Today I Saw God

What God Would Want for the Christmas?

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What is the first Christmas you remember?

The first Christmas I remember was when I was four years old. It was also the first time I went to church after being invited by my childhood best friend and her family. I think it was a Christmas Eve event for children, complete with a children's pageant and nativity scene. I don't remember all of the details, but I do remember Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus. Amazingly, I also remember what we sang that night: "Silent Night". And of course, I remember getting gifts and goodies.

Going to a church on Christmas Eve wasn't a tradition for my family at that time. Even though there were tons of churches around us in Seoul, South Korea, my dad and his family were strong Buddhists. My mom was a Christian, but she couldn't go to church or even tell anyone that she wanted to go. The culture was male dominant and the father's religion was the primary one to be observed by the family. However, I was able to attend church with my friends during my early childhood, although I didn't know much about faith until later, when I was in upper elementary school. I remember I started praying for my family's salvation around that time, especially for my dad and grandma. My mom started sneaking out to the early-morning prayer service each day and because I was an early riser from a very young age, I started following her to the service. As Christmas approached, we would often see beautiful morning stars on very cold, clear winter mornings. I used to ask my mom which star was the one directing the Magi to baby Jesus. She always pointed to the brightest star in the sky and told me that one must have been it.

I still regularly go to the early-morning prayer service and look up at the sky as soon as I get out of the house, just like I remember doing in my childhood. Especially this time of year, the memory becomes more alive when I see bright morning stars.

As we have been learning more about the God of Surprises through this Advent, the idea of God as Emmanuel fills me with wonder. It's amazing that God would even think of coming down to earth as a baby and being born in a manger in the small town of Bethlehem through a virgin named Mary. But this surprising story doesn't end with an unexpected birth. As we all know, it leads to the Cross and the even more surprising resurrection. However, I think there is one more surprise that came just before Jesus ascended into heaven. He reminded his disciples that he came to save the world and told them what they needed to do. If I had been one of his disciples, I would have panicked at hearing the great commission: "Go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit."

Because the disciples were all Jews who didn't associate much with gentiles and because they also grew up in local, small towns, they must have been shocked and maybe even a little frightened at the thought of doing what Jesus was asking. What would the great commission mean for them? What exactly was Jesus talking about when he said "all nations"? They didn't have a globe or map of the world. But they all accepted the great commission, as evidenced in the book of Acts. And because the disciples obeyed, the Holy Spirit opened doors and expanded their vision and understanding of all nations. What if they hadn't obeyed Jesus? Perhaps I would have never heard about Jesus in Seoul, South Korea.

Between today's media and the Internet, we live in the most connected era of all time. Our physical view of all nations is truly global. However, I feel that our hearts' view of all nations has rather shrunk. Even though I get news from all over the world from my tiny laptop, I hardly feel for any of the people I hear about, even those in my own country. Especially in the busy hustle and bustle of Christmas, I hardly think of anything other than my church, family and friends (and if there is any wiggle room, maybe my neighbors).

When I was preparing last summer for this year's Christmas cantata, God strongly reminded me what truly needs to be celebrated. Jesus came to earth to save the world. John 3:16 clearly tells us that, "For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life." Have you thought about what God really wants for Christmas? I have, and I truly believe that he wants all of us who live on earth to have a relationship with him, calling him Father through the salvation in Christ Jesus.

I pray that this year's Christmas cantata worship services will help open our hearts to receive the meaning of Christ's humble birth. You will hear carols from all over the world. I would like to invite you all to be a part of this celebration and to invite your neighbors, particularly those from countries where Christianity is not the primary religion. I also want to encourage you to go beyond the invitation and open your eyes to see who they really are. Who knows if there is another Yoon for whom this could be the first Christmas experience and who will grow in faith through this simple invitation? This could be our first step in following the Great Commission.

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Thank You for Letting Us Sing to You: Confessions of a Choir Crasher

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You've heard of party crashers and wedding crashers, but perhaps you have never heard of a choir crasher. That's me, the person who, back in the doldrums of September as election campaigns were still in full swing, shorter days and longer nights were just beginning to descend and Christmas trees were not yet at Lowe's, I began to wonder in earnest What can I do to make this season feel more like Advent?

Aclear and undeniable suggestion came to mind: join the Floris UMC Cantata choir.

Don't get me wrong. I'm no solo singer. I have an average voicea congregational voicethat's mostly on pitch and works well in a crowd. Harmony is a stretch, but I can make a joyful noise.

So, I emailed the choir director, Yoon Nam, who told me they were welcoming seasonal singers for the Cantata and told me to come for the last partof their Wednesday evening choir rehearsal. I did and they were expecting me. My name written on a sticky note marking an empty seat saved for me.

"You're an alto, right?" Yoon asked.

"Yes," I said, as I took my seat, wondering how she knew.

And frankly, I was pitiful. I couldn't find the notes, couldn't hear the pitches, didn't get the rhythms let alone the words, so I spent most the time lost in the music, scanning the pages, frantically looking for the alto line shuffled among the four parts and the piano accompaniment. Oh my, what had I done?

