Dare to March to a Different Drummer

Christmas Day has arrived.  Advent preparation is complete and today is the day to “come and worship the newborn King.”   For many, the holidays typically usher in a shopping frenzy and frantic pre-occupation with gift giving and gift getting.  But what if the most important gift we can give requires us to bring ourselves to the table, to spend ourselves on a mission that is bigger that our personal ambition, to align ourselves with One who epitomizes simplicity and service?

Giving gifts has long been associated with the Christmas story. A year or two after the heralding angel had ascended, the watchful shepherds had disbanded, and the borrowed manger was again being used as a feeding trough, scholars from the East finally arrived having followed the lingering star in search of the mysterious child: When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh (Matthew 2:10-11 NIV).

Over two thousand years later, as we contemplate and celebrate how our lives intersect with the One born at Christmas, the most important gift we offer cannot be bought in a store. I readily confess that Romans 12:2 does not typically evoke Yuletide emotion, but this verse boldly challenges us to live out our faith by following choosing the road less traveled: Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will (NIV).

Treasures construed to be the contemporary equivalent of gold, incense, and myrrh are still important, especially when they are given in support of missions and ministries that care for the least of these, but they are not the only gifts we can offer in honor of Jesus. As you finalize your gift giving, perhaps you might consider offering something that costs you a little more of your self, a contribution from your own cache of talent, a treasure from your own unique reservoir of giftedness.

Do you recall the legend behind the musical story of “The Little Drummer Boy,” the song about a boy who gave of his meager talent by playing the drum for the Christ child?  Introduced in the U.S. in the 1950’s, this memorable holiday carol made popular by Bing Crosby, was actually based on a Czech tune, “Carol of the Drum,” composed by Katherine K. Davis in 1941 and later recorded by the famed Von Trapp Family Singers in Austria.   The more familiar “drummer boy” version details the fictional but meaningful tale of a young boy who approached the manger with nothing to offer but his drum.  However, as the boy began to play his drum, his unique gift brought a smile to the face of the infant.

Throughout this holiday season a variety of colorful and thematic decorations will adorn many of our church campuses, iconic symbols such as a Christmas tree, an Advent wreath, or a manger crèche. Peculiar in the décor of the church I serve is a drum tree that is constructed annually in our atrium. Vick Vickery, our retired Scoutmaster, assembles this drum tree each year out of 34 percussion instruments from different eras in history.  Included in this display are replicas of the rope drum used in the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. Historically, these instruments were crucial for conveying instructions and maintaining morale, for in the days prior to advanced telecommunication, soldiers were trained to listen carefully for strategic commands encoded in the resounding beat of the drummer.

Now, stacked and configured in the form of a Christmas tree, our drum tree serves as a Christmas reminder that God calls us to march to the beat of a different drummer, receiving our formative cues and motivation from the teachings and lifestyle of Jesus. While the default values of our culture may prompt us to spend irresponsibly, to consume disproportionately, and to hurry frantically, our faith calls us to march to the rhythm and cadence of a different percussionist, to be cheerful in giving, gracious in receiving, and intentional in living.

During this festive season of the year, you and I are invited to invest our best gifts, tangible and intangible, in ways that express our allegiance and alignment with the One born in Bethlehem.

(Barry Howard serves as senior minister at the First Baptist Church in Pensacola, Florida.)

When God Moved Into the Neighborhood

The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.        John 1:14a MSG

Occasionally called the “forgotten Christmas story,” the first chapter of John describes the incarnation of Christ in philosophical prose.  In contrast Matthew and Luke give us nativity narratives which chronicle the birth story of Jesus.  John, however, describes Jesus as the Word who came to bring life and light to all who are willing to receive it (1:4).  And now, over 2000 years later, that Light still guides our steps and that Life continues to infuse our existence with mission and meaning.

The gospel accounts are compiled from different vantage points.  Just as Matthew’s gospel addresses the historians and genealogists among us, and Luke’s gospel sings to the poet and musician with in us, perhaps John’s gospel dialogues with the inquirers and logicians of the world, both past and present.

