Sunday, December 14, 2014

Fourth Sunday of Advent

Numbers 14:1-25
Psalm 144
John 3:22-38
Hebrews 5:11—6:20


O LORD of heaven, come down! Let your lightning flash and scatter the darkness! Send out your arrows and rout your enemies. Stretch out your hand from on high, and set this people free from those who speak lies and those who love violence. For you, O LORD, are above all and your testimony is true! Your Son, whom you have sent, has spoken the words he has heard from you, our heavenly Father. May he give to each of us, and to your church, your Holy Spirit without measure.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Wondrous Night

Last Friday evening, December 5, 2014, the University of Dubuque Concert Choir (Charles Barland, director; Nancy Woodin, accompanist), the Chamber Singers (Kristin Eby, director), Dance Company (Doug Mackie, dance faculty), and the Wind Ensemble (Nicholas Bratcher, director) were joined by special guests harpist Nichole Luchs and the Dubuque Senior High Orchestra (Ann Duchow, conductor) for a program entitled Wondrous Night, which included a performance of the choral piece by the same name, composed by Matthew Armstrong. The concert was lovely, well planned, well staged, and very well attended! It turns out it was a sell out crowd and they were forced to turn some people away.

I had been asked to supply a narrative to help link the songs together and provide traveling words (so to speak) between the musical pieces. With no knowledge of Armstrong’s title piece, I thought I would simply play with the title phrase and allow the texts of the surrounding works to offer the images and ideas, and more importantly, the Scriptures that came to mind in light of what the poets and songwriters of old have been saying all these generations. After spending the morning at it, I had pretty much hit the wall, when it occurred to me an older poem, one that once saw the light of day in Theology Today[i] and has since appeared in The Just, Quiet Wind[ii], might serve as an interlude or a centerpiece. With that bit of inspiration — and lunch! — the Spirit gave me the impetus to finish it off. In the end, the whole series of narratives was really an answer to prayer.

I am grateful to Chuck Barland, Beth McCaw, Peter Smith, and Tom Robbins for the invitation to write this. Thanks as well to Carmen Turnbough for her part in the reading, and to Amy Ressler, who read, as well as directed the readings, having broken up the text into a dialogue for two voices. I have not retained her divisions here, as I have no immediate record of them, but they were judiciously, artistically, and effectively done. It was a gift to hear someone else read what I had written. Afterwards, Joel Samuels, UD’s former librarian of many decades, made my day when he thanked me matter-of-factly for the allusion to Kierkegaard’s “indescribable joy,” woven together here with a reference to the joy of Christ in Hebrews 12:2. The apprehension of this "single individual" listener made the whole evening complete.

Others with whom I spoke afterwards seemed to have enjoyed the narratives as well, so here they are, without further ado. I hope you also enjoy them, and if you were there, perhaps it will help to see them in print.

Wondrous Night
Christmas at Heritage Center; Friday, December 5, 2014
Narrations by
Timothy Matthew Slemmons

Tell us, tell us, O wondrous night!
Whence the light, the wondrous light,
the ember that lingers when the world grows still,
the wick that persists, be the darkness shrill?
Whence the light, the wondrous light, that burns e’en when
thy lids have closed, and thoughts give way to night’s repose?
Whence the light, the wondrous light,
that ne’er began, but has always been:
un-created, but blazoned into being,
born, begotten, brought forth, not made?
Whence came the wondrous light, the light of wisdom, the light of all,
who declares, “I was there!
When the heavens were formed, and the skies made firm."
“I was there,” says the radiant Word,
when the Lord established the fountains, 

cupped the sea, gave the earth foundations;

there I was beside him, like a master worker;

daily delighting in the One who spoke, the One who beheld me;
there I was—in and with him— rejoicing before him … always!”[iii]

With the watchmen of the night,
we await the Christ, the wondrous light,
Who rejoiced before the wondrous One
from heaven’s dawn to endless morn,
yet regards and loves the race of men,
the sin-bound stewards of creation,
and, bent upon their liberation,
set his face for Jerusalem,
through his advent at Bethlehem
and a willing one whose virgin soul
would magnify the Lord of all.
“But how can this be?” said Mary,
the mother of our Lord to be.
To which the herald of heaven sang,
“Do not remember former things, or consider the ways of old.

