Epiphany 1: Same Water, Same Love

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.  I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:4-11)

Well, I just got some news I didn’t expect to hear today. A federal judge just declared my home state of South Dakota’s ban on same sex marriage unconstitutional. You read that right: South Dakota, that reddest of red states, a state I would have counted on to linger to the very end in this fight with the likes of Alabama and Mississippi, is going to have to let gay folks get married.

My first thought was a baffled, “Wait, is this for real? We’re not the last in the country?” My second thought was a rush of breathless excitement as I realized that, soon, my gay friends and family back home would finally have the same marriage rights as I did. My third thought was about an essay that went viral a couple years ago, written by a South Dakotan of my generation the day after Macklemore played Augustana College in Sioux Falls. (Augustana must have booked him just before “Thrift Shop” exploded, because a mere six months later he was packing the 17,500-seat CenturyLink Center in Omaha a few hours south.) In particular, the author, Dannika Nash, remembered his performance of “Same Love”:

Before the song, Macklemore spoke really simple words along the lines of: “Hey, you can all have your own opinions on how we treat gay people in this country, but this is mine.” And I held my breath in anticipation of some kind of uproar or walk-out…but the crowd cheered louder than they had yet. In our red state, in our conservative little city, the 5,000 young people in that arena wanted to hear about marriage equality.


For me as a Christian, the most piercing line of Macklemore’s song is the same one that Nash singles out in her “Open Letter to the Church from My Generation”: “When I was at church, they taught me something else. If you preach hate at the service, those words aren’t anointed. That holy water that you soak in has been poisoned.” It doesn’t matter how many times I hear it, it still stings. Because even as today’s decision sets my conservative little state on the path to marriage equality, I know that there’s still a lot of hate and unacceptance being hurled at my gay brothers and sisters from people who consider themselves the followers of a man who claimed that every single human being was a member of his family (Matt. 12:46-50), and who showed forth that radical acceptance in every (inter)action. No court decision is going to alter the fact that in “America the Brave, we still fear what we don’t know.”

But – “it’s a damn good place to start.”

For if we’re going to claim to follow this itinerant Palestinian Jewish preacher, who comforted the troubled and troubled the comfortable, who taught us to love our enemies and then went and did it, then preaching hate is not an option. If we have the audacity to baptize God’s children in Jesus’ name, then there is only one thing we can possibly say to those we welcome into our communities – the same words that Jesus heard at his own baptism and that he preached to everyone he met: “You are a beloved Child of God, with whom God is well pleased.”

That’s it.

Period.

To say anything else, to set conditions of sexual orientation or gender or nationality or race or any other fake human division on the Love of God, is to poison the Water of Life. And I’m no more prepared to accept poisoned holy water from my church than I would be to accept poisoned tap water from North Dakota oil companies. I signed up for a place where everyone can belong. I signed up for a God who loves us all, no matter what. And I will be damned if I settle for anything less.

So South Dakota, I’m proud of you today, for choosing love over fear. I pray that your people might live up to your laws this time – and that we all might live up to the Law of Love. We are all beloved Children of God, with whom God is well pleased. No conditions. No exceptions. Ever.

Amen. –Tom

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Tom’s Top 5’s: Most Anticipated Albums of 2015 (Addendum!)

Upon posting my Top 10 Most Anticipated Albums of 2015, friends questioned why I hadn’t included several other exciting new releases scheduled for the coming year. In my defense I can offer only ignorance: in most of these cases, I simply didn’t know they were coming out! So, before the year gets too much further on, here are five more records for which I’m every bit as hyped up as those on that first list.

1. ASTORIA (Marianas Trench – TBA)

Josh Ramsay was already one of Canada’s finest purveyors of anthemic pop/rock before he co-wrote and produced what might be the most obscenely ubiquitous chart hit of the last decade: Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe.” Brilliant advance single “Here’s to the Zeros” shows Ramsay’s ambivalence to the Top 40 world he’s conquered: “They say, ‘Where’s the next hit, baby?’/God, how could I top ‘Call Me Maybe’?” Equally brilliant advance single “Pop 101” goes it one better, though, setting a tutorial in formulaic songwriting to music – and crafting a perfect pop song that’s both upfront about its own commercial pandering as well as miles better than 98.7% of what actually makes the charts.


