“Joy” to the World…

You can’t have Christmas without lights AND you can’t have Christmas without music. The two go together, as Forrest Gump would say, “Like peas and carrots.” Some homeowners these days are even investing in the electronics necessary to make the lights on their homes dance to the music of the season (Clark Griswold would be so jealous).

Songs of the Season

The songs of the season (at least the religious ones) share a common theme. We sing “Joy to the World, the Lord has come, let earth receive her King.” The words of Psalm 96 and its companion Psalm 98 are reflected in Isaac Watts masterful creation that remains the most published Christian hymn in North America. Joy to the World is not the only song that carries the same theme. Listen to Charles Wesley’s great hymn:

  • Hark the herald angels sing
    “Glory to the newborn King!
    Peace on earth and mercy mild
    God and sinners reconciled”
    Joyful, all ye nations rise
    Join the triumph of the skies
    With the angelic host proclaim:
    “Christ is born in Bethlehem”
    Hark! The herald angels sing
    “Glory to the newborn King!”
  • And, the refrain from O Come, O Come Emmanuel proclaims: “Rejoice, Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.”
  • Can we forget O Come All Ye Faithful? Doesn’t it say how we’re supposed to come? “Joyful and triumphant.”
  • And, of course, there is the magnificent Angels from the Realms of Glory:

Angels we have on heard high, Sweetly singing ore the plains, And the mountains in reply, Echoing their joyous strains

Each of the songs of the season echo exactly what the Psalmist sang in Psalm 96:11 – 13…

11 Let the heavens be glad, and the earth rejoice!
    Let the sea and everything in it shout his praise!
12 Let the fields and their crops burst out with joy!
    Let the trees of the forest sing for joy
13 before the Lord, for he is coming!

This is the “joyous” season, but there is a bit of a hollow ring each year at Christmas when we speak of joy. Christmas is, for many, the saddest time of the year. Many people find the stress of the holiday season overwhelming. Others battle depression, social isolation and loneliness. Still others are grieving the loss of a loved one. And, in this year of Covid-19, songs of joy, and smiling faces, and parties and gifts and such don’t really mean that much when no one really knows what Christmas gatherings will look like, or you’re living on the street in a cardboard box, or in a shelter with just the clothes on your back.


There are, in fact, many people having a “Chippie” moment right now. You know who “Chippie” is, right? Max Lucado, in his book In the Eye of the Storm tells Chippie’s story. It all began when Chippie’s owner decided to clean out his cage with a vacuum. She stuck the nozzle into the cage to clean up the bottom of the cage. Suddenly the phone rang. She reached for the phone with her free hand and not realizing it, her hand holding the nozzle rose slowly upward and sucked Chippie into the vacuum cleaner. Realizing what she had done, she dropped the phone and turned off the vacuum. 

With her heart in her mouth, she opened the vacuum bag to rescue poor Chippie. Chippie was stunned and covered head to foot with gray dust, but thankfully he was still alive. She grabbed him and rushed him to the bathtub, turned on the cold water full blast and held him under the water giving him a power washing. Then it dawned on her that Chippie was soaking wet and shivering, so she did what any compassionate pet-owner would do. She snatched up the blow dryer and blasted him with hot air.

You may be wondering if Chippie survived all this. Yes, he did, but Lucado says, Chippie doesn’t sing much anymore. He mostly just sits there in his cage eyeing the closet where the vacuum cleaner is kept. Being sucked up, washed out, and blown over has stolen the joy from his heart.

There are a lot of people in the world living their “Chippie” moment this Christmas—maybe even a few reading this today. My prayer for you is that you will find joy this season.

Joy vs. Happiness

Don’t confuse joy with happiness, though. The two are not the same. Yes, joy can bring happiness, but happiness is too dependent upon what happens to us, and what happens to us is not always bright and wonderful. Sometimes, life happens to us, and life can be unkind. Joy abides in spite of what happens because joy is a gift, and the gift is Jesus Christ. He is our joy!

See, it works like this. While the happenings of life may not be “good news,” word of a Savior is “good news.” As a matter of fact, it’s the Gospel. There is One who came to deliver us from the brokenness of this world. There is One who came to give us strength. There is One who came to offer hope, to bring peace, and to show us love. That One is Jesus Christ, and to a person living the chippie moments of life, the realization that life will not always be like this brings its own joy. 

