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The king of Siam used to give political enemies rare albino elephants as gifts. It was a gift that came with great honor - but also with great pain, because it ultimately led to the ruin of the recipient. Apparently, it's very expensive to care for a rare albino elephant. Who knew? (The king of Siam, I suppose.)

Christmastime is sometimes like a white elephant gift: it's wrapped in all kinds of honor and specialness - but it is, for many, ultimately crushing. Many, many people carry hurt, regret, and loss that is made extra heavy by the rarity of the holiday. It's a wonderful thing in the abstract, but the cost is ultimately too high for people to handle.

If you're a Christian, this white elephant that the devil has wrapped in Christmas lights and tinsel is an opportunity. The costs that come with the hurt, regret, and losses of Christmas are mean there is room for a lot of extra investment - things like time, effort, compassion, and commitment. The Christian wheelhouse.  

Since an unending spring of time, effort, compassion, and commitment were given to you by God in the birth Jesus, you can invest those resources into those who find themselves overburdened this Christmas. 

The alternative, of course, is to keep those gifts to yourself, feigning ignorance and convincing yourself you're happy that you aren't burdened with a white elephant. Just don't forget that the reason you don't have one is that Jesus adopted it from you - and spent everything he had caring for it. 

Galatians 6:2-3 | Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. If anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself.

- Pastor Kent Reeder

A Newborn Bloom: The Backstory

Illumine has developed an entirely new take on the German poem, Es ist ein Ros' Entsprungen. Our worship coordinator, Drew Sonnenberg, introduces the song in this post.

This song came into existence in a fairly roundabout way. Kent and I were discussing how the hymn “Behold a Branch is Growing” can be a little difficult to sing. It's a beautiful melody, but some of the rhythms just make things difficult for a congregation. We mentioned maybe someday writing a new melody for it.

A few weeks later, I was sitting in Bible Class paying very close attention to what Kent was saying when a melody popped into my head. I wrote it down on the spot, not wanting to lose it. The next day I fleshed it out a little bit and added the chord structure. It came to me fairly quickly, so I was worried that I was accidentally ripping off a song that I had forgotten I knew. I played the song for my wife, to see if she recognized it. She told me that it didn't sound like any melody she had heard, but it definitely sounded like a Johnny Cash song. So the song in its first incarnation was going to be a Carter/Cash duet by my wife and me. (Which you can look forward to hearing in a few weeks!)

Kent heard it and loved it, but decided he wanted to take a crack at re-translating the original German poem Es ist ein Ros' entsprungen, on which "Behold a Branch" is based. He found that the original poem had a lot of ideas and symbolism that he wanted to highlight in new and different ways (he will tell you more about that in a future blog post.)

Now we had a new melody, a new text, and we wanted to try it out. Luckily, Advent started shortly after we completed the song. The night of rehearsal, a friend of ours named Hannah was finishing up teaching a violin lesson at church and we asked if she wanted to stick around and play with us. She graciously obliged. As soon as she started playing, Kent and I looked at each other - we knew that this is what the song had been missing.

After all of this, we're pleased to present you with “A Newborn Bloom." We have a few items available for you now, with more to follow. First we have a lead sheet for those of you who want to play it with a band or just on a guitar. Second, we have a piano accompaniment for those of you who don't use a band or prefer solo piano accompaniment. The piano arrangement was written by our good friend Steven Springborn, an extremely talented pianist who teaches and directs the choir at Nebraska Lutheran High School. We would like to thank him again for his great work. Finally, we have an recording of our members here at Illumine performing the song (complete with Hannah on violin.) We are very happy with how it turned out and we hope you like it too.

You can purchase the song from it's page on our website.

-Drew Sonnenberg
Worship Coordinator - Illumine Church

O Jesus, So Sweet, O Jesus, So Mild

Away in a Manger and Silent Night tend to run away with all the "Christmas lullaby" glory. Since they're both good, that's fine, but one lullaby-to-Jesus that doesn't get quite enough credit for its beauty and simplicity is the hymn "O Jesus So Sweet, O Jesus So Mild." A poetic prayer that's simple enough for a child and deep enough for thinkers, this hymn deserves to be part of your Christmas vocabulary. 

Therefore, Illumine is making that possible by offering this recording. Illumine member Gregg Prange, Jr. played the interlude saxophone parts and improvised the part over the 3rd verse (which is fantastic!) Pastor Kent Reeder created the guitar part and the vocals were performed by Jared Colòn. Illumine's Worship Coordinator, Drew Sonnenberg, was at the helm for the recording process.

Truth is, we all need a little Christmas saxophone action, and this is a great place to get it. While it isn't likely that Valentin Thilo, the 17th century professor of rhetoric at the University of Königsberg, felt that way (since the saxophone wasn't invented until the 1840s), we feel confident that he'd have at least appreciated this arrangement of his text. We really hope that you do, too.