2. TRACKER (Mark Knopfler – TBA)

Mark Knopfler has long since traded in the guitar-hero pyrotechnics of Dire Straits’ arena-packing days for a more restrained style that suits his intimate, exquisitely-wrought character sketches and story-songs admirably. For me, though, it matters not one bit whether he’s barnstorming through “Telegraph Road” or laying down an exquisitely smoky (but no less arresting) solo on 2012’s “The Dream of the Drowned Submariner“; he is, without question and without rival, my favorite guitarist on the face of the earth.


3. INVASION (Savant – TBA)

Norwegian glitch-hop auteur Aleksander Vinter aka Savant has spent the last few years cranking out incredible music faster than his fans can snap it up. (By way of example: 2013 alone saw the release of 3 full LPs and 3 EPs.) His last album, Zion, came out in December, and its follow-up, Invasion, is already set for release sometime in the next month or two. Invasion will reportedly eschew the concept album template Vinter followed throughout 2014, focusing on individual tracks rather than an overarching theme. Whatever the format, it’s sure to feature more of the glitched-out drops and blissed-out synths that have characterized Vinter’s work to date.


4. THE GRAND EXPERIMENT (Neal Morse – February 10)

In some meaningful sense, Neal Morse is a Christian Rock artist, and not just a Christian rock artist, so to speak. He’s written multiple full albums specifically about his conversion and subsequent faith life, and his Christianity undergirds even those songs that aren’t explicitly religious in content. And yet he somehow manages to make music that, far from being bland and banal, takes its place as some of the finest progressive rock of the 21st century. Way to buck the trend, Neal – here’s hoping The Grand Experiment continues in the same proggy-not-preachy vein.


5. TBA (Macklemore & Ryan Lewis – TBA)

The Tumblr SJW set can suck it – Macklemore is pretty much everything you could hope for in a straight white American male (and especially a straight white American male rapper) in this day and age. On balance, this fellow straight white American male appreciates hip-hop, but it’s not the genre that speaks to his aesthetic or his experience. But The Heist (which, hipster that I am, I was listening to before “Thrift Shop” blew up) is one of my absolute favorite records of the 2010s so far. So you’re damn right I’m jacked for the follow-up.


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Christmas 2/Epiphany: This Little Light of Mine

Arise, shine; for your light has come,
    and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth,
    and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
    and his glory will appear over you.
Nations shall come to your light,
    and kings to the brightness of your dawn.

Lift up your eyes and look around;
    they all gather together, they come to you;
your sons shall come from far away,
    and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms.
Then you shall see and be radiant;
    your heart shall thrill and rejoice,
because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you,
    the wealth of the nations shall come to you.
A multitude of camels shall cover you,
    the young camels of Midian and Ephah;
    all those from Sheba shall come.
They shall bring gold and frankincense,
    and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord. (Isaiah 60:1-6)

The Magi following the Light of Epiphany. How might we follow the Light in our lives?

Sorry for the delay on this, folks! But for 2 Christmas/Sunday before Epiphany (4 January 2015), I was back home at the United Church of Christ of Vermillion, SD as a guest preacher. And when I preach in front of a congregation, I typically decline to write my sermon out. I spend hours preparing my message, absolutely. But I consider myself a storyteller by nature and by trade; and if I can’t keep my story straight without the use of notes or a written text (I’m of the school that holds that a sermon should be no longer than 12 minutes), my congregation probably won’t be able to either. Anyway, the Spirit tends to come through most clearly in those moments that I don’t plan – in which respect preaching is a lot like jazz. So, I prefer to go it without a script – meaning I had nothing to post last weekend.

