Thursday, January 31, 2013

Tallahassee Church Music Conference: Day (or Night) One

Since the event began this evening with a hymn singing as its kickoff event this can be a fairly brief post.  The name "Big Sing" gave me pause, wondering if someone had gotten a wild hair and plugged in a shape-note sing a la the "Big Singing" held in Benton, KY every year from the Southern Harmony and Musical Companion.  But no, this was quite a different event.

Led by John Thornburg, pastor, musician, and now itinerant leader of singing and worship consultation, the event was themed around "important questions a song enlivener must face."  (Yes, that term is new to me.)  To keep on point I'll go straight to the songs, so you can think about them too.

1. How much work are we actually willing for the people to do?  Paired with a simple, energetic Cameroonian chorus, one which, if you trust your musical leaders and/or congregation, could actually be elaborated and enlivened by having new stanzas devised on the spot.  Are you that brave?

2. How does your community go about "making a song its own"?  Is the song sacrosanct as given, or is a musician/congregation willing to make some sort of adaptation to increase its recognizability or accessibility.

3. What are your bottom line principles for what constitutes a proper text/tune marriage?  There are occasionally composers of hymn tunes who quite deliberately create tunes for new texts specifically to create tension between that tune and the mood of the text.  The prime example: a text about children hungry, poor, in desperate need, paired to the tune of ... "Twinkle, twinkle, little star."

4. What is the thing we really fear about what is ahead for the song of the church?  How willing are we to dig deep down to the roots of what ails us in the church, demonstrated by a bracing text on the man at the healing pool, paired with a tune described by Thornburg as bluesy or even depressed (to me, on the other hand, it sounded like a ballad that might have been cut from Godspell.)

5. To what extent is the balance between sequential and cyclical song forms (as Michael Hawn defines these categories) a spiritual necessity and not just an intellectual category?  The contrast of old familiar tunes known by heart and in heart, often fairly repetitive, versus tunes more strophic in nature which necessarily require intellectual pursuit to follow where the tune and text lead next.

6. Just because there are laments in the Psalms, does that mean we have to sing our lament?  Is the variety of song in the Bible descriptive of its time, or prescriptive for all generations?  The contrast here between American/European traditions of lament singing vs. the virtual absence of it in African practice, supposedly because the "pain is so close to the surface, there is no need to sing lament."  (My gut reflex here was straight out of pastoral care: the fact that the pain was so close to the surface is the very reason the lament needs to be drawn out, whether spoken or sung.

7. What are the true limits of subject matter in the songs and hymns we choose for public worship?  When you say, "We can't sing that," why do you say it?   The example being a Shirley Erena Murray text which includes the "abuser and abused" at the same Lord's table.

8. How do you 'weave people into the song' (Mairi Munro), i.e. give them a reason to appreciate why this song is being sung and why it is being sung now?  What is the role and what are the limits of song introductions in song enlivening?  Having already been warned against "cultural tourism" in our sing, it is natural to make sure why this South African tune is appropriate and even needful here.  Even a good hymn story, though, might be too long for the moment.  Here is a spot in the parish where pastor and musician probably need to work together.

The sing was followed by night prayer.

I doubt I'll have the strength or time to provide thorough breakdowns of the next two days, but I do hope to reflect on some of the highlights each day.  Just in case anyone's interested.

Monday, January 28, 2013


Twenty-seven years ago today.  These things were so common I had forgotten there was even a launch that day.
Had I not decided to forego the cafeteria for the snack bar, I'd not have seen it.  But I went up to the snack bar, got the last available stool at the end of the counter, and waited my turn to order.  Cheeseburger, fries, sweet tea.  Pretty typical.
The TV was tuned to CNN, showing the activities from Cape Canaveral.  Countdown, then launch.  Seemed o.k. so far.
Judy asked what I wanted on my cheeseburger.  Mayo, ketchup, pickle, lettuce.  I turned away from the TV to make that request.  When I turned back the picture was all wrong.
You get used to the straight or arcing trail behind the shuttle.  That wasn't what CNN was showing.  A strange tangle of separate smaller contrails.  That wasn't right.  And where was the shuttle?  Shouldn't it be soaring off towards space?
By this time Judy was shushing the rest of the counter and turning up the volume.  Little good that did, since CNN's commentators had not a clue what was going on and, thankfully, were saying little.  The intermittent tinny communications from Mission Control were all that was heard, for the most part.  Otherwise, mostly blank silence.
Some crowd shots.  It becomes apparent that I, sitting in the snack bar on campus several hundred miles from Cape Canaveral, knew more of what had happened than the folks watching live on site.  And I didn't really know much of anything.
I think I somehow ate my food, though I really don't remember.  I wandered out into the main TV/game room, where some others I know were also watching whatever it was that had happened.  The most garrulous, seemingly irreverent people I knew on campus were stone silent.  I think one girl was shedding one small tear.
I had class.  Music history.  Didn't know for sure how many people knew what had happened.  The professor knew.  All he could do was play some elegaic music.  No lecture.
It took a very long time, it seemed, for the basic fact to sink in.  The shuttle had exploded.  It was there and then it was not there.  It was a shuttle and then it was debris.  It was a bunch of astronauts and a schoolteacher and then it was a national tragedy.
I do not remember many things that clearly.  But that day remains amazingly clear in my memory.