After rehearsal, I thanked Yoon, apologizing for my dismal performance, wrong notes and poor sight-reading. Ever honest, Yoonsaid, "That's okay. You have other gifts."Haha! Thank God I do. Just point the microphone away from me!

At the end of that first night of rehearsal, we dismissed from our seats to form a large, hand-held circle to pray. The choir, you see, is actually the largest small group you'll ever be a part of, nearly 70-strong. Not only do they sing together in worship, but they care for each other, share devotional reading and always, they pray together to conclude their rehearsals.

Yoon prays and the room falls silent:

"Lord, thank you for letting us sing to you."

That says it all. It's the reason we're here, the reason we practice and the reason we are admonished to take care of our instruments, which in this case are our bodies and, in particular, our voices.

Unfortunately, I immediately realize that I brought very flabby praise muscles. My vocal chords are sorely out of shape. My harmony is hard of hearing. After thirtyminutes of singing, I'm hoarse and exhausted. This is ridiculous! What kind of praise is this?

Week by week of Wednesdays, I showed up for just a wee bit of practice with this small group disguised as large, where a chair welcomed me by name, faces smiled when I arrived and strong, confident voices surrounded me. With Mandy and Erin, the dual Rocks of Gibraltar in the alto section verily ringing out from behind me, all I have to do is open my mouth tolet the angels sing!

And Yoon there's just no describing singing for her. She is hilarious, mimicking and imitating us in practice, yet, serious about drawing it all together perfectly. As we prepare for what is not performance, but offering, she is generous, forgiving and heartfelt. Her direction is awhole-bodied, whole-hearted, full-minded, soul-filled affair.Notes travel, phrasing moves forward, sound grows and diminishes, and praise, praise, all of it is meant to praise. Yoon teaches us to praise through song.

"Open your mouth like this," she showsus. Because when we sing reluctantly and without confidence, our lips tighten and the sound is raw and quenched. Opening your mouth lets the note ring beautifully. "Listen to how it sounds. Listen to how it blends. Open your mouth and let the Holy Spirit sing in you."

The Light of the World is coming and has come.Words just can't quite say it completely. This calls for singing, as if there is a microphone in every pew, which surely is how God hears us.There's just nothing quite so true as singing Glory to God,double forte.Oh my goodness! Thank you, Yoon, and new choir friends. It was amazing praising God together.

Lord, thank you for letting us sing to you.

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. – Colossians 3:16-17

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A Celebration of Light

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When I grew up in Seoul, Korea, there were war drills. Yes, war drills. On the fifteenth of each month, we had a short 30-minute war drill. Sirens went off, and cars and people had to stop in the middle of the streets, or wherever they were, to hide.

Also, there was a special drill at night once or twice a year for an hour when no one was allowed to turn any lights on in their homes. When I was very young, the night drills scared me.

My mom, who took the Korean War very seriously, was adamant about hiding the light. She covered all the windows with dark fabrics, even door cracks. And if you turned any light on by accident, patrols yelled at the door, "Turn the light off!" I think I was more terrified of their voices than the darkness itself.

When I reached elementary school age, I went to the roof with my dad one night during a drill. It was early summer, and our roof was built with a mini terrace area so we could walk up and lie down on a blanket to watch the stars and look around our neighborhood. I still remember that night. I was shocked to realize how dark the city could be. And how bright stars really were. Amazed at how many stars were in the sky.

I asked my dad, "Where they are coming from, Dad? I've never seen them before."

"They were always there, my darling." He answered. "You just didn't see them well because of the city lights around you."

I learned that night that stars could be revealed more in the dark.

Our Christmas cantata this year is "Celebration of the Light." I collected beautiful music composed by several different composers. You will hear a range of music from a beautiful a cappella song to songs that use a full orchestra, children's choir, soloists and a handbell choir all together.

In the Gospel of John chapter one, John describes the light: "The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of Godchildren not of natural descent, but born of God."

From the Gospels of John to Luke, we will illustrate the story of the Light through our cantata. We will hear why the Light came to us and who truly recognized the Light, and we will celebrate the Light with a joyful response: "Gloria in Excelsis Deo!" (Glory to God in the Highest!)

"Gloria in Excelsis Deo" is originally from an early hymn, known as the angel hymn, sung during Christ's nativity scene in Luke 2:14. "Glory to god in the highest, and on earth peace among men of good will," has been sung in churches since the third century. Many composers created beautiful, celebrant melodies and instrumental music using this lyric throughout history. One of our cantata songs is "Gloria in Excelsis Deo" by Mark Hayes. You will find the line "Gloria in Excelsis Deo" not only in this one song, but also throughout the cantata in many songs and hymns that proclaim and praise his glory and acclaim peace on earth.

You will experience a beautiful celebration through the stories of Mary, angels and shepherds and the prophet Simeon, who will all use beautiful songs to proclaim the joy of the Light.

