place of the old
’cause life without revision will silence our souls

So let the bells keep on ringing
Making angels in the snow
May the melody surround us
When the cracks begin to show

Like the petals in our pockets
May we remember who we are
Unconditionally cared for
By those who share our broken hearts

As gentle as feathers, the snow piles high
Our world gets rewritten and retraced every time
Like fresh plates and clean slates, our future is white
New Year’s resolutions will reset tonight

“We’ll welcome December with tireless hope.”

We humans are a people of hope. In light of everything that has happened in the course of human history, it seems a bit foolish. Why would we hope when we know that every lifecycle ends with death? Why would we hope when we see broken relationships all around us? Why would we hope in light of war, famine, nature’s destruction?

We hope because we are made in the image of God. We are a broken, fallen people, and we are offered wholeness and restoration.

We hope because the Son of God came to earth one Christmas and fulfilled His calling:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

–Luke 4:18-21, ESV

He came to this earth to partake in the human condition and to overcome it. He came to share our broken hearts and to make us whole. He came to rewrite the world.

May your December be filled with hope. May you remember who you are: You are unconditionally cared for by One who shares your scars.

Watch Sleeping At Last’s video for “Snow”

Sleeping At Last is offering a Christmas Collection (including “Snow”) for download at Noisetrade. I’m loving listening to it so far this season. Go get yourself a copy and feel free to leave a tip!

By Design: Book Review (ish)

By DesignAlmost a year ago I began working with Dr. Martha MacCullough, Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Cairn University to shape her manuscript on educational philosophy into a book. I learned a lot about the editing process, educational philosophy, page layout, and the awesome name pairings of educational scholars (seriously, “Chubb and Moe”? “Long and Frye”? “Bigge and Shermis”? I came to the conclusion they should either open pubs or start law firms). It’s been a long, crazy journey, and once or twice I wasn’t sure we’d ever get this thing done in time…

But last week, just in time for the first classes to use it, By Design: Developing a Philosophy of Education Informed by a Christian Worldview showed up from the printer, looking all spiffy.

The educators who have reviewed the book are singing its praises already. I’ll let you read their notes rather than giving you my own, as I put too much work into this one to be objective, but I think we can look forward to it being useful and helpful for Christian educators around the globe in the future. For now, though, it’s a matter of getting the word out. By Design is available for sale now from the Cairn website and will be available in other venues soon. Check out the first chapter on the site, and tell your Christian friends who teach – whether it be in a Christian school, home schooling, or even in public schools – that this is a resource for them.

Book Info:
By Design: Developing a Philosophy of Education Informed by a Christian Worldview
by Martha E. MacCullough, Ed.D.
Cairn University, 2013
ISBN-13: 978-0-615-74352-3

There’s a Drought in My Hymnal

This morning, on Facebook, I posted the following as a status update:

So, I always feel a bit perturbed when we sing hymns of the early 20th Century in Church. It is not that I dislike singing hymns, just that I’ve never thought the first half of the 20th Century particularly fertile soil for hymn-writers. I think to myself, “There are so many great old hymns of the church, why are we singing this or that one?”

I had to laugh, then, when I came across this line, written by Helen Gardner in The Art of T.S. Eliot published in 1949, describing the Modern Era: “An age which has hardly produced a hymn which can be sung without embarrassment…”

I know just what you mean, Helen.

Image from Church Music Today
It started a surprisingly long thread of comments, one of which was my own further thoughts on the matter. As I wrote it, and its length grew, I thought, “I should turn this into a post.” (And now you know how I come up for material for this blog.)
But it began with a friend asking for some examples of early 20th Century hymns that I found lacking. I was in the midst of a phone conversation with mi madre when I read it and we got going on the topic.
Her comments: “That whole period was very internally focused. There’s a lot of ‘I, I, I’: ‘I Come to the Garden Alone,’ ‘I Love to Tell the Story,’ ‘I Will Sing the Wondrous Story.’ Others: ‘Showers of Blessing,’ [perhaps myleast favorite] ‘What a Friend We Have in Jesus.’ There’s another one that goes, ‘Does Jesus care when my heart is pained too deeply for mirth and song?’ Many are the hymns of the late 19th Century tent meetings and gospel awakenings and the early 20th Century modernist/fundamentalist controversy.
“Often you have what was at that time a rather daring rhythm; they have syncopation and swing to them – so they are very singable. They are the songs that built the Sunday night Gospel meetings in churches – often they were evangelistic meetings because the church had gaslights or electricity when individuals didn’t. The services were lighter, the preaching evangelistic, and there was lots of music. Even as late as when I was a child [1950s] the evening service was called the ‘Evangel’ or the ‘Gospel’ service. But by then the people who came because it was a novelty were gone. By then the Sunday evening service was full of those who came regularly on Sunday morning.”

