Thursday, December 28, 2023

"The Best Church Music in Town"

"The best music of any church in town." 

That was a recent description of the music we provide for the Sunday afternoon church service that Vital Signs Ministries conducts for the residents of Aksarben Village Senior Living. And I think it might be an accurate description indeed. For those of you interested in the fairness of this opinion -- or those simply interested in listening to great music -- I'm going to list the video clips we have shown during the Christmas season and, if you look them up on YouTube, you can make your own assessment.  (And merry Christmas Day 4!)

* Music: Away in a Manger (Gracias Choir & Orchestra. Solist, Jihyuk Shin)

* Music: Hark the Herald Angels Sing (Celtic Women, Dublin, Ireland)

* Music: O Come, All Ye Faithful (Larry Ford at the Christmas Gaither Gathering in South Africa)

* Music: O Holy Night (Tennessee Ernie Ford and Gordon MacRae, 1958)

* Music: God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen (Anderson University Men’s Choir)

* Music: Angels We Have Heard on High (Soundiva Classical Choir, Italy)

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel (The Drudge Family)

The First Noel (Mat and Savanna Shaw)

It Came Upon the Midnight Clear (Gracias Choir. Soloists Sooyeon Lee and Hyemi Choi)

Go Tell It On the Mountain (Lynda Randle)

Once In Royal Davids City (Kanyakla. Uthiru, Central Province, Kenya)

Silent Night (Cedarmont Kids)

Joy to the World (The Petersens)

O Little Town of Bethlehem (Hillsdale College Choir)

Angels We Have Heard On High (Gracias Orchestra & Choir. Solists Sooyeon Lee & Jihyuk Shin)

Wednesday, December 27, 2023

A Shepherd on Christmas Night

One of the highlights of our Christmas season thus far (remember, today is only the 3rd Day of Christmas) was Tom Kotchka coming by our house for a cup of tea and a brief chat. And in that conversation, we discovered that a few years back Tom had written some scripts designed for dramatic reading, one of which was a Christmas-themed narrative that he was going to present at a party that night. Well, could we get a preview? Yes, indeed. And it was really neat -- a provocative piece, well-delivered, memorable, and using only Old Testament references to the Christmas event.  

I asked Tom if I could share that Christmas narrative with others and, because he most graciously said yes, here it is. 

A Shepherd on Christmas Night

“It is nights like this that I don’t mind being a shepherd. No rain, just a hint of a breeze, perfect temperature. Yes, it is a good night to be a shepherd. But the night seems different. No, the rabbinical leadership in Jerusalem has not changed, the walls of the city of Jerusalem, 4 or 5 miles to the north behind me, are still standing. And…and the holy city is still filled …with… Roman soldiers. They are everywhere, even here, below, in my beloved village of Bethlehem.

I’m so disgusted with those Roman soldiers that I could spit. I would like to tell you how I really feel about those soldiers, but when I look up to the sky above me, I am struck as to how clear it is. I can see hundreds, maybe even thousands of stars. It’s like I’m looking deep into heaven. It almost feels like I could talk directly to El Shaddai, God Almighty.

Maybe it feels more like He is wanting to speak to me, a shepherd. Now, don’t laugh, King David was a shepherd. Maybe it is just the lack of activity out here tonight, what with the Roman census being taken in town. Listen -- even the sheep seem quiet tonight. Maybe, maybe this is a good night to ask God what to do about those Roman soldiers. Or how we are to live with a foreign army occupying OUR Promised Land. Or about the Promised Messiah.

No, no, no, I don’t want to seem presumptive. Besides, I asked the priest the last time  that I sold lambs to the Temple. Zacharias, one of the priests, told me ‘My son, in the fullness of time, God will send His Chosen One (Gen 49:10, Isa 11:1) But you, a shepherd, remember the words of the Prophet Isaiah, and listen for ‘the voice of Him crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”’ (Isa 40:3) “Prepare ye the way of the Lord”. How does one prepare for the Lord? Especially if you are a shepherd, we are not exactly thought of as royalty, and the Roman soldiers limit our activities when we are in town.