As it turns out, however, just today I was able to get my hands on the audio of my sermon from last Sunday. And so rather than transcribe it, I offer it at the link below for your edification (or at least entertainment, if I can’t aspire to edification). It’s a reflection on protest songs (specifically #BlackLivesMatter protest songs) and the very Epiphanic theme of light: what it means to follow the light, and to let our light shine for others. 🙂

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Tom’s Top 10’s: Most Anticipated Albums of 2015

Any year that kicks off with Kanye West and Paul McCartney collaborating on a Stevie Wonder-esque ballad is going to be a year of surprises. A mere week into the new year, it’s tough to say what curve balls 2015 will throw at us. Knowing what we know so far, however, there’s still plenty to get excited about on the musical horizon. Here are ten albums I can’t wait for. How about you?

1. SLURRUP (Liam Hayes – 13 January)

Liam Hayes’ soundtrack to the 2012 Charlie Sheen vehicle A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III might’ve brought him to a wider audience had the film not been so roundly panned. Either way, the experience seems to have spurred him into something of a creative renaissance: the film was quickly followed by last year’s endlessly melodic Korp Sole Roller, and this year’s Slurrup is set to drop only six months after its predecessor hit (digital) shelves.


2. GIRLS IN PEACETIME WANT TO DANCE (Belle & Sebastian – 20 January)

Belle & Sebastian’s reputation for wistful indie folk-pop has always concealed a broad range of sounds and influences, from the jagged New Wave edges of Dear Catastrophe Waitress’ “Stay Loose” to the neo-glam stomp of The Life Pursuit’s “The Blues Are Still Blue” to the straight-ahead synth-pop of “Electronic Renaissance” way back on their first album, Tigermilk. This latest record seems set to pick up where that odd-song-out in the B&S catalog left off, if lead single “The Party Line” is any indication. But have no fear: album opener “Nobody’s Empire” and recently-released “The Cat with the Cream” assure us that gorgeous, melancholic indie pop is still on the menu.


3. WHAT A TERRIBLE WORLD, WHAT A BEAUTIFUL WORLD (The Decemberists – 20 January)

I’ve always loved the Decemberists’ brand of theatrical indie folk-rock (especially on what I would consider their masterwork, The Crane Wife), but I have to admit that Colin Meloy’s faux-Gothic literary affectations can get on my nerves. The three new songs we’ve heard so far from What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World still sport Meloy’s expansive vocabulary, certainly. But they dial back the pretense, settling into a more intimate space both musically and lyrically. “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” this ain’t… but I actually rather like it that way.


4. HAND. CANNOT. ERASE. (Steven Wilson – 27 February)

Steven Wilson’s 2013 opus The Raven That Refused to Sing was one of my top records of that year and simply one of the best prog albums in recent memory. Word is that Hand. Cannot. Erase. will feature fewer extended epics, telling its LP-length story (that of a young woman who vanishes one day and whose friends and family do not notice her disappearance for three whole years) through shorter songs instead. But that doesn’t mean it will be more conventional than Wilson’s previous efforts – after all, it’s a long-form concept album by one of the reigning Kings of Prog.


5. GOON (Tobias Jesso, Jr. – 17 March)

Tobias Jesso, Jr. caused quite a stir when he released his home recording of “True Love” this past summer. It’s not every day an unknown singer-songwriter from Vancouver writes and all-but-anonymously releases the Great McCartney Love Song That Never Was on YouTube. And then drops another Great McCartney Love Song That Never Was a week later (“Just a Dream“). Meanwhile, “Hollywood,” the first official track off his upcoming debut LP, demonstrates that a professional studio won’t gloss over Jesso’s homespun charm and gorgeous songwriting.


6. JACKRABBIT (San Fermin – 21 April)

San Fermin’s self-titled 2013 debut, the brainchild of Yale-educated composer Ellis Ludwig-Leone, was a minor masterpiece of artful, artsy avant-pop. “Parasites,” the first singe from Jackrabbit is more frenetic than anything on the band’s first record, replacing the ladies from Lucius with new vocalists Charlene Kaye and Rebekah Durham but keeping baritone Allen Tate and featuring lots of spiky saxophone and dynamic and tempo shifts. I look forward to how Ludwig-Leone incorporates this newfound manic energy into San Fermin’s lush, highly composed sound.