The world is on fire.

That's a direct quote from a man with whom I was standing in a checkout line looking at newspaper headlines. "The world is on fire," he muttered, and we exchanged looks.

Just the other night, when talking about a drug that ISIS soldiers are taking to help them feel invincible, Stephen Colbert said, "I think I speak for everyone who has been watching the news when I say, 'Can I get some of that?'"

ABC News' December 14th article "The Anatomy of Trump's South Carolina Supporters" also paints a picture of people, people who live here in SC, who are so afraid of potential terrorist attacks and mass shootings at the mall that Donald Trump's strong words about immigration and defense have made this a one-issue decision for them. 

The world is on fire. Paris, San Bernardino, Colorado Springs, Charleston, military bases, Syria. A pile of words that are kindling to an escalating unease that every-once-in-a-while starts to look a lot like panic. And here we thought it was beginning to look like Christmas.

I don't want the world to be on fire. Most of us, in fact, would prefer those things that Christmas so often brings to mind - peace, love, hope, and joy. We like those kinds of things (it's part of why we like Christmas so much,) and we like them, mostly, because we believe that they work. When hope and optimism, compassion and kindness, love and grace are employed in a life, a community, or a nation they seem to lead to better and better things. They work. 

This fire stuff - violence, ignorance, oppression, fear - these don't seem to work so well. (You'd think we'd remember that, what with Star Wars paraphernalia everywhere you look. These things lead to the dark side, people.) All joking aside, though, when compared hope and kindness, violence and fear are broken. They do not lead to increased life or quality of life. They do not lead to better societies or communities or families. They lead to deterioration, destruction, and pain. They lead to fire. 

The world is on fire. The fire is sin, and sin is anything that doesn't work. The broken things that cause more brokenness. The ignorance that leads to hatred. The prejudice that leads to injustice. The ambitions that leads to deceit. The deceit that leads to ignorance. The sparks that lead to fires. The fires that lead to infernos. 

The world is on fire, and so I'm asking you, as a regular guy who doesn't want to see anyone else get hurt: Please, don't fight fire with fire anymore. You're allowed to be passionate about your beliefs and active to pursue your rights. But please, everyone, do not fight fire with fire. When people speak out in ignorance, do not respond in sarcasm. Both destroy. When people shout hateful things, do not respond unfairly. Both are broken. When people are deceitful, don't hate them. What will that accomplish?

Some may suggest that, sometimes, fiery words offer a kind of light to a situation that wasn't there before. Certainly, this particular presidential season has seen angry, fear-filled comments lead to important, necessary conversations. For some, it's been appealing to have light where there had been only dark deception or ignorance.

But even when the fire offers some light, are we okay with the destruction it guarantees? Isn't there some other way that light can be brought into our confusion without also bringing so much pain? I know we're frustrated, I know we're scared, I know we just want a safe and good world for our kids. Why aren't we doing the work that know, that we believe, brings a satisfying solution? If you're singing about peace on earth this holiday season, don't forget that "on earth" includes everyone, not only you. If you're singing about good-will toward men, don't forget that that includes people who aren't like you, who don't think like you, who don't worship like you. 

Do you want a solution that works? Do you want to put out the fire? Then please, please, stop fighting fire with more fire. Start fighting it with things that we know work. Let those good things that come up so frequently in the Christmas season shape your next steps. Follow them toward a solid solution to these increasingly complicated problems that we're all trying to navigate.

And, if I may, don't just follow them forward, toward a solution. Look back. See where they came from - identify their source. Realize that Christmas wouldn't be about those good things if it weren't for the best thing - the free, unlimited, peace-bringing love of God.

The world is on fire - don't add to it anymore! We have been given a better way to fight it - the same way that God did. With love and hope and patience. With kindness and compassion. With justice and fairness. With truth and knowledge. With hearts that seek not to be served, but to serve. May these good things give us a way forward and open our eyes to a vision bigger than our ideals, our desires, or our personal well-being. May our minds be the same as that of God himself, who sees each person on this planet as someone he desperately loves, and may we act accordingly.

Christmas Related

Christmas is what the Church is all about - but that's only true if you understand the rest of this post. It's not because of the festival services or the pageants or even the fact that Christian music is heard and sung all over by all kinds of people.

Christmas is what the Church is all about because of the relationships. Getting together with people we love, showing our love through generosity and kindness. Kneeling with the shepherds at the birthplace of hope, worshiping the God who reconnected us to him.

Christ's birth is one of the most tangible and inescapable components of God's successful plan to bring us, who had betrayed and left him, back into a good relationship with him. That's what the Church is all about. 

So as you enjoy Christmas, enjoy the relationships. Not necessarily because that's what the Church is about. Not even because that's what you are all about. Enjoy the relationships because they are what God is all about. Trust the God who went so far that he gave his son for you - just for the sake of your relationship with him. 

Merry Christmas. God bless.