When we encounter Jesus, either in a manger, or on the cross, or risen in victory over death, joy captures us, and it causes us to worship. We get a glimpse of the glory and greatness of God, and joy captures us. Joy captures us when we see God’s promises fulfilled. Joy captures us when we experience God’s presence in new and life-changing ways. Oh, no, my friends! We can’t find joy! Joy finds us in the gift that is Jesus Christ.

The Apostle Paul knew that joy finds us because it found him. Paul was a “chippie.” He had been stripped of everything, locked in a cold, dark, and wet prison cell, and had even been sentenced to die. And he sits down to write his friends in Philippi. “Yep, I’m in prison, again. This time sentenced to die, and oh, by the way, “Rejoice in the Lord always, I will say it again rejoice!” From a cold, dark prison cell Paul writes a brief letter and mentions joy ten times! TEN TIMES!

How can Paul do that? He doesn’t have anything to be joyful about. His life is on the line, he is cold, wet, and tired, he has no freedom, has no shiny car with a bright red ribbon waiting for him in the driveway, no limited time diamond earring and necklace sale to take advantage of, no latest computer game or smartphone to occupy his time. He is parted from family and friends, and can’t take a single bit of joy from a job well done because well, being in prison has put his flourishing church-planting career on hold.

Yet over and over again, Paul brings up joy. Somehow he got it into his head, that you don’t need all that stuff to have joy. Even his earthly life being in jeopardy could not part him from joy. For Paul, joy doesn’t come from the world. It comes from God. God is the giver of true joy. God is the giver of a peace that passes all understanding. And, it doesn’t come from something we buy. It comes from something freely given—a person, Jesus Christ. Paul’s great joy was his assurance from God. He knew that nothing can separate us from the love of God which is through Christ Jesus our Lord. We, too, have this great joy.

This truth is, of course, summed up in a song. My favorite, and I believe the song that captures the heart of Christmas as well as any other is O Holy Night. Take a listen:

Oh holy night!
The stars are brightly shining
It is the night of the dear Savior’s birth!
Long lay the world in sin and error pining
Till he appear’d and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!

Fall on your knees
Oh hear the angel voices
Oh night divine
Oh night when Christ was born
Oh night divine
Oh night divine

Truly He taught us to love one another
His law is love and His gospel is peace
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother
And in His name all oppression shall cease
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
Let all within us praise His holy name

The light of joy is Jesus Christ. Lights and music. They are peas and carrots, indeed!

Until next time, keep looking up…

On Christmas Eve and Super Bowls…

Okay, so I know there are some pastors who use sports analogies ad nauseam (I’ve been known to make reference to the New Orleans Saints often), but permit me to make one more as I reflect on Christmas Eve. You see, Christmas Eve for pastors is like the Super Bowl for football coaches. There are two times each year when all the preparation, anticipation and expectation are heightened for pastors and church staff–Easter Sunday and Christmas Eve. At least it’s that way for most United Methodists. I suppose I could say if Christmas Eve is the Super Bowl, then Easter Sunday would be game seven of the World Series.

To watch our 6 p.m., Christmas Eve worship service, click here!

Easter Sunday and Christmas Eve are the two largest attendance days in our church year. For years, I didn’t have a Christmas Eve service in the small churches I pastored. It wasn’t a tradition I grew up with, so when I entered ministry, I didn’t have a model to base a service on, so I never pushed the issue. I must confess when I went to seminary, the student appointment I served did have the tradition of Christmas Eve worship, but I nixed it in favor of returning to Louisiana to be with family (we were homesick–don’t judge me!). But, when I returned to Louisiana permanently, we moved to Morgan City, and Christmas Eve was THE worship service that everything pointed toward. There was no way I was touching that one! It was my first experience with Christmas Eve worship, and it was wonderful (and yes, it was the largest attendance of the year–even larger than Easter).