Sunday, January 27, 2013


Here I am, wearily marking the advent of a new class term.  The January term wrapped up on Wednesday, so Thursday and Friday constituted a 'break' between terms.  Woo hoo.
Wearily, I must say, because sleep is still an elusive thing these days.  Things are better than they were a couple of weeks ago, but I still don't have a whole lot of success getting much sleep before the legs start going berserk and demanding to run a marathon immediately, while the rest of my body is asking if my legs would kindly shut up and quit causing such a disturbance so we can get to sleep like a normal human being.  Where Friday night was actually not too bad, last night was pretty horrible, albeit (I think) for a more mundane reason: too much caffiene, too late.  Fortunately, there wasn't a whole lot that need doing urgently today, so sleepwalking through it was not a big problem.

The timing of this is of course horrendous.  The one thing you want to be able to do in recovery from any kind of significant surgery, I'd think, is sleep.  And here I am fighting to get any sleep at all.  It is possible that the restless-leg problem is related to the surgery; one thing that can set it off is the process of coming off painkillers, and I certainly was on those immediately after the surgery and immediately after returning home (I don't remember Christmas much at all).  Still, what with my body still trying to get its act together and me trying to carry on with my studies as if nothing were amiss, I'd like to be able to sleep at night.  I'm old that way.

This unwanted detour on my fool's errand has caused me to think about the timing of things a lot lately. For example: had I not taken off on this fool's errand and were I still teaching, this was the year I'd have been up for tenure.  The mind boggles to think what that process would have been like if I were going through cancer treatment as I have been at the same time.  Throw in that one of my colleagues just went through cancer treatment last year, and I would guess that the whole climate would have been quite edgy.

Of course, there's no guarantee that the timing of my cancer diagnosis would have been the same.  It might have been diagnosed earlier, or (horrible thought, this) it might not even have been diagnosed yet.  Financially I'd have been better off, though this would have been a major hit no matter where I was in life.  I have to think that balancing teaching with all this treatment and surgery would have been a lot more difficult than balancing being a student with it has been.  But I don't know that for sure.

Stepping back from health issues, the whole issue of why I'm here now is always fertile ground for wondering.  Why did this jolt of a calling have to happen now?  Why did it have to wait until I'd finally settled in at a place (town, school, community of colleagues, the whole deal) where after a rather peripatetic life I was quite ready to settle down and get old and fat(ter) and generally make a life?  Why not sooner, before I had made that move, or even before I got into the teaching career at all?  Or even before I took off for that Ph.D.?  Or how about later, after I'd had a nice long satisfying career teaching and researching?

I've done one seminary degree before, a Master of Church Music degree, at a seminary in a denomination I no longer embrace.  Was I so broken and damaged by that experience that I was missing out on a call then?  (I certainly wasn't thinking fond thoughts about preachers at that point, I can admit that much.)  Did I have to make a transition into a new denominational home first?  I suppose that makes sense, but still, did it have to take this long?

Or was there something about the musicological career that was necessary to prepare me for this particular move?  And if so, for goodness' sake what?  Up till now I've tended to think this was the case, and at some point it would become clear.  I'm halfway through the degree, and clues aren't necessarily revealing themselves.

Let me be clear; this is not a complaining post.  I am still tremendously awed and overjoyed to be where I am and to be among the people I am among.  Still, the fog isn't lifting in some areas, and my nature is such that I can't help but wonder how all of this is going to fit together, or when.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

That pestilent fellow Paul

As one term lurches towards its end and another hastens towards its start, I find myself chewing over the person whose name is spread out over a good chunk of the New Testament, and yet who is not Jesus.  Paul, the latecomer apostle (the title of this post is a reference to him by His Abysmal Under-Secretary Screwtape in C.S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters), figures prominently in at least half of the book of Acts, and is credited with writing everything in the NT between Acts and Hebrews (note the cautious phrasing; more on that later), which leaves only the Gospels, and the stuff from Hebrews to Revelation untouched by Paul-who-was-once-Saul.