7. 74 IS THE NEW 24 (Giorgio Moroder – TBA)

Giorgio Moroder’s collaboration with Daft Punk on the French duo’s world-conquering Random Access Memories introduced the Italian EDM pioneer to a new generation of eager listeners. In a genre currently dominated by young talent, the title of Moroder’s upcoming album (which is set to feature Britney Spears, Kylie Minogue, and Charli XCX, following on the heels of collaborations with David Guetta and Avicii) is nothing if not a statement of purpose.


8. TBA (Jens Lekman – TBA)

To be fair, Swedish indie pop genius Jens Lekman hasn’t confirmed that he’ll have a proper album out this year. But he has confirmed that he’s working on the follow-up to 2012’s exquisite I Know What Love Isn’t (one of the great modern breakup albums). And as he works on the new album, he’s made an ambitious New Year’s Resolution: ” I will sit down once a week, write down my thoughts, turn them into a song and share it with you directly.” If the first of these “musical postcards” is any indication, it’s gonna be a helluva year for Mr. Lekman.

9. TBA (Josh Ritter – TBA)

Not unlike Jens Lekman, Josh Ritter hasn’t technically confirmed a sequel to 2013’s The Beast in Its Tracks (which, coincidentally, is also one of the great modern breakup albums). But he has been posting photos from recording sessions in New Orleans on his Facebook page, and so I for one am holding out hope that the Idahoan Bob Dylan (just listen to “Lantern” and tell me he doesn’t deserve the title) will have a new LP for us sometime in the next twelve months.


10. NO PIER PRESSURE (Brian Wilson – TBA)

So: Pet Sounds is perfect. Like, literally perfect. As is Brian’s 2004 re-imagining of SMiLE. Also, the song “Live Let Live” from That Lucky Old Sun may have played a non-trivial role in my decision to attend seminary at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley. My point is that the music of Brian Wilson means a lot to me. So of course I’d be excited to hear Brian’s first album of all-new material in seven years (the lovely Beach Boys reunion That’s Why God Made the Radio notwithstanding), even if it didn’t feature Al Jardine & Dave Marks, Jeff Beck, Nate Ruess, and Zooey Deschanel, among others.

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Tom’s Top 10 of 2014, Pt. 2

It’s a blustery, snowy day here back home in South Dakota. So what better time to bundle up indoors with a cup of tea and finish up my Top 10 Albums of 2014? The first half of my Top 10 was an eclectic mix of classic R&B, power pop, acid folk, singer-songwriter soft rock, and the E Street Band. How then could this second half be any less eclectic? Therefore, without further ado…

5. SUN STRUCTURES (Temples)

In the hands of lesser talents, a commitment to replicating the sound of the late 60s all too often ends up becoming a mere genre exercise, style without substance. Not so with Temples – unlike many of their revivalist contemporaries, this British quartet has the songwriting chops to fuse their influences, from the Who to the Nazz, from T. Rex to Tame Impala, into something vital and contemporary. It may all have been done before; but when you can do it this well, it’s worth doing again. HIGHLIGHTS: “Shelter Song,” “Sun Structures,” “The Golden Throne,” “Mesmerise”

4. JUKEBOX THE GHOST (Jukebox the Ghost)

Try to imagine Ben Folds Five without the snark. Difficult, I know, but such a thought experiment points the way toward Jukebox the Ghost’s witty, melodic, piano-led trio sound. It’s likewise difficult to imagine Mr. Folds writing an unabashedly uplifting pop/rock anthem like “The Great Unknown” – that this song isn’t one of the big hits of 2014 is as great an unknown as any. HIGHLIGHTS: “Sound of a Broken Heart,” “Made for Ending,” “The Great Unknown,” “Hollywood”

3. MIDNIGHT SUN (The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger)

Sean Lennon is never going to escape comparisons to his famous father, but his and longtime partner Charlotte Kemp Muhl’s second effort as GOASTT is as much Pink Floyd as Plastic Ono Band, replete with ornate arrangements, spacy organs, and Gilmourian guitar solos. Even if Sean were a complete unknown, Midnight Sun would still be worth hearing on its own terms as one of best records to emerge from the recent psych revival. HIGHLIGHTS: “Midnight Sun,” “Last Call,” “Great Expectations,” “Moth to a Flame”