Christmas is a season of hope, peace and joy, which are things not found in department stores or shiny decorations. We can find them only in Christ Jesus who was born in the lowest place but also as the True Light. I believe that when our hearts become truly humble, we can find the hope, peace and joy of Christ even in the midst of darkness.

As I experienced on that roof in Korea, the Light can be recognized more clearly when the darkness is darker. An amazing part of the story of the Light is the birth of it isn't the end of the story. It continues through us. Jesus called us to be the light of the world. He calls us to shine out from the darkness.

I pray that the story of the Light brings us not only a night of celebration but that it empowers us to be the light in this dark world. I hope you will join me at our Christmas Cantata, December 11, to celebrate the True Light who came for everyone.

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Singing for God

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When I was a little girl I sang in the Chorister Choir at Northminster Presbyterian Church. I would walk to the church from school on Wednesday afternoons for practice. Somehow going on a day other than Sunday was very mysterious; it made me feel like I was part of something special, like I knew something not everyone knew. I loved the choir. I loved the golden robes with big white bows around our necks. I loved singing. But most of all I loved singing in church. I loved it when we filed out of our chairs in the choir loft and stood on the steps of the chancel. We weren't supposed to wiggle or fiddle with our robes. We weren't supposed to wave to our moms or make faces at our siblings. We were supposed to stand quietly, watch our director and be ready to sing. Our director, Mrs. Kistler, told me that we acted this way because we weren't really singing for our parents or siblings or even the pastor. We were singing for God. I was quite young, maybe 8-years-old, but I knew what I was doing was special.

I wish I knew how they got that into me. I wish I knew how Mrs. Kistler and all the other adults who helped with the choir taught me that singing in worship was so important. They gave me such a gift. All of my life I have carried the lessons I learned in the Chorister Choir. When I sing in worship I sing for God, I sing for hope, I sing for love, I sing for sorrow and I sing for joy. There is nothing that happens in my life that should have the power to take away my song. Music, whether I am singing or listening, is a way to offer myself to God in whatever state I am. There is a passage in the Bible that captures how I feel when I sing in worship. 2 Chronicles 5:13-14 relates how everyone in the temple of God joined together in unison and sang to God. It says that as they sang, a cloud filled the temple, "the priests could not preform their service because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled the temple of God." Imagine music so powerful that the glory of the Lord filled our sanctuary and we could only stand in awe as we absorbed that glory.

This Sunday our choirs and orchestra will share a Christmas Cantata. I suspect that while they sing and play we will catch a glimpse of the Glory of God. Come and listen, come and sing. Allow God's glory to permeate your heart. But don't just come yourself; invite your neighbor or co-worker. They may not know what beauty and wonderful mystery awaits them this Christmas. The music they experience on Sunday may cause them to want more of what Christmas is all about. They might discover what I learned as a child; that God is worthy to be praised and adored. So come, let us adore him!

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Unexpected Messiah

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Jesus' life, from beginning to end, was beyond unexpected. Who knew that God would send his only son to be born in a manger? Who would have thought that this Messiah, this King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Counselor and Prince of Peace would live such a humble life and end up dying on a cross? Who could have guessed that the Savior would live as a servant and be resurrected? Who imagined that salvation would come to everyone who accepts Jesus as his or her savior?

The more I think about Jesus' life, the more I am in awe of how vast God's love is toward us. God continues to show us ways to live in this world that are different than anything we ever expected. He reminds us that Jesus, this "Unexpected Messiah," is the living God who is with us right now, here on earth.

Earlier this year, I was asked a question: "What is your most memorable Christmas and why?" At the time, I answered something simple, without much meaning, but the question stuck around in my head for a while.

When I was looking for this year's Christmas cantata theme, Revelation chapters 4-5 caught my attention. This passage gives a vivid description of God's throne in heaven and the people who worship around it. It got me thinking about true worship and who or what we really worship for. I wanted to create a cantata that would reflect the true meaning of Christmas and provide a meaningful answer for the question "What is your most memorable Christmas?"

Like most everyone else, I love the silly Christmas traditions that give you that warm, fuzzy feeling. I love old Christmas carols, apple cinnamon candles, beautifully decorated trees, wreaths, sweets, Christmas cards and giftsyou name it. But this year, I need to stop focusing on that Christmas feeling and spend more time thinking about the "reason for the season": Jesus Christ. Who is Jesus to me? Am I living as if I believe in Jesus? These are the questions I am asking myself for Christmas.

This year's cantata will be a worship service full of adoration, praise, proclamation, confession and offering to the Messiah. It will send you forth full of inspiration to be the light of the world as God told us to be. And in the midst of difficult news around the world, it will remind us of the "Unexpected Messiah" who is with us always.

This Christmas, I pray that we all get to worship the Messiah not by seeking out that warm, fuzzy feeling but by truly embracing the Holy Spirit and celebrating Jesus' unexpected life so that we can not only glorify him but also be empowered by his presence to become living examples of Christ in the world. I pray that people who are broken, lost, hurt and humbled can join us to experience the mystery of God's love and grace through Jesus Christ who came to us to be healed, saved, freed and lifted up.

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