Paul has also been a pretty efficient lightning rod for readers of the New Testament.  Depending on how you read him you can pin Paul as a misogynist, a gay-basher, an inconsistent preacher/teacher, too anti-Jewish or too pro-Jewish, intensely jealous and overly sensitive, and all manner of other negative characteristics, and a whole lot of baggage has been strapped to Paul over the course of Christian history.

The smug Paul-bashing that comes easily to the lips of many, including not a small number of my classmates, seemed too facile to me.  Partly as a result, in addition to the required New Testament sequence from last spring, this past month I added an elective course on Paul's letter to the Romans to my studies.  It is a fascinating book, and I'm still trying to process everything that the class took in (so no, this isn't a Romans post).  Besides the content of the book itself, the study continued the process of my trying to wrap my mind around who this character was and why he wrote what he wrote.  This won't be a process that actually ends, mind you.

In the meantime, a few of the random wonderings that stir about in my mind when reading this apostle:

1) Did Paul write what Paul wrote?  Sadly, just because Paul's name is on a letter, doesn't necessarily guarantee that Paul actually had anything to do with the letter.  There are a clutch of reasons for this.  Sometimes the letter seems to address issues that weren't issues until after Paul was dead -- as if someone claimed to have a letter from Lincoln addressing the Spanish-American War.  Or the literary style of the letter doesn't sound like Paul -- as if that supposed letter from Lincoln read more like a Teddy Roosevelt speech.  Thematic inconsistencies from one letter to another are also an issue.  Apparently, what would be considered fraud today wasn't frowned upon the same way back then, which makes me glad not to live back then.  At any rate, the discussion on this is still plenty fluid, but one gets terms like "Pauline" and "deutero-Pauline" to mark off those letters that are considered genuinely from the apostle (Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, Philemon) from those considered more problematic.

2) I do have a favorite.  As much as I enjoyed the recent seminar on Romans, I don't think it's my favorite Pauline epistle.  As silly as it might sound, I remain profoundly struck by the shortest of the letters, the one to Philemon.  No, not because it's the shortest.  It is in some ways the most transparent.  We may not know exactly what happened, but the gist of it is clear; Paul is writing to Philemon on behalf of his absconded slave Onesimus.  The climax of his plea on Onesimus's behalf is Paul's request to Philemon to receive Onesimus not as a slave, but as a brother.  To me there's a dare implicit in that: this is your brother in Christ.  I dare you to make a slave of him.  Oh, to have been a fly on the wall when Philemon got that letter.  There are some who complain that Paul didn't explicitly order Philemon to free Onesimus.  To me, I don't see how an explicit statement like that could possibly have been more challenging or shocking to Philemon.

3) It's kind of hard to ignore Paul.  You end up with a lot of New Testament off-limits if you insist on doing so.

4) To limit 1 Corinthians 13 to a wedding text is to totally miss the point.  The love that Paul writes about there is not limited to husband/wife stuff--that would be too easy.  It's about everyday love.  It's about how you love everyone around you.  Much more challenging.

5) Proof-texting from Paul to slap onto modern situations is a really, REALLY bad idea.  These letters are not given the names they're given just for jollies.  Paul really is trying to deal (on the fly) with real situations in real churches, with real specific people behaving in specific ways.  Pulling out a string of separate verses from Romans, for example, to stitch together into a step-by-step method for individual conversion does incredible violence to the sophisticated and elaborate argument Paul is making for God's redeeming action on behalf of all us Gentiles.  Make yourself study the whole thing at some point.  You may be surprised.

By no means am I or will I ever be an expert on Paul.  For me it's enough if I can preach coherent sermons from the Pauline corpus.  Still, it's a start.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Ups and ups and ups (a riff on Mary Newberg Gale's "The lost art of the album")

In some of my slower moments of the past couple of weeks, slower moments forced upon me when my body decides without my permission to slow down for a while, I've been playing with iTunes, looking for some favorite music from long-past days.  It's a nostalgia exercise, primarily.  I'm not particularly a prolific consumer of popular music, but here and there a song or an album that got connected to a particular occasion in my life bobs to the surface of my murky memory and demands to be remembered.