2. INTO THE LIME (The New Mendicants)

The questions any power popster has to answer are: 1) How indelible are your melodies? 2) How clever are your lyrics? 3) How effectively can you invoke your venerable forebears without crossing the line into pastiche? The New Mendicants, a power pop supergroup bringing together Joe Pernice (the Pernice Brothers) and Norman Blake (Teenage Fanclub), answers those questions as follows: 1) Very. 2) Very. 3) Very. HIGHLIGHTS: “Sarasota,” “If You Only Knew Her,” “High on the Skyline,” “Into the Lime”

1. THE DROP THAT CONTAINED THE SEA (Christopher Tin)

That Christopher Tin interned with Hans Zimmer and made his name composing for video games (his best-known work, “Baba Yetu,” remains the only piece of video game music to win a Grammy) should come as no surprise. His flair for the dramatic, innate melodic sense, and masterful incorporation of world music styles infuse every minute of The Drop that Contained the Sea, a multilingual song cycle that follows a single water droplet as it moves from mountain spring to rushing river, from ocean wave to windblown snowflake, and back again. This is truly that rarest of musical beasts in this day and age: high-concept art music that’s also accessible, that speaks to the heart as much as to the head, as riveting for the casual listener as for the connoisseur. Emotional, expansive, life-affirming – ladies and gentlemen, this is modern music at its finest. HIGHLIGHTS: “Haktan Gelen Şerbeti (The Drink From God),” “Tsas Narand Uyarna (The Heart Of Snow),” “Waloyo Yamoni (We Overcome The Wind)”

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Tom’s Top 10 of 2014, Pt. 1

In December 2013, as regular readers may recall, I decided to catch up on the state of contemporary music by listening to and reviewing an album every day for a month. My listening in 2014 was more evenly spread out over the course of the year, so that by New Year’s Eve, I had heard about the same number of new albums released in the previous year (that is, 50 or 60). And I have to say, 2014 was a much less exciting year for music than was 2013 for me. Perhaps it’s because there was no Random Access Memories to join the ranks of Tom’s Favorite Albums Ever Made this year. Or perhaps it’s because my 2014 was so personally and relationally turbulent that my listening was dominated by comforting and/or cathartic favorites like Bruce Springsteen, Nick Drake, and Jackson Browne. All that said, however, this year still saw some fine releases. So let’s dig in and see what 2014 had to offer…

10. KORP SOLE ROLLER (Liam Hayes)

2014 was the year I fully indulged my long-standing predilection for power pop – moving to the San Francisco Bay, where stellar local acts abound, certainly didn’t hurt. That’s how I discovered Chicago-based Liam Hayes’ relentlessly tuneful pop/rock classicism. These lushly arranged gems evoke all things Beatles-esque, but nothing so much as the encyclopedic songcraft and maverick wit and weirdness of Todd Rundgren. HIGHLIGHTS: “The Sane Society,” “A Glimpse Inside,” “Rosita”

9. GIVE THE PEOPLE WHAT THEY WANT (Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings)

When Sharon Jones belts “If you know what’s good for you, retreat!” on album opener “Retreat,” she could just as easily be singing to a hapless lover or to the bile duct cancer with which she was diagnosed prior to the record’s release. Either way, it’s the perfect entree into Ms. Jones and the Dap-Kings’ sassy, classy, classic R&B sound. Slot these tracks into a playlist alongside Otis Redding and Mavis Staples and they’ll sound right at home. HIGHLIGHTS: “Retreat,” “People Don’t Get What They Deserve,” “Now I See”

