“No more let sins and sorrows grow Nor thorns infest the ground; He comes to make his blessings flow Far as the curse is found, Far as the curse is found…” This verse rarely seems to make the cut in modern versions of “Joy to the World.” Maybe it’s because hymns are often lengthy and difficult to get the head and voice around, or maybe thoughts of sorrow, thorns, and curses don’t exactly drum up holiday cheer. But a lot of truth is in that forgotten third verse; it captures the soul of Advent, the waiting, the intense anticipation for reversal. Far as the curse is found. Maybe farther. Hope, renewal, joy, flooding across the nearly-dead earth to drown the weeds. The first great curse is that we toil, surviving by sweat and tears and waging battle against thorns and drought and disease. Of course the beauty is there, but our joys and sustenance are tempered by futility, the sense that we can never do enough, or be enough, or win. But take heart, because the memory of Paradise sustains us, and the hope for renewal leads the way from winter’s bitter sting to spring’s gentle rain. The reversal has begun, and with heaven and nature we can sing. Joy to the weary, broken, beautiful world.
If you're in the South Bend, Indiana, area, you're in for a treat tonight. Jason Gray's Christmas Stories Tour is coming to town, and as a special guest, Walt Wangerin, Jr. will have a part in the show. What part you ask? We'd hate to spoil the game, but it just might have something to do with a reading of a certain short story that influenced a certain song written by Jason Gray and Andy Gullahorn. If you know the song we're talking about, you will find a way to make it to the show. Click here for details. And speaking of Mr. Wangerin, we've got a big announcement coming up on Monday. Those of you who were at the Ryman show earlier this week might already know what we're talking about (if you paid attention to your program), but we'll let the rest of the world know on Monday.
Earlier this year I read an article about a Dutch student, Zilla van den Born, who spent 5 weeks travelling in Southeast Asia. Throughout her trip she posted photographs to Facebook, recorded videos, wrote a blog and bombarded her friends and family with the technicolor details of her once-in-a-lifetime adventure. The remarkable thing about Zilla’s story was not the journey itself but the fact that, for the entire 5 weeks, she did not actually set foot outside her Amsterdam apartment. The whole trip---the photographs, the stories, the emails home---were all an elaborate experiment designed to show how easy it is to distort reality and create the story you want people to see. Since I read the article the questions it raised have been playing on my mind. I may not go to the same lengths as Zilla to concoct a 5-week adventure in Asia but I am deeply aware of a constant temptation to present perfect children, an idyllic marriage, and a relationship with God that never waivers or falters in any way.
My youngest son lived in an orphanage overseas until he was three years old. From what I understand, his first year of life was pretty rough. Missionaries who served in his facility were forbidden to touch the infants because officials didn’t want the babies getting used to snuggling. Babies who know what it's like to be held cry to be held more, so human contact was kept to a minimum to nip that need in the bud. Before our adoption I had never given too much thought to the importance of holding a baby. When my birth children came into the world, I held them because they were cute, warm, and cuddly. I "oohed" and "aahed" over their perfect little feet, I breathed in the vanilla tops of their heads, I tickled their fat poochy bellies, I kissed them eight million thousand times in the sweet rolls of their necks, and I rocked them to sleep. I did those things (as most mothers do) because love for them came natural to me, not realizing that connections were being grown in my babies as a result of physical contact with me. I have learned since that when a parent touches her infant, she is helping him realize how his body connects to his mind. Because our youngest son wasn’t held much in his first year, that mind/body connection was damaged. When he first came to us, it was common for him to spin around and around in circles, to jump off of high places so he could feel the crash of the floor, and to wiggle continually. Even in his sleep, he was in motion; too many nights I would hear a thump indicating that he had found a new way to fall around the bed rails. When I took him to an occupational therapist for advice, she explained that the orphanage had left sensory processing issues. The banging, the crashing, the wiggling were my son's attempts to compensate for touch he never received. Because nobody held him, he had lost his body during those early years. Now his subconscious was trying to figure out where he was in the world.
[The following excerpt has been adapted from chapter 20 of Behold the Lamb of God: An Advent Narrative, by Russ Ramsey.] Joseph was a decent man. He didn’t want to shame Mary, though he could have and no one would have blamed him. But he didn’t want to lose her either. What could he do? His bride-to-be was pregnant, and he wasn’t the father. His world was spinning. This burden weighed heavily on his heart, flooding his thoughts and his dreams. Joseph wasn’t a complicated man. He was honest and hard-working—noble in ancestry and character. He dreamed of one day having a son of his own to teach the family trade. He dreamed of married life. He dreamed of a home of his own. He dreamed of the respect of his community. But Mary’s condition threatened all of that, waking the young man from his dreams to a harsh reality. He knew the moment approached when he would have to act. And when he considered his options, his heart ached. One night as he tossed and turned, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream. He had come to set something straight. This baby was not forming in Mary’s belly because of anything she had done. This was something God had done—something God was doing, part of the order and structure of his divine purpose.
In praise of Christmas raise your voice and join the boisterous angel chorus who celebrates the holy Son of heaven sent to earth. In praise of Christmas light your candles, deck your trees in red and gold, proclaim the dawn of Light upon a cold and darkened world. In praise of Christmas give your gifts to loved ones and to strangers both; reflect the generous King who gave His only precious One. In praise of Christmas mark the feast and raise your glasses high together, for the child’s laughter tells us hope has come at last. In praise of Christmas, laud the Father, laud the Spirit, laud the Son! Incarnation now accomplished, redemption’s loving victory begun!
In 2013 our church commissioned several musicians to write songs for the annual Christmas concert. At the time I felt drawn to write about shepherds, because my own son, Shepard, was reaching an age where he might begin to understand this strange story, and I wanted to approach the nativity in a way that might catch his interest. The more time I spent contemplating the pastoral scene of these random witnesses to the annunciation, the more I began to think about David, moving from the same mistrusted, marginalized occupation into the role of his nation’s most revered king. But what I find so compelling about Christmas is that it tells the reverse of David’s Cinderella story. While we spend much of our lives fighting obscurity, humiliation, and ultimately, death, chasing our American dreams, Advent celebrates the opposite: a movement from royalty to rags. The highest king, for love’s pursuit, dons the cosmic poverty and sheep-like insignificance we so futilely spend lifetimes fleeing. In hindsight, the birth of Christ completes David’s 23rd Psalm with a truth-ringing twist. To keep his sheep, this shepherd would go so far as to become one of them. Though we recorded “Little Sheep” in the heat of summer and there probably needs to be more sleigh bells for this to be considered a true Christmas track, I am putting it out for free on noisetrade for the holidays. Ben Shive pulled together a dream team band to help flesh it out (Jillian Edwards, Stuart Duncan, Gabe Scott, and himself), and I am so excited to share it with you all. Also, Jesse Rademacher, an animation professor at Southern Adventist University, is creating a simple, animated lyric video for this as well. Here is a peek at Jesse putting together the opening scene, which we also used to design the album art. We are hoping to be able to share the video with you before the end of the Christmas season. For now, you can add “Little Sheep” to your Christmas mixes. Enjoy! And click here to download the chord chart.
I’m often tempted to be envious of friends who make music in community. The harmony on display is so attractive. I have friends in Nashville who have the kind of creative community people like me dream about. Also, singer/songwriters perform regularly and get instant feedback. They might hear clapping and see smiles the day after they write a song. It’s an endeavor closely connected to community.
By comparison, making a book is a solitary act---countless hours spent on writing, rewriting, and rewriting, and rewriting. It’s an insane amount of alone time.
I always knew it would be this way. Solitary.
Except when it isn’t.
(The following excerpt has been adapted from chapter 19 of Behold the Lamb of God: An Advent Narrative.) No one remembers where Mary came from, but Joseph was descended from the great King David, though for his part he was a common laborer, a carpenter. They were simple, honest people, dreaming and working toward a life they could live out together as husband and wife and, God willing, as a family. They probably expected to be ordinary in every way and perfectly happy for it. But all this was interrupted in a moment when the angel of the Lord—the same one who visited Zechariah six months earlier—appeared to Mary and told her something that would alter the course of her and her husband’s lives—and for that matter, the world itself. The angel said to Mary, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” Though the angel’s words were friendly, Mary feared for her life. What could this messenger of the great I AM possibly have to say to her?
This week I'm putting the finishing touches on the new edition of The Molehill. Once again, we've got a great mix of shorts for you to feast your eyes on--stuff like a ghost story from Lanier Ivester, a folk tale by Walt Wangerin, Jr., new poetry by Luci Shaw, a new story and illustrations by Jamin Still, a new collaborative work from cartoonist Jonny Jimison and poet Jen Rose Yokel, an art heist by Russ Ramsey, recipes by Lewis Graham, and a lot more. Special thanks to Jason McFarland for the cover design! Preorders are now open. We plan to have these shipped in time for reading by the fire on Christmas Day. Remember that if you have a 2014 or 2015 membership, this edition of The Molehill will be mailed to you free of charge as soon as they arrive from the printer. Not a member? Click here for more information.
[Editor's note: Do not let the picture mislead you! This is not a sad, sad post about a dying puppy.] Meet Surry Virginia Thistlewoof. Yes, that's her full, registered name. It's engraved on a tag from PetSmart so it's super-official. She's a wire-haired fox terrier/schnauzer mix-ish. You may think your dog is the sweetest creature, ever. I'm sure he/she comes close. However, Surry takes the cake (or the bone) in that regard, paws down, and if you ever met