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O Little Town of Omaha

“I do not know what will become of me and I do not care much.… I wish I were fifteen years old again. I believe I might become a stunning man: but somehow or other I do not seem in the way to come to much now.” -Phillips Brooks, after being fired from his job as a teacher

“The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” -Phillips Brooks, O Little Town of Bethlehem

Brooks sat atop a horse, behind him lay Jerusalem; before him, the flickering lights of Bethlehem; and surrounding him was the field where smelly shepherds had been serenaded by celestial creatures thousands of years ago, announcing the birth of a newborn who would change the course of history. It was Christmas Eve, 1865 and he was about to participate in the Christmas worship service in the church of the nativity in Bethlehem, a high honor for a young pastor. Brooks was overcome with awe as he took it all in. Was this sight any different than it had been thousands of years ago on the night the shepherds made their way to the animal feed trough that held a newborn? Was it any different than the night Joseph and Mary had arrived, weary from their journey, tired, sore, and burdened by the Roman occupation and oppression? Was Joseph’s mind filled with the same self doubt and questioning?

A few years ago, I stood in that same spot, looking out over that same vision of the little town of Bethlehem and I understood how Brooks was inspired with the words “how still we see thee lie, above thy deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by.” I too, asked those questions: did Mary and Joseph have any idea what was happening with their lives? What they would do? Where they would go?

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Accounts vary on what Brooks was thinking. Some say he was burned out on ministry and the sight of Bethlehem not only inspired the poem he wrote but also a renewal within him. Perhaps. Some accounts just say he was enjoying the view. Again, perhaps. I like to think he was doing his own soul searching, as any pastor will do. As any human will do, no matter how much you love your job or your ministry, we all find ourselves questioning “Did I make the right choice? Is it worth it? Am I actually making a difference in the world?”

We are on the cusp of a new year, a time often filled with reminiscing and soul searching. What did the last year hold? What will the new year bring? How will I make a change to be a better person? To grow and develop personally? To advance my career? My ministry? My relationships? We each become Joseph, Mary, Phillips Brooks, standing in a field in Israel saying “What am I doing? Where am I going?”

I’ve often wondered what Mary and Joseph did following the birth of Jesus. We know that they were from Nazareth but had to travel to Bethlehem for the census. They were forced to flee to Egypt to escape maniacal threats from Herod. When they came back to the country did they return to Nazareth to family and neighbors? To familiarity and routine? Or did they try to make a fresh start where they would not be shamed for having a baby out of wedlock? What would they need most as they started their lives together? What did they want for this new baby?

I’ve thought a lot about this aspect of the birth narrative this Christmas especially as I find myself in that place of soul searching, of asking “Where can I go for a fresh start?” I’ve already talked about the joys and challenges of my year, so I won’t retell all that here. But I will tell you that much of my year was characterized by a general sense of anxiety. I resigned from my position as pastor, and after a few months of relief, I began to get restless. It was time to move on, find a new career, find a new place in the world. I had moved in with my sister in Omaha, a temporary home as I got back on my feet. And now it was time to move on. Just as Joseph may have been asking “Is Bethlehem a good place to settle and raise a family? Or should we head back to Nazareth?” I was asking “Is Omaha a good place to settle and put down roots? Or is there another place to go?” I desperately wanted a reason to stay or a reason to go. There were a few times when I almost had it, but it didn’t work out.

Phillips Brooks moved on from that field, back to his church in Boston, a position that was obviously suited to him. Three years later, inspired by that Christmas in the shepherds’ field, he wrote a simple children’s song for a Christmas Sunday School program that has captured the hearts of millions and is still sung today at Christmas time.

I don’t know if Omaha is the place for me. I don’t know what the year ahead holds. I didn’t find a career that gave me a reason to stay or go. I didn’t find a boyfriend to give me a reason to stay or go. But I’m tired of limbo, so I made my own decision. A couple weeks before Christmas I signed a rental lease for a house in Omaha. I will stay. For now.