8. THE VOYAGER (Jenny Lewis)

Last year, I half-predicted, on the strength of Haim’s debut Days Are Gone, that late 70s soft rock a la Fleetwood Mac would make a comeback in the coming year. The Voyager isn’t the giddy throwback that that album was. But its Californian melodicism and glossy studio sheen frequently call Mses. Mcvie & Nicks to mind – lso the Bangles and the Go-Go’s in those ringing guitars and backing harmonies. But Lewis’s wit, her emotional honesty, and her lyrical gift are all her own. HIGHLIGHTS: “Just One of the Guys,” “New You,” “Late Bloomer”

7. THE SOUL OF ALL NATURAL THINGS (Linda Perhacs)

Few may have expected a new Pink Floyd album this year, but even fewer expected a new Linda Perhacs album. After all, 44 years was a long time wait for a follow-up to Perhacs’ cult folk classic Parallelograms (1970). (In the meantime, she kept her day job as a dental hygienist.) But a literal lifetime later, the gentle, genuine hippie spirit of Perhacs’ first album is wholly intact on The Soul of All Natural Things. And that might just be the most unexpected–and delightful–thing of all. HIGHLIGHTS: “River of God,” “Prisms of Glass,” “When Things Are True Again”

6. HIGH HOPES (Bruce Springsteen)

The Boss has never worked linearly – a song intended for one project often ends up waiting years for a proper release. So sure the two best cuts here are reworkings of a longtime concert favorite and a 20-year-old Springsteen classic, and sure there are a couple of covers, which is hardly usual for Springsteen. But don’t believe those who would brush off High Hopes as an odds n’ sods patchwork – this is as much a proper Springsteen album as, say, The Rising. And even Springsteen’s so-called “odds n’ sods” are better than most people’s A-game (see: Tracks, The Promise). HIGHLIGHTS: “American Skin (41 Shots),” “Frankie Fell in Love,” “The Ghost of Tom Joad”

Click here for Pt. 2!

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Christmas 1: Child Is the Father of the Man

When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they [Mary & Joseph] brought him [Jesus] up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”

Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,

“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
    according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
    which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
    and for glory to your people Israel.”

 And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day.  At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him. (Luke 2:22-40)

Theologian Karl Barth once wrote, “The ontological determination of humanity is grounded in the fact that one man [sic] among all others is the man Jesus.” This is a convoluted, very theologian-y way of saying that for Christians, part of how we understand being human is in recognizing that Jesus, too, was human. For Barth, the fact that Jesus, the Christ, the “beloved son, with whom [God] is well pleased,” lived and breathed and ate and drank and loved and laughed and lost and died and all those other very human things – this is important.

In this week’s passage from Luke, we see one of the few glimpses the Gospels have to offer of Jesus’ childhood. So I’m led to ask this week: if Christians should, as Barth suggests, view our humanity in the light of Jesus’ humanity, what does it mean to say that Jesus was once a little kid?

From Rankin/Bass’ classic holiday special “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”

Christmastime, for me, a particularly opportune time to reflect on the significance of childhood. Christmas is, in the words of the great humorist Jean Shepherd, the locus “around which the entire kid year revolve[s].” Certainly, for the child who has grown and returns home for the holidays, it conjures the spirit of kid-dom better than just about anything else. For my family, as is the case for so many families, our Christmas traditions have become thoroughly ritualized. We come back each year to the same house in Deadwood, SD, in which I spent the first 18 years of my life. We put up the same decorations. We drive the same route to look at neighborhood Christmas lights. We watch the same corny-cum-nostalgic Christmas movies we always watched (I credit Rankin/Bass with my enduring love of 60s kitsch). We eat the same foods we always ate (red and green chili enchiladas).

There’s something comforting and beautiful in this yearly routine, stringing a thread of continuity between the person I was at 8 and the person I am at 24. At the same time, though, when I’m home for the holidays as an adult, it’s all too easy for the person I am at 24 to slip back into the person I was at 8, or at 16; it’s all too easy for me to revert to the (not always perfectly healthy) relational patterns of my childhood. Indeed, for many, coming home for the holidays means regressing back to a person and a life we would rather have left behind, putting us back into the boxes we have worked so hard to climb out of in the intervening years.