The latest such object of impromptu recollection was Billy Joel's album The Stranger.  It's a pretty significant album in that performer's career, with successful singles like "Movin' Out," "She's Always a Woman," "Only the Good Die Young," and other particularly effective tracks like "Souvenir," "Scenes From an Italian Restaurant," and the title track, which particularly stayed with me from my experiences in the summer of 1981 as a student in Georgia's Governor's Honors Program.

The Stranger is not quite a concept album; it doesn't have the unifying structure of classic concept albums like the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds.  The album is at least somewhat unified, though, by a strong sense of place and character, and a sometimes-overwhelming sense of being in a place where the ceilings were lower, the exits were fewer, and the visions were dimmer than in other more sun-splashed precincts.  Some of that had stayed with me, even these thirty-some years later, even though I never in fact owned the album in any form.

So for whatever reason, this week finally brought me to the point of gathering The Stranger into my iTunes library.  I had to decide whether to stick with the basic album or to go for a "legacy edition" which also folded in a near-contemporary live concert with some other good Joel tunes like "Angry Young Man" and "She's Got a Way."  (To the degree it matters, I went for the latter.)

It was in the midst of this rumination that Mary Newberg Gale, one of the pastors at my church back in Kansas, put up a blog entry on the demise of the album.  Read that reflection for yourself.  We'll wait.

Done?  Good.

To be fair, the connected, coherent album has not always been a feature of popular music.  It wouldn't be a stretch to observe that most albums of the early heyday of rock and roll were little more than disconnected strings of songs.  The aforementioned Pet Sounds certainly was a significant example of creating a more unified collection, along with others such as the Beatles' White Album, or Led Zeppelin IV.  Even albums that didn't necessarily qualify as thematically unified narratives could nonetheless display other means of achieving coherence and wholeness (I'd point to Elton John's Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and the aforementioned The Stranger among many others).

It's certainly true that iTunes has been a big part of discouraging whole-album consumption, but I'd say that was the "cleanup hitter" clearing the bases after other factors had weakened the structure.  I don't think it's too much of a stretch to implicate MTV as such a factor; the individual disconnected videos strung together by that service in its younger days emphasized the individual single as a distinctive, stand-alone product by adding the whole visual structure around it, whether a simple concert setting or a more complete narrative structure.  Sometimes the effect, it seems to me at least, was to atomize for its viewers albums that actually did have some level of coherence -- one might think of Bruce Springsteen's Born in the USA here.

While there are still a few counterexamples one can find on occasion, something like Green Day's American Idiot, I'd agree that the album as a unified thematic or musical statement is not a primary concern for many performers or consumers of popular music.  Singles now get released as singles, with no particular connection to an album at all (Justin Timberlake pulled this off just in the past week, with something called "Suit and Tie").  But I don't really mean to pursue this line of thought so far, let any real popular music scholars accidentally descend upon this blog and remind me that my specialty was nineteenth-century American classical music and not popular music and would I mind shutting up, thank you very much.  No, really, my interest here lies elsewhere.

Mary Gale goes on from her thoughts about albums to more general tendencies in the society that consumes those individual song downloads and leaves the rest of the album to rot.  She says,

"Our reluctance to dive deep, to wait for the vision to develop can be found everywhere.  We live our lives attempting to jump from one mountaintop experience to another, avoiding the descent into the valleys."

Of course, this is hardly a new phenomenon, is it?  Charles Schulz pointed this desire out in his Peanuts comic strip years ago.  When a depressed Lucy confides to Charlie Brown a bout of depression and he replies with the cliche about life's ups and downs, Lucy responds,

"But why?  Why should it?  Why can't my life be all "ups"?  If I want all "ups," why can't I have them?  Why can't I move from one "up" to another "up"?  Why can't I just go from an "up" to an "upper-up"?  I don't want any "downs"!  I just want "ups" and "ups" and "ups"!"  

Or, since I brought Billy Joel up earlier, one can go to the lyrics from his song "I've Loved These Days" (no, not from The Stranger):

"Now as we indulge in things refined,
We hide our hearts from harder times."

On occasion you'll find churches that attempt to fulfill that wish.  With slick production values the music will take the audience congregation from peak to higher peak to higher peak, generating the emotional high that will be assumed as proof of the presence of the Spirit.  Or in a different tradition, the preacher will perform that task, building from a restrained beginning to a frenzied, maybe even hysterical climax.  The church will sell you books about living on the mountaintop or living "your best life now" or promise you that you'll get rich if you give all your money to the preacher, again selling the "ups and ups and ups" philosophy of life under the guise of Christian living.  Far from acknowledging the "downs" or the valleys of life and their formative power, "downs" are frowned upon as signs of weak faith.  One isn't allowed to grieve, not for more than a day or two, before it's time to get back to work and "move on."  One can't get angry about facing cancer surgery without being told that you're not being a good "conqueror" (yes, that happened; I don't even know what that means).