John proposes that in the beginning of all things, the Word co-existed with God. Before order was brought out of chaos, the Word was with God. Before light emerged out of darkness, the Word was with God. Before the first breath exhaled through human nostrils, the Word was with God. The Word was, is, and always will be in sync with God.

The Greek term translated and personified as the Word is Logos. Logos is a technical philosophical concept which can be translated as “ultimate meaning” or “reason for being.”  During Christmas we may see a slogan that says, “Jesus is the reason for the season.”  I think John is actually suggesting that “the incarnate Word empowers and informs our reason for being.”

According to John, the Word took on human form and moved into the neighborhood.  In other words God not only entered the world for us, but God has chosen to be near and accessible to us.  In other words, the God of the universe, who transcends our capacity to comprehend or control, has freely and lovingly chosen to relate to us personally, to communicate with us in a language we can understand…an exemplary human life.

Remarkably, God not only invites us to receive light and life; God also calls us to be life and light wherever we live and wherever we go.  As we follow the example of Jesus, we become light and life in our community.  As we serve God by serving others, mysteriously, we become God’s flesh and blood in our neighborhood.

May I follow Jesus as the light of my life and also share that light with others through my attitude and actions.  Amen.

Finding Good Advent Devotionals Online

by Barry Howard

Moments of meditation, prayer, and devotional reading are crucial to faith development in all seasons. Advent, however, is a prime season for deepening one’s devotional life.  And if you opt to go “paperless,” there are many excellent Advent devotional resources available online. During my high school years, the student ministry at my home church challenged us to begin the practice of a daily “quiet time.” Since that time, my personal devotional time has been a primary catalyst for spiritual growth and direction.

Across the years, however, that seedling notion of a “quiet time” has emerged into an early morning ritual which centers on inspirational reading, prayer, and reflection. And the resources I utilize are highly diverse, ranging from testimonial to liturgical.

A couple of years ago I went “paperless” in my devotional time choosing to utilize online Bible apps and a variety of e-resources for my devotional time. Online resources are especially helpful during holiday travels because the resources can be accessed on any internet computer or smart device including laptops, tablets, and cell phones.   Going paperless also keeps my desktop a lot less cluttered whether I am at home or in my office.

Most online devotional sites provide complimentary access, and the costs are covered through donations or advertising revenue.  And maybe most importantly, like any electronic communication, e-devotionals save paper and are friendly to the environment.

As I began preparing for Advent this year, I searched for good resources to share with my congregation and to use in my own personal devotional time. I wanted to find resources that are easily accessible, theologically sound, and culturally relevant.

Like other online devotional resources, Advent E-Devotions may be posted by churches, missional organizations, or individuals. A few of the devotional sites invite you to register your email address and they will send a daily devotional directly to your inbox. Other sites have corresponding “apps” that you can download making access easier on your mobile devices. And all online sites can be bookmarked or added to your favorites list for ease of access.

Here are a few examples of online Advent devotional options that you might find helpful:

Local churches often provide links to their Advent Devotional Booklets. For example, the Advent Guide at my church is compiled by our Children’s Ministry and is posted at http://www.fbcp.org/Uploaded/14-Advent-Book.pdf. These booklets can usually be accessed as a PDF file, or downloaded to a tablet, Kindle, or E-reader.

D365.org is sponsored by Passport Camps and provides a daily Advent devotional that is appropriate for students or adults.

Buckner International is a faith-based social service organization based in Dallas that serves hundreds of thousands of people each year across the United States and around the globe. Their Advent guide, written by assorted authors, can be downloaded at http://www.buckner.org/adventguide/.

The Denison Forum on Truth and Culture provides multiple resources to equip people to “change the culture for the kingdom.” The DFTC web site offers inspirational Advent devotions that are written by Janet Denison at http://www.denisonforum.org/store/download/0-/17-advent-devotional.

Sacred Space is an online prayer site provided by the Irish Jesuits. They provide a guided Advent devotional series and an Advent Retreat option at www.sacredspace.ie.

Whether you are new to the practice of a daily devotional experience or a long time practitioner, you may find that a good Advent E-Devotion may enrich your spiritual preparation for Christmas, and ultimately deepen your celebration of the birth of the Christ.

(Barry Howard serves as the Senior Minister at the First Baptist Church in Pensacola, Florida.)