Mom got me thinking about my Grandma Givens’ stories about her courtship with my grandfather. They met as Mennonite teenagers in 1936 and all of their “dates” were Sunday evening gatherings at all the various Mennonite churches in Lancaster County for singing nights. My mom reminded me that in the later Little House on the Prairie books (1890s), they start up an evening “singing club” at the schoolhouse and it’s where all the young people go. Even today that is the tradition among the Amish.

We have an incredible tradition within the Christian church of singing. I don’t want to put that down in any way. I think our contemporary culture is reaping the blessing of this tradition in the music that is being produced by contemporary pop and folk artists. Look at the participants in and winners of singing competitions on television in recent years; across the board, the majority of the stand-outs were raised in church. Bands like The Avett Brothers, Mumford and Sons, The Last Bison (who you should seriously check out), The Fray, OneRepublic, Owl City – heck, even Katy Perry – grew up singing in church.

I love the moments around the piano that my family would gather and sing together. I love the times for singing in a worship service. I love that we sing in times of joy and in times of sorrow This is not just the American church – it is universal, it is historical. Dr. Brian Toews, Provost at Cairn University, pointed out once that, “What became very clear [to me] teaching the wisdom literature is that one thing unique about Christianity is that in the midst of trouble, Christians sing.”

I love the tradition of song in the Christian church. My issue is with the musical and lyrical mundanity and shallowness of the early 20th Century. The richness of the truly old hymns – both musically and lyrically – and the beauty of some more contemporary works far outweigh that period in my mind.

In the course of the commentary on my Facebook page, another friend mentioned her frustration with hymns written after 1960: “Apparently, people forgot how to sing in harmony ‘cause it feels like everything was written in unison.” Another was frustrated with the musicality of mid-19th Century American hymn tunes. There’s probably quite a bit more to be said on the topic, and I would by no means consider myself an authority on the subject. What are your thoughts?

 

Starry Nite

The evening’s activities put me in mind of the event a year earlier. The tone both similar and worlds apart – a celebration of the start of the Christmas season, but this year without the aching heart and scratchy eyes of the day’s grief. As I walked away, the voices, amplified by microphones, echoed off the trees, the strains of the violin soaring above them.

I walked toward my car, alone in the deserted lot at the far end of campus. The tenor, the alto, and the violin together, haunting echoes of the originals, rode the chilly, crisp air: “O night, O Holy night, O night divine!”

And alone, I wept at the beauty of it all, that the Conqueror came in peace1, on a quiet, holy night, to be pierced for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; to take upon Himself the chastisement that brought us peace, to turn our sorrow into joy and our mourning into dancing. The power of Death was undone by an Infant born of glory2.

1 Jason Gray. “Easier.” Christmas Stories: Repeat the Sounding Joy.
2 Andrew Peterson. “Gather ‘Round Ye Children, Come.” Behold the Lamb of God.

Grief and Birth

I’ve been trying to figure out if, and if so how, I should add my voice to the many speaking out regarding the proposed name change for Philadelphia Biblical University that was announced this week. On the one hand, everyone is hearing my voice, because I’ve been a part of the team crafting emails, blog posts, and responses to comments “from the University.” On the other hand, no one is hearing my voice because none of that is going out under my name, and it is the official language.

But at the same time, I’ve been realizing that the official language is what is coming out of my mouth when I’m talking to people or coming through my fingertips when I’m typing, and I’ve been trying to figure out if that’s just because it’s familiar language or if it’s because I really think these things.

You see, while the bulk of the population only heard about this potential name change this week, I heard about the possibility of it last fall, and learned the actual name over a month ago. I’m well ahead on my processing from many others, and I didn’t document how I felt when I first heard. (Silly me, I have a rule about that at work – “Always put it in writing as a follow-up for reference, even if you had the conversation.” – but I don’t follow it very well).

I do remember one of my first thought being, “Ugh, that will be a ton of work.” Really, I think that thought overshadowed others for quite some time. But that ton of work, while still looming, has taken on a new meaning since my boss, Lisa, died after a brief illness a couple of weeks ago. She was so excited about this prospect, and she was so concerned when she was in the hospital that we would lose momentum on the progress made. Now that she’s gone, the work isn’t quite the burden that it seemed it would be. Instead, it’s a memorial to her, a stone I’m setting up in her memory to remind me of who she was and of how to move forward, taking in all the things she taught me.

So this week, when the announcement was made, the social media-verse exploded into action. We’ve been watching, responding where appropriate, and trying to take what people are saying with consideration and grace.