Planning for Christmas Eve actually begins in the spring as I do sermon planning for the last half of the year. I suppose that’s one of the big differences in a pastor and a football coach. A football coach makes draft choices, prepares games plans, and goes through training camp all in the HOPE the team makes it to the playoffs, and if the team makes it to the playoffs, then game plans, defensive schemes and line ups are made based on the opponent in the HOPE the team wins the game and advances. Football coaches HOPE to make it to the Super Bowl, and usually have two weeks to prepare. Pastors KNOW Christmas Eve is coming. It’s not a matter of if we’ll make it to the Super Bowl. The Super Bowl is coming. We know the date. We know we’ll be in the game. We know there’ll be a crowd. We only HOPE we’ll be ready. And, there’s no way we could prepare in two weeks.

What are some of the plans that have to be made? Hmmm? First, is the sermon. Yeah, I know. Most people come to Christmas Eve for the candlelight and Silent Night, so does it really matter what the preacher says? Why not just give a nice little homily about babies and starry nights…say something sweet about God’s love, and light the candles. It’ll be okay. I’m sorry! I just can’t do that! This is the most people I’ll speak to at one time all year long. I can’t not share the Gospel. I can’t not make it evangelistic in some way. I can’t not tell them why Christmas matters. It does matter what I (or any preacher) say, so it’s important that planning happens, and it starts for me usually in March or April. What’s more, it’s got to be a short sermon, and I don’t know about other pastors, but it takes more time to write a short sermon than a long one. There’s plenty to say, it’s knowing what not to say that’s so hard.

Next, is music planning, and it’s not just selecting the music. It’s rehearsing the choir. It’s chasing down and lining up orchestra members. Yes, it’s even finding money to pay orchestra members. All that starts early in the year, too, because rehearsal usually starts in September. I just thank God for music ministers who handle this endeavor. I guess I could compare a good music minister to an offensive coordinator. There’s consultation between the head coach and the coordinator, but it’s really the coordinator’s job to put the offensive game plan in motion. Trust me! Music is like going on offense. It will set the tone for the service. Music matters. Music matters a lot. It’s not just a matter of singing Silent NightSilent Night may the be crescendo, or the exclamation point, but everything must build up to that point in the worship.

christmas eve worshipThen, there are the visuals. Ours were spectacular this Christmas Eve (thank you, Kem Alexander!). The sanctuary of First United Methodist Church literally glowed with colorful lights this year. It was beautiful, but that, too, took planning, coordination and lots of hard work. There are poinsettias to be ordered. There are trees to be erected and decorated. In our case, there’s a stage to be put in, furniture to be moved, and an altar to be raised. It’s a lot of work. It begins weeks in advance.

Finally, there are tons of logistical issues to be worked out as the “big game” approaches. There are ushers to organize (in our case, ushers for three different services), communion servers to organize (again, for three different services), clean up staff between services to coordinate, and I’m sure I’m forgetting the minute details that our facilities staff coordinates of which I have no idea. That’s why it matters when you have a coach assembles a great staff. The staff knows their roles and the coach can depend on them to carry out their role. I have a great staff! I thank God for my staff. If I’m any good at all, it’s because they are better than me. Of course, I’ve always tried to have people around me who are a thousand times better at what they do than I am. I’ve achieved that.

Though there are many similarities, there are also some differences. For one, the Super Bowl is one game. For FUMC, MONROE, Christmas Eve is three services (4 p.m., 6 p.m. and 11 p.m.), so we have to be “on” our game three times. Another difference? In the grand scheme of things, the Super Bowl doesn’t really matter. In ten years, or twenty years, or a hundred years, the teams victory will be nothing more than blip on the radar of history. But, sharing the Gospel with someone on Christmas Eve who might not otherwise ever attend worship could have an eternal impact, and that’s a major difference, indeed. Oh, and there’s one other difference I can think of–the winner of the Super Bowl usually goes to Disney World. Pastors and church staff just want to go home and go to sleep. While many coaches, players and fans have a few months to savor their victory, pastors and church staff only have a few days. After all, Easter is right around the corner.

I’ve probably overplayed the Super Bowl analogy. Some may even think it blasphemous to compare the two, and perhaps they would be correct, but I know the hard work and effort that goes into Christmas Eve. There may be a better comparison, but I’m not sure what it is. Perhaps it would be better to make no comparison at all.

Until next time, keep looking up…