This most recent Christmas Eve, though, I found myself performing another ritual—this one rather newer in my life than our yearly viewing of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”—that helped me see the relationship between the 8-year-old Tom and the 24-year-old Tom, the relationship between childhood and adulthood, in a new light.

A group shot from the evening prayer on St. Peter’s Square from my Taizé Rome 2012 pilgrimage. (Note: I am not in this photo, although I believe I may have taken it.)

Over New Year’s 2012-2013, I found myself traveling with ~20 other young adults from South Dakota on a pilgrimage to the Taizé Community’s Annual European Meeting in Rome. It was a tremendously beautiful and meaningful experience, but also a challenging one – anyone who has attempted to travel with a large group of young people, without the aid of cell phones or any knowledge of the local language, will know exactly what I am talking about. On New Year’s Eve, however, after several days of wandering around the city in varying states of jet lag, wonder, frustration, adrenaline-fueled exhilaration, and, at least in my case, existential turmoil (more about that another time), a group of us gathered together in the apartment we were sharing in the Roman suburb of Ostia to draw a Zen Card (follow the link for a description). Whichever card we drew, that would become our intention for the New Year. Our little ritual offered a much-needed opportunity to re-center ourselves in the midst of a sometimes overwhelming adventure.

So the last couple of Christmases, a few friends who shared that pilgrimage to Rome and I have held a midnight Christmas Eve prayer in the manner of Taizé in Rapid City, after which we have gathered around a table and once again drawn Zen Cards, to memorialize our mutual adventure and to set intentions together for the coming year. This year, I drew the card “Zen Mind”:

Experience all things with the enthusiasm of a child, as if you were seeing it for the first time. This is the Zen mind, always new, always aware, always that of a beginner.

I repeated those words to myself all the way back to Deadwood following the service. After an hour of wintery driving, I parked at the bottom of the snowy hill on which my childhood home is perched and stepped out of the car into what I can only describe with the clichéd phrase “winter wonderland.” It had already snowed a couple days prior, and the landscape was covered in a foot-and-a-half of flawless white powder. As I watched, new snow was just beginning to fall, so that when I looked up into streetlamps, each snowflake caught the light and glittered in a pixelated mist of fairytale ice crystals.

I had lived through two-dozen Christmases in this town, experienced hundreds of snowfalls. There was nothing so special or different about this one, really. And yet, for whatever reason, this Christmas it was as though I had never seen snow before in my life. I was enchanted. A snowflake fell on my cheek, and I can’t quite put it into words, but at that moment I experienced the most profound rush of gratitude; it felt as though it were the only snowflake to have ever fallen, and that it had been meant since all eternity to touch my bare skin at that moment. I laughed aloud in the night at the beauty and the wonder of it all.

The Black Hills of South Dakota–my home–in winter.

By the time I made it up the hill, the moment had passed, and I promptly fell asleep in the same bedroom I had occupied since the age of 5. But that Christmas Morning snowfall sticks in my mind as a moment, however fleeting, when I think I might have truly seen the world through a child’s eyes.

It’s easy, at this time of year, to check out when watching that same old Christmas special. It’s easy to get into the same arguments with our parents, or our siblings. It’s easy to revert back to that insecure child, debilitatingly shy, so desperate to be liked and accepted that he never felt comfortable to just be himself. But we do not have to be the same person we were as a child in order to “experience all things with the enthusiasm of a child.” To be childlike is a very different thing than to be childish.

Which brings us back around to that question: what does it mean for Christians to say that Jesus was once a little kid? How can the Child of Bethlehem illuminate our own Inner Child? At its simplest, I would describe a Christian as “someone who seeks to follow Christ,” however they understand that. At this time of year, Christians celebrate the birth of the Christ. And if Jesus, too, was once a child, for whom every experience was new and miraculous, for whom each snowflake was the only to have ever fallen – if this is true, then are we Christians not invited to that same sense of wonder?

So as we speed toward the New Year, may we cultivate Zen Mind (or, to put it differently, Christ-Child Mind): “always new, always aware, always that of a beginner,” full of wonder at every snowflake.

Amen. –Tom

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