‘Hey, you, shepherd, what are you doing here?’ ‘Me, I am just preparing for the next King of Israel, a King in the line of David.’ ‘Treason!’ would probably be the first word to cross his lips…and the last word to fall on my ears.

Yet the Prophet Isaiah says ‘For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given, and the government will be upon His shoulder, and His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.’ (Isa 9:6). ‘For unto us a Child is born.’ A child-Messiah? I don’t understand, even though the Prophet Isaiah seems clear: ‘Hear ye now O House of David, the Lord Himself shall give you a sign: A virgin shall conceive, and bear a son and shall call His name Immanuel (Isa. 7:14).’ I am sure that hundreds of years from now people will be asking, ‘How is that even possible for a virgin to give birth?’ Even though I don’t understand, I can still believe in God’s Word. Especially the words of the Prophet Micah: ‘But thou, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall He come forth unto Me that is to be Ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting.’ Somehow, I don’t think the Prophet had shepherds in mind. Shepherds would not be able to welcome a child-Messiah out here in the open field or even in a sheep-fold. Actually, even the most prosperous in Bethlehem would not be able to prepare a place for the royal baby tonight with all the census people in town.

And that would be ironic since our people have waited over…well, 700 years since the prophet Isaiah and the prophet Micah spoke those words. Maybe our wait is over? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be around when the King was born? Oh, what joy that would be! Yes, what excitement! Yes, what Promises fulfilled! Yet…if it were tonight, what have I done to prepare the way of the Lord? What have I done to prepare me? Oh, little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie…and yes even my own heart lies still. The stars drift by, yet this night God may send the Savior, One Who will change the world…and, maybe…even me.

(Thomas Kotchka)

Thursday, December 21, 2023

Exercising an Unstained Mind: A Yuletide Consideration

A couple of weeks back, an entry in Mission Possible: One-Year Devotional by Tim Tebow emphasized the need to exercise one’s mind…and to do so in a purposeful, careful way that keeps one from being influenced by the ungodly doctrines, temptations, and vanities of the world. What a critically-needed challenge this is for Christians. After all, such biblical admonitions as we read in James 1:27 (“keep oneself unstained by the world”) and Philippians 4:8 (dwell on “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute”) are to be closely, consistently obeyed.

Tebow’s entry recently brought to mind two illustrations of just how rare the “exercising of the mind” is nowadays.

1) A December tradition of longstanding is my re-reading old Christmas novels and story collections. Some of them are in actual books from my library but an awful lot of the stories are in a massive Kindle collection I purchased years ago for a single dollar -- The Ultimate Christmas Collection. Charles Dickens. Louisa May Alcott. Booth Tarkington. O Henry. Henry van Dyke. Washington Irving. Harriet Beecher Stowe. Bess Streeter Aldrich. Selma Lagerlof. Frank Stockton. Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Lucy Maud Montgomery. Anthony Trollope. Kate Douglas Wiggin. And many, many more. Plus the collection includes a lot of old (and magnificent) Christmas poetry too. William Blake. Thomas Hardy. Christina Rossetti. Charles Wesley. Alfred Lord Tennyson. Robert Herrick. Ben Johnson. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. George MacDonald. And on and on. 

Here’s the point. The superior quality of that literature in artistic excellence, wholesomeness, and spiritual intentions compared to the schlock of a television movie from the Hallmark Channel or one of the modern “Christmas mysteries” set in a bookstore or a bakery is absolutely stunning. So why then do Christians (remember, Christians whose minds are supposed to be set on things pure, lovely, and of good repute) so easily, so lazily, so indiscriminately settle for poorer choices? Why do we ignore the immense amount of art and literature that is genuinely good, uplifting, and spiritually valuable while allowing the world to spoon-feed us its paltry (when not actually perverse) alternatives?