Seriously, how do you even know you're having an "up" if you don't have any "downs"?  I'm not asking for any more downs any time soon, for sure.  But it is false and destructive to pretend that these "downs" won't happen.  To pretend to be able to skip from "up" to "up" to "upper-up" is ultimately soul-warping and life-stunting.  The patience and contemplation and vision that are born of the "downs" are the times when we grow.

I've had my "downs" pretty much in spades for about the last six months or so.  Being in radiation treatment with oral chemo was plenty challenging, and I got off the hook of having more traditional chemo.  Even having surgery, I have to realize that it ended up not being nearly so severe as it was anticipated to be as I was being wheeled off to surgery.  Still, it's been challenging enough.  I won't pretend to know how I'm specifically growing (or not) as a result of this particular valley experience.  It's frustrating and irritating and sometimes painful.  I don't always handle it well.  Still, I know that if nothing else, I'll be a different pastoral caregiver than I ever would have been before.  I'll be a different person.  I am a different person.  Hopefully, a better person.

That doesn't happen in an "up".  You gotta listen to the "downs".  That's where the still small voice is heard.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Abolitionists

Yesterday I finally had the chance to catch up on "The Abolitionists," a three-part series being broadcast by PBS under their American Experience banner (yes, PBS shows other things besides Elmo and Downton Abbey).  Living without cable as we are, I typically go online to and watch; having missed the previous week I doubled up on parts one and two yesterday (part three airs next Tuesday).
The program begins quite early in the nineteenth century, picking up on the careers of its featured activists as it marches forward.  Some of the names of those featured are quite familiar; Frederick Douglass is prominent, and I suspect you might remember the name William Lloyd Garrison if you think back to your American history class hard enough.  Harriet Beecher Stowe remains famous for Uncle Tom's Cabin and John Brown infamous for Harper's Ferry, as well as a career as an anti-slavery fighter back in my old stomping grounds in Kansas.  Other names were less familiar, to me at least; I was not that aware of Angelina Grimke before watching this show.
During much of the early nineteenth century, figures like these were regarded as anything but respected leaders or public figures.  Douglass, of course, was a slave; Garrison, a struggling publisher of a radical anti-slavery newspaper; Stowe basically unknown; Brown a failure in several business endeavors; Grimke the runaway daughter of a proper (slaveholding) South Carolina family.  Not one of them would have seemed a likely candidate to wield any kind of broad public influence.
And yet, by mid-century, after years of frustration and disaster, the abolitionists had swayed much of the country to their side.  How they did it is hardly anything superheroic; mostly, they simply reported what they saw or experienced.  Grimke described slavery as she witnessed it in the South, in a book called American Slavery As It Is.  Douglass (encouraged by Garrison at first) told his own story.  Stowe  found a way to put the horror she saw into a fictional narrative that nonetheless captured the very real terrors of a slave's life, and encouraged readers (and later theatrical audiences) to see the characters as human beings instead of slaves.
One of the interesting aspects of these lives, particularly of Garrison and Grimke, was the degree to which their abolitionist views were generated from their intense Christian faith.  In Grimke's case, it literally drove her apart from her family; she quit South Carolina and decamped north in 1829.  For Garrison it was the motor behind his entire adult life of anti-slavery agitation.  Both largely found themselves cut off from the "mainstream" churches of their time for their trouble.  Quite a few preachers had found it pretty easy to defend slavery with the Bible, after all.  Yet they remained dogged in the pursuit of what their faith insisted; they could not stand silent in the face of injustice.
Faith wasn't necessarily such a salutary influence on the others.  Stowe struggled, in the face of the death of her young son, with the cold comforts of the hyper-Calvinism in which she had been raised.  As for Brown, the lone non-pacifist in this group, his religious motivations curdled into a white-hot eye-for-an-eye rough justice on the Kansas frontier.  You have killed five of us; very well, I will kill five of you.  Most moderns can't embrace Brown, who is easily painted as a crazy man.  (And yet we moderns have made something of a folk hero out of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who willingly plotted with others to assassinate Hitler.  I'd really like to see this discussed a bit more in depth.)  At the very least there seems to have been something amiss with Brown's christology; yet it would be dishonest to deny that his own faith, skewed as it may have been, was a major source of his motivation as well.
Grimke and Garrison have stayed with me, though.  Acting on the convictions of their faith was a lonely occupation.  Garrison suffered violence along the way at the hands of pro-slavery thugs.  Grimke's health failed her.  Both knew long stretches of personal and financial hardship.
We are encouraged today to speak out against injustice where it persists in the world.  To do so is a fairly easy affair for us, by comparison to such figures as these or others who fought against injustice and cruelty throughout the church's history.  We might write a letter to a congressional representative.  We might shop or not shop at a particular store, or dine or not dine at a particular restaurant.  My point is not to belittle actions such as these -- I engage in them regularly.  Still, we modern American Christians know very little of suffering for our convictions.  We are awfully quick to fashion ourselves as being persecuted for our beliefs when in fact we've merely been disagreed with.  I wonder how we would fare in the face of real opposition, even violence.  I don't know.  But I have been usefully reminded, by these outsider, rabble-rousing, scorned history-makers, of what it can mean to follow the dictates of faith and oppose injustice, no matter what it takes.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Epiphany, or a revelation "for the rest of us"