I am about to do something new;
  now it springs forth, do you not see it?

I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the barren waste.

… for I give water in the wild, and desert streams, 

to give drink to the faithful whom I formed for myself

that they might declare my praise.”[iv]
Yes, “the path of the righteous is as the light of dawn,

shining ever brighter until the full day.”[v]

O wondrous night! Remember when
the Lord led Abram outside, and then
said, "Look at the sky,
count the stars, if you can—
So shall your offspring be"?[vi]
O wondrous night, what ages passed by
‘ere the Spirit revealed the singularity!
The One offspring, the true Star of the morning,
the Son before everything,
the image of God in whom all cohere
and the whole creation is held together.

Who can comprehend a love that dies,
not for a lack or a deficit of love,
but a love that dies for love’s sake itself,
for love that abounds,
for love that redounds to ever greater and greater love!
Such love cannot die, but for a moment,
or say, for a day or two, but no more than three.
Who can measure such undying love,
when the death of love is little more than a skip,
a leap for joy, in the glad heart of God,
a moment of reunion and recognition?
How can you measure such love?
The answer to the mystery is simple,
a gift simply and freely given,
when you but welcome the love
that brought God to flesh and love to life
and light to birth one star-soaked night.
How can you measure such love?
The answer is simple: you cannot.

The rustling of robes stirs the otherwise steady
rhythm of rustic rumination sends tiny
dust clouds pluming

The girl’s hand subtly fans the fouled air from
her infant’s face gracefully disguising the gesture
with her reach to disclose him

The visitors beam with eyes full of starfirelight
taking the passive child and passing him lightly
with expert elder hands of night

She is weary but welcoming of these trusty travellers
for she knows that they have borne their burdens
for a long time from a long way

Their speech is hushed as they kneel slowly one by one
producing small treasures from inside each chest
but none to match the miracle at her breast nursing
beneath the blue gown of winter ...[vii]

O wondrous night, holy and calm!
Whence comes Gilead’s healing balm?
Whence the leaves of the curative tree,
but from this child, born for me?
And whence the love he has to give
that he should die and I should live?
For what glory has gold, what fragrance spice,
what palliative myrrh, compared to this?
“Haste, haste to bring Him laud!”
O be not slow to seek thy God!

O be not slow to seek thy God!
God tarries not in seeking you!
Whence, O night, the wondrous light?
Whence? … we’ve asked you o’er and o’er!
But now it occurs that you have seen
both the whence as well as the whither!
To Bethlehem, to Galilee,
Judea, and to Calvary,
to rest and restoration born,
to the freedom of heaven
that none should scorn,
to the joy—the indescribable joy!—
that eternity set before him.[viii]

No, we cannot inquire before the beginning;
or measure the wondrous love extended,
describe his joy beyond description,
or fathom the depths he descended.
But who would not do as the orient kings,
as shepherds and angels before us?
Adore the truth e’er life has ended,
and join creation’s chorus!
Repeat, repeat the sounding joy
to God who came in love to earth!
Give wing to song, and thanks to him
for such an unassuming birth,
from whom the Life, toward whom the Way.
For he it is Who is the Light,
whose promise rides on every ray,
to hallow and at last outstay
the glorious night,
this wondrous night!