But the ones that have hit me hardest are the many folks who are questioning if this is the beginning of the end of all things when it comes to the centrality of scripture as the core of all that PBU does. Sometimes what they say is hurtful because, to me, it implies that they think we’re lying. I’m realizing that people may not really pay any attention to the things I’ve crafted that arrive in their mailbox on a regular basis. (I do know that I really shouldn’t take it personally, of course). Or, if they do pay attention, they seem to think that changing the title of an institution negates everything that has been said, over and over again, for the past three (well, more, but three that I’ve been involved with) years. There are times when I want to just yell, “We are still a biblical university! That will not change! Haven’t you seen us recommit to that as the nature of who we are in every issue of the magazine, every letter we’ve sent, every page on the website? Do you think that pulling the description from our title and instead allowing us to use it as a descriptor (you know, the way it’s built, being an adjective and all) means that everything we’ve said for the past three [or 12] years is a lie?”

In writing with an alumna from the days of PCB when my parents went there (when it was located at 1800 Arch Street), I finally found something new to say that is mine, something that really encapsulates how I feel about what’s going on, the changes that are taking place, and prospects for the future. I’ve adapted it for this space.

I grew up surrounded by 1800 Arch Street-ers and I grew up hearing the stories of those days. As a lover of all things historical, I am glad that that is where “my” university’s roots go. And “my” university (I graduated in 2003) was also a very different place than today’s institution. Not as different as the 1800 Arch days were, but different. I look back at my experience and I realize that I saw the very beginning of the birth-pangs of the changes that have taken place the past twelve years. I feel as though the past three years that I’ve been on staff have been the tail end of the birthing and that we are now poised to begin a new life; like a child from a parent, still the same blood, DNA, and genetic code, but an individual in his own right.

So I am praying for this University, no matter what the name ends up being. Because like any child there is absolutely the risk of losing the Way, no matter how much he says his identity is that of his parents, but we need our “parents” – those who’ve gone before as alumni, faculty, friends – to support us and help us to take new steps in this new world, challenging us to remain strong in our commitments, our core values, and our central focus on Christ and His Word.

That focus and foundation isn’t changing, even with a new name. And if it were to start to do so in my lifetime, I would rise up and tell the story of what is happening now, pointing to the figurative stones that are being set up right now as we approach this Board decision and saying, “We are founded on the Word of God. That is our very DNA. On the day when we changed this name we chose ‘Cairn’ because it gave us a marker to point to and say, ‘Look at what God has done. Walk in His Way.'”

And I will teach the next generation about these things, because my biblical university education taught me to do so (when I studied Deuteronomy 6 and 2 Timothy 2 J).

In the past two weeks in my department at PBU we’ve had a death and a birth. And while we’re still grieving the loss of Lisa, our VP for Communications and Marketing, we’re also rejoicing in the healthy delivery of Sierra, daughter to my friend Jodi, who worked in our department and now is the Assistant to the President.

I hear the grief in the loss of the “old PCB/PBU”, but I also hear in my mind the cries of a prospective newborn “Cairn University.”

They’re lusty cries, healthy ones, and I can’t help but rejoice in the prospects and opportunities new life brings.

 

Missing Uncle Sam

O come, Thou Day-spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.

“Christmas is a time of joy,” my boss said yesterday. “I have to keep reminding myself of that.”

It is. A joy tinged with sorrow, as the Man of Sorrows left his throne and came to be born in a manger, knowing he would be the sacrifice that redeemed the world. But a joy nonetheless, because the end result of that sacrifice was resurrection – not just once, but for all who believe.

I’m holding onto the hope of resurrection right now. Holding on to the hope that the Day-spring will put death’s dark shadows to flight. Because they are dark. And they are present. And I ache in the missing him.

“I’m okay,” I keep hearing myself say. “At the moment.”

On the one hand, day-to-day, I didn’t see Uncle Sam much – certainly not compared to his students or his fellow professors of music. But sporadic lunches, quick conversations in hallways or offices, greetings at concerts and events were enough to keep that long-seated friendship fresh, one that had grown from years upon years of relationship with my grandparents, my parents, my sisters, his brothers, his nephews, our shared friends. And now I am left with them all, aching.

He was a musician. I know that. But it’s not like that stood out to me in a unique way – saying Sam Hsu was a musician would be like saying any other person had eyes. It’s a given. His music was so much a part of him that I sometimes didn’t even take note of it.

I know that must seem strange to those who knew him from the world of music. But that wasn’t the world where we overlapped so much. We met more frequently over meals, at family celebrations, or academic discussions. He was my friend, my “uncle”; and my friend came with music in his blood.

He was a friend I was privileged to sit under as a student, enjoying the breadth and depth his knowledge gave to a class that could have been routine. And in between the insights into the music, art, and literature of the western world, were tidbits of great beauty and depth that would flow from him: “He’s experienced a little of me and I’ve experienced a little of him. That’s what friendship is, isn’t it?”