Would I be wrong in guessing that a lot of Christians or churches don't really know what to do with Epiphany?

Granted, it's an odd little feast day.  It isn't Christmas anymore, yet the story associated with Epiphany is one that is typically folded into your average children's Christmas pageant (let's face it, aren't there typically three wise men in there somewhere?), so it feels like "been there, done that" more than an important marker in the church year.

Some years, like this one, the lectionary does Epiphany no favors; for those who follow it, last week's scripture leapt ahead to Luke's picture of the twelve-year-old Jesus (see previous entry for my sermon on that), before lurching to this story of indiscriminate time.  Another year, (year A, possibly?) the slaughter of the innocents precipitated by the events of Epiphany is in the lectionary the Sunday before Epiphany.   Oops.

Eastern Christian traditions apparently tie Epiphany to the baptism of Jesus instead of the magi visit.  I'm not sure if that would be more helpful or more confusing.  Furthermore, I'm told by some that certain cultures in the West, perhaps in Central or South America, reserve a lot more of their festivity for Epiphany, or the day of the kings, than for Christmas.  That actually sounds appealing to me.

In truth, though, a lot of churches have decided exactly what to do with Epiphany: nothing at all.  If as in most years it doesn't fall on a Sunday, it can be conveniently ignored or treated as the drop-dead date for getting the Christmas decorations taken down.  When it intrudes upon a Sunday, as it does this year, it can frankly still be ignored, or it can offer the choir an excuse to recycle one last Christmas anthem (especially if it happens to mention the magi), or it can be sloughed off in a prayer or something else while the preacher moves on to the next sermon series.

As you might guess by now, I think there's a loss in doing so.  Maybe it's a hard story to preach, but the visit of the magi (whether there were three or not) opens the door to us in a way the Lukan nativity story doesn't necessarily do.

These guys were foreigners.  By most any logic one would think the birth of a future king in Israel would hardly be worth their notice, no matter how striking the astronomical phenomenon accompanying it.  And yet this company of scholar/astrologers loaded up and blundered off onto a long and arduous journey to see this child-king, blundering right up to the current king's doorstep in doing so, and setting off a series of tragic events that would result in the family's hasty departure to Egypt for some time, and the death of too many two-year-old or less boys.

They saw something in their signs and stars that made them react in a way that seems all out of proportion to us, making such a journey and lavishing strange and expensive gifts on the child (how old Jesus was by this time, we can't really be sure).

There is something about the fact that God threw open this door and ushered in these decidedly non-Jewish guests to the party that we should hold on to and even cherish.  This is our entry into the story.  This is the opening for us, the wide world outside, to come in and see "him whose birth the angels sing," the child of promise whose promise will extend far beyond the boundaries of his birthplace or hometown or place of execution.  This is our clue that this story is not going to be merely about a narrowly-defined "people of Israel" in a particular place or time.  This is our redeemer before we even knew it.

Maybe if restoring Advent is the current noble cause in the progressive church of the day, perhaps phase two can be the restoration of the Christmas-to-Epiphany orbit.  This is of course going to be even harder to push, since for most pastors the Sunday after Christmas is vacation day (how do you think I got to preach last week?).  Still, I can't help but think we lose something when Epiphany gets shuffled off into the void in haste to "get back to normal" in the church.

But then, it's always possible I'm wrong.