2) The beauty and comfort of our Christmas edition of “When Swing Was King” is tremendously appreciated by our audiences in all 12 of the senior citizen facilities where we present it. The residents tell us how wonderful the songs are, how encouraging are the opportunities to remember the lyrics and then sing along, how heartwarming are the Christmas photographs and artwork that is in the program. We, of course, are delighted that they so deeply appreciate the quality, wholesomeness, and personalized touch that marks the show. 

And yet what happens immediately after they’ve enjoyed this charming and meaningful 45-minutes of an old-time Christmas? Sad to say, as we pack up our gear and prepare to leave, we see the residents wheeled away and parked in front of a loud, big-screen television broadcasting an inane, slapstick, suggestive game show or maybe one of the lurid soap operas. And that’s not all. With our program over, the music programming is turned back on and over the intercom we hear “Santa Baby” by Madonna, “Wonderful Christmastime” by Paul McCartney & Wings, or “Last Christmas” by WHAM! And, if we are disheartened and offended by such lousy sounds, you can imagine how these dear folks are reacting as the screeching of Cyndy Lauper and Boyz in the Hood replace the calm joy they had just enjoyed with Crosby, Sinatra, and the Lennon Sisters.

Exercising our mind? It’s a crucial responsibility. And leaning upon what the world serves up isn’t going to do the trick. So, take the effort to go find yourself some more wholesome Christmas literature and music…and art and movies…and conversations and hobbies…and service projects in which you share the beauty and bounty of this happy, holy season to others.

Saturday, December 16, 2023

Thursday, December 14, 2023

The Christmas of the Talking Animals

If a quiet 1/2 hour ever comes along in your hectic holiday schedule, you might enjoy this heartwarming Christmas story I wrote several years ago. In fact, this link takes you to the audio version that KGBI used to play on Christmas morning back in the days when I was broadcasting Vital Signs on the radio there.

It’s a story (not strict autobiography, by the way) about a 9-year old boy with a lively imagination whose 1952 Christmas spent on his grandpa’s Missouri farm becomes a particularly exciting and meaningful one. I think you’ll find “The Christmas of the Talking Animals” a winsome, wholesome story with a very old-fashioned ingredient; namely, a spiritual moral.

Saturday, December 02, 2023

Yes, the World Is Watching

One's Christian witness, when truly enlightened and empowered by the Holy Spirit, always has effects. For God isn't wasteful and not only does He speak continually to the consciences of men and women through His Word and His creation; he also speaks through the testimony and exemplary lives of the saints.

Isaac emphasized that wondrous truth in one of his prayers this morning as he thanked God for the clear evidence that our pro-life witness outside the Planned Parenthood abortion business was being duly noted by the people driving by. In some cases, that evidence was pleasant and encouraging as people complimented our presence by a friendly wave or a honking horn. In other cases, people who (for whatever sad and wicked reasons) were angry with our peaceful, prayerful presence indicated it with raucous yells and obscene gestures. Even those who are obviously trying hard "not to see us" standing there on the quiet street with large, colorful, winsome signs are a demonstration that our presence (and thus, our message) is being effectively received.

However, this morning there was one particularly memorable and marvelous moment. A large dark truck slowed down, pulled over to the sidewalk where we were gathered, lowered the passenger side window, and I walked over to the truck. Of course, one never knows what might be coming next but, in this case, God provided us an encouragement that was of profound power. For the 43-year old driver explained how happy he was that we were there and told us he has prayed for us every time he's seen us. He went on to tell us that he himself was conceived when his birth mother was raped. Yet his mother continued the pregnancy, loving and protecting him until she graciously relinquished him to a terrific couple. "They were the best parents anyone could have asked for," he said proudly. "And so I have really strong reasons to be pro-life and to bless you all for your efforts!"

That dramatic encouragement -- added to the sweet Christmas carols we had sung in between our prayers and conversations this morning -- certainly underscores the relevant truth of Isaac's prayer. The world is watching Christians. And God is compassionately, miraculously ministering His truth through His children.