[i] “Matthew 2:1-12,” Theology Today, Vol. 58, No. 4 (January 2002), 572.
[ii] “Matthew 2:1-12,” The Just, Quiet Wind (Charleston, SC: CreateSpace, 2012), 12.
[iii] See Proverbs 8, sel. vv.
[iv] Isa 43, sel. vv.
[v] Proverbs 4.18
[vi] Gen 15:5
[vii] The Just, Quiet Wind, p. 12.
[viii] Hebrews 12:2

Monday, December 8, 2014

Third Sunday of Advent

Joshua 23:1-16
Psalm 81:(1) 2-9 (10-16) (OR Psalm 95)
Luke 3:23-38


It is the Lord your God who has fought on your behalf, keeping your foes and enemies at bay. It is Christ Jesus himself, the Son of God, who has done all things well, and fulfilled God’s promise of a Savior. Therefore, hold fast to the Lord your God, and be very steadfast to observe and do all that he has commanded you, for by the grace of Jesus Christ we are forgiven and saved.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Second Sunday of Advent (Year B)

We wait for you, little knowing that you wait for us to reach out.
We call to you, heedless of your voice in our ears.
We approach you, making no forward progress, but turning around,
we discover you have been with us all along.

Second Sunday of Advent

Numbers 12 OR 20:1-13 (14-21) 22-29
Psalm 106:(1) 7-18, 24-28 (43-48) (OR Psalm 95)
Hebrews 3:1-19


You, O God, are the builder of the all things, and Christ Jesus, your Son, the faithful builder of your house, even as he serves as its head and cornerstone. Help us, O Lord, as partners with Christ, to be the house in which you dwell, that we may hold firm to faith and hope until the end, with boldness and unwavering confidence in you. Show your holiness, O God, to this assembly, among this people where your glory abides, in Jesus' name.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

First Sunday of Advent

O LORD our God, we confess that we have been slow to believe your promises, and quick to drift away from you. We have paid far too little attention to your word, to your testimony, to your miraculous signs and wonders, and far too much attention to selfish concerns. We have held back from you our very best, even though you gladly and graciously sent us your beloved and only begotten Son. Forgive us, O God, for our sinful thoughtlessness! Let us never again neglect so great a salvation as you have provided for us in Jesus Christ!

The LORD shows himself loyal to those who show themselves loyal, but with the crooked he shows himself perverse. The way of God is perfect. The promise of the LORD proves true. He is a rock for all who take refuge in him. You who have confessed and cried out to the LORD, know that you are delivered and forgiven, and be at peace.

On this very First Sunday of Advent, you will soon notice a peculiar feature of Year D. Some of the selections are quite long, and therefore you need to plan ahead if you wish to shorten the readings. 

Psalm 18, for example, is a rich and wonderful psalm with many unique spiritual and historical insights, but it is also much longer than the usual Psalm selection for a Sunday service. It falls to you to either make room for such a long psalm and cue the congregation that it will be a lengthy, or to make a shorter selection of key verses that you wish to accentuate. In this instance, Year D "narrows" the selection, but does not make the final cut for you. You must do this yourself. 

The Assurance above, for instance, makes use of the provocative, but intriguing language of Psalm 18:25-26, which contains (I suspect) an important perspective on the human experience of evil and a clue to the mysterious and troublesome doctrine of theodicy. These words will no doubt strike some as controversial, but to others, they issue a summons to self-examination and personal responsibility. The one undeniable thing is this: there they are ... in Scripture! 

May the Spirit inspire your study and planning!


First Sunday of Advent (Year B)


For those opting for Year B this year ...

Isaiah 64:1-9
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Mark 13:24-37

God is faithful!  Come together and wait for the advent of the Lord.
We lack nothing for the vigil.  We keep watch and wait.
Stay awake!  For you do not know when the Lord will return.
With signs in the heavens,
with power and glory, Christ will come.
Take heart!  By the grace of God you have been blessed.
We will endure to the end, that we may be found blameless
when Jesus Christ comes again.

Eternal God, who comes to us in different forms and at different times,
we await your coming again: Let the heavens be opened!
Let every creature on earth behold your grandeur and your glory!
We anticipate your arrival with worship in our hearts,
with eager, expectant eyes, and with lives ready to be changed
by your holy presence among us.

For the rest of this liturgy, see When Heaven Stands Open.