He was a friend who may have been thought somber by those who did not know him well. But they never got to experience the moments of humor that would come from around side – hilariously unexpected. I’ll never forget the day he sat at the keyboard to introduce us to a Russian Romantic composer and paused with his fingers hovering above the keys: “I’m going to show you how the Russians loved,” he said. Then he lowered his hands to the first chord; it struck and faded as he paused again: “I’m not a Russian. I hope you know that.”

I stood at the hospital on Thursday afternoon, looking about me at Uncle Sam’s students who were there, and thinking of those, former and present, who were not. Men and women of God whose passion for music is fueled by their passion for Christ. And I thought: that is what they learned from their teacher. More than fingering, more than history, more than style. They learned Christ-following from one who was, preeminently, a Christ-follower.

I have allowed my mind to swim freely in the lyrics and music of hymns and carols for the past few days, knowing that it is a place he would have loved to be with me. And the joy of Christmas, the beauty of this world, the grandeur and faithfulness of God, the great truths – all of them have resounded over and over to me.

And I will rejoice. For God is with us.

Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

To read more about Dr. Samuel Hsu, click here.

Living Stones

In Joshua 22, there’s this misunderstanding.

The tribes who took allotments of land on the east side of the Jordan are finally going home after helping the other tribe conquer the land of Canaan, and they build an altar, somewhere near where they are going to cross back over the Jordan.

The tribes in Canaan think they’re trying to build a second place of worship, away from the Tabernacle, so that they don’t have to travel so far to make sacrifices. They rise up to make war against the eastern tribes and fortunately stop to ask questions before they do so.
It all comes out in the explanation: the eastern tribes didn’t want anyone to forget that they fought for the land. They pulled out the practice of their fathers and forefathers and built an ebenezer – a an altar of remembrance – so that when their children asked why they had to go all the way to the tabernacle to worship, or when the western tribes’ children asked why these strangers from across the river kept coming over into their land, someone could point to the altar and say, “See, your fathers and our fathers fought together and God gave them this land. It is His, and we all worship Him here.”
Except, here’s the thing. The stones could stand for generations, and they could represent what the eastern tribes wanted them to say, but only if someone said it first. The whole misunderstanding arose because no one was there to remind the western tribes of what had happened.
I’ve been thinking lately about living stones. Josh Garrells uses the phrase in his song, “White Owl”: Every dream that you have been shown / Will be like living stone / Building you into a home / A shelter from the storm.
And I’ve been listening to him almost incessantly, so, frankly, living stones in my head. But that is just the background music.
On Tuesday evening we gathered together the Chorale that went to Poland this spring for a reunion. A significant portion of the group was able to make it, and we were able to have a little bit of time for people to share what God had been doing in their lives since the trip.
One by one, as they shared, I was reminded of the things we learned together as we traveled.
And I had this thought – we’re living stones.
The Israelites set up piles of stones to speak as a remembrance of the things God did. But without a message to go with them, as we see in Joshua 22, they failed to tell the story.
But then I started thinking and trying to remember exactly what it was that Peter says about living stones. I looked it up: “As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” It’s all in the context of the Church – and fitting that it’s one of Peter’s letters that uses the analogy. Jesus is the cornerstone, the one upon which He will build His church, but we are the walls, the steeple, the body – a spiritual house.
As I wander forward through history I begin to see that we didn’t leave the piling of rocks back in ancient times. One has only to look at Notre Dame de Paris, or Westminster Abbey, or St. Paul’s, or the National Cathedral for that matter, to realize that we’ve been piling stones as markers of God throughout the centuries. Problem is: one only has to look at the words coming out of some of those buildings to realize that the message has gotten confused along the way.
Perhaps then, we should pour ourselves into building piles of living stones, gathering around us other members of the holy priesthood who can remind us of what we learned, of what we want to remember.
But then we run into this: for all their faults in communicating messages, stones have one serious factor going for them: they last. There are still altars built along the Jordan River. We don’t know exactly if one of them is the one from Joshua 22, but it’s quite possible. If that one isn’t standing, others from near the same time still are.
Living stones on the other hand, well, they’re fallible.
Time, philosophies, and the evil one take their toll on living stones; making us wonder if perhaps they were never stones at all, but something false, like the lithops plant that avoids being eaten by blending in to the stony ground around it. And we’re left wondering if it might have been better to build up stone walls as remembrances, rather than facing the disappointment and confusion that false living stones give us.
I haven’t finished thinking about this whole thing, but I’m going to say no. Living stones are worth the risk. Because not only can they tell the story of what happened then, in that time that you’re building the remembrance of, they can also tell the stories of what has happened since, and the new things that God has done.