Where children pure and happy Pray to the blessed Child, Where misery cries out to thee, Son of the mother mild; Where charity stands watching And faith holds wide the door, The dark night wakes, the glory breaks, And Christmas comes once more.

-Phillips Brooks, omitted 3rd verse of O Little Town of Bethlehem

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Stealing Baby Jesus for Advent

I had just sat down at the end of the day, about to watch “The Carol Burnett Show” (which I watch religiously) when I received an interesting message from a friend of mine from back in the day.  She asked me if I was the type of person who steals Baby Jesuses from mangers.  Initially, I thought she was joking, in reference to my hatred of tacky Plastic Baby Jesuses that are lit up in people’s front yards (although, I have never stolen one, even though it is quite tempting).  But as it turns out, this was not the intention behind her question.

She told me she knew someone who wouldn’t put Baby Jesus in the nativity set until Christmas Day, and would hide Him, claiming that He wasn’t born yet.  My friend was confused. Since we don’t know when Jesus was born, what does it matter when we put Baby Jesus in the Nativity?  She pictured me being a Baby Jesus Hider as well, and if I was, she wondered if I could explain the significance.

I don’t decorate for Christmas at all, but if I did, yes, I would be a Baby Jesus Hider.  (She knows me well!)  So, I took time to explain the tradition, and in case others are curious about what is up with us Baby Jesus Stealers, here’s the explanation…

The first thing to acknowledge is that Advent and Christmas are completely different holidays, although it is true that Advent leads up to Christmas.  In the Evangelical Church (and perhaps in other branches as well), I have noticed that people often mistake Advent as a sort of extended Christmas—a time to pick apart the Christmas story and look at different aspect of it.  For example, spending some time on the story of Mary, and then moving on to the story of Joseph, and then moving onto the story of the shepherd, etc…  However, this is not what Advent is all about; Advent is very different.

So what is this Church Holiday?  Advent means “the coming of a notable person”, who in this case, would be Jesus.  I see Advent as two timelines being parallel to each other.  One is the timeline from Genesis 1-Matthew 1—the time from the beginning of time to the time of Jesus.  The second timeline is from Acts1-the future–Jesus’ ascension to His Second Coming.  We celebrate the anticipation of Christ’s birth, at the same time as we celebrate the anticipation of Christ’s Second Coming.

Often Advent is a time to look at the past.  We look to Moses and see how he was foreshadowing and a forerunner to Jesus being a deliverer.  We look at the prophets and the prophecies and promises God made to send Jesus to save His people.  We look at the 400 years of silence (the 400 years between Malachi and Matthew where it is noted God remained silent) and the exile of His people waiting for the Messiah.  We acknowledge that just as God promised the Israelites to fulfill His promise of a deliverer, and just as God promised the Israelites and fulfilled His promise to send Jesus, God has promised us and will fulfill the promise of the Second Coming of Christ.  This is a celebration of hope!

While Christmas is about excitement and joy that Jesus has come, Advent is a time of sadness, longing, reflection of God’s faithfulness in the past, a time to pray for a deliverer, and a time to prepare our hearts for Jesus’ birth.  There are several different ways to prepare one’s heart for Christ.  Some people do Advent Calendars, and other people do Jesse Trees, (honestly, I have never participated in either of these).  Mostly, my preparedness comes from the Advent wreath at the church and music.

Last year, before church one December morning, I was crossing the sanctuary to run to my office quick when two older elementary aged sisters stopped me to see if they could ask a question.  I can never pass up a teachable moment, so I sat down beside the girls.  “What’s up with the candles on the table?” they asked.

“That’s the Advent Wreath.  Do you know what that is?”

“No,” they both replied.

So I proceeded to explain, “Advent is the four Sundays before Christmas, where we celebrate waiting for Christ’s arrival.  The wreath is in a circle because it reminds us that God has no beginning and no end, but goes on forever.  Then we light each of the skinny candles, a different one each week, and they all represent something different.  The first candle represents hope, the second love, the third joy, and the last one is peace.  Each candle also represents 1,000 years of waiting for Jesus to be born.  All of the tall and skinny ones are purple, except for the one that is pink.  We light that one the third Sunday of Advent as a reminder for us that the time is almost here for Jesus to be born and it’s getting more and more exciting as we wait for Him.  The white candle in the middle we light on Christmas Eve to announce that Jesus has finally come to be the Light of the World.”

“That’s really cool!” one of the girls said.

The other piped in, “I think my favorite part is that it’s in a circle because God has no end.”

“That is cool, isn’t it?” I agreed.   She proceeded to tell several people that day about how the wreath symbolized that God is eternal. I pray that whenever she sees a Christmas wreath throughout her life, she will be reminded of an eternal God that made His way to earth to save her.  They had plenty of questions about Advent before I got to my office just in time to completely forget what I had gone in there for, but that teachable moment was totally worth it for me.

This year, I have added another practice for myself as I prepare for Christ’s arrival; I have taken Christmas Carols out of my car’s CD player and replaced it with a CD full of Advent songs (thanks Amanda!)  We are all familiar with Christmas Carols as they tell the story of Jesus’ birth, and these are all songs that we know at least the first verses to and can recite them by heart.  Advent songs are a bit more obscure (although a quick YouTube search can lead you exactly where you want to go).  The most common Advent Song is “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”.  As we listen to the lyrics, we hear the longing and pleading for Christ to come and deliver His people.  Another popular Advent Song is “Come Thou Long Expectant Jesus” as it declares we are longing for Christ to come and set His people free.

There are two songs that are really speaking to me this Advent Season, the first being, “Waiting in Silence”.  I think this has pricked my heart, because it emphasizes the anxiousness and the urgency of the need of Emmanuel.  “People Look East” is a fun little song about preparing our hearts and homes because Love is near.  I love the idea of preparing my home for Jesus.  It’s a bit of a different perspective than just preparing a manager, but something a bit more tangible for me to experience.

I have noticed some really neat themes that stand out and shine in Advent music that we miss in Christmas Carols.  Some of them are waiting, hope, longing, building anticipation, faithfulness of God in the Old Testament, John the Baptist preparing the way, but my favorite is: Maranatha.  Maranatha is Aramaic and is only mentioned once in The Bible and that is at the very end of Revelation.  It means, “Come Lord, Jesus.”  I find that absolutely beautiful and causes excitement with hope, not only for Christmas, but also for Christ’s Second Return!

What is newer information to me is what happens after Advent ends.  Starting December 25th we celebrate Christmas for 12 days!  I haven’t gotten too far in my thoughts to see how I will be celebrating Christ’s birth for 12 days, but I’m sure I’ll figure it out (and I’m always open to anyone who has suggestions).  When the 12 days of Christmas ends on January 6th, comes the celebration of Epiphany.  This is the day we acknowledge the day the Magi present their gifts to Jesus.  And thus ends the celebration of Jesus’ birth, at least Church holiday-wise.

I never grew up knowing about Advent, but as an adult, being a part of a church that celebrates it, I’m glad I have discovered it.  There’s something about church holidays that intrigue me with curiosity.  I think it’s mainly because I see them as opportunities to learn and grow in a focused way that causes me to sit down and actually pay attention to detail.  I think “Joy to the World” has an even more of a significance to me, after I’ve been listening to “Waiting in Silence” for four weeks.  The mourning and waiting is finished.  Christ as come!  FINALLY!  Hallelujah!  Let’s go adore Who we’ve been waiting for all this time!

And who knows?  Maybe… just maybe… this year, I’ll invest in a Nativity set to put up, but there will be one Person missing from the scene, as I anxiously await the celebration of His birth on December 25th!

Yes, I am that person who steals Baby Jesuses from mangers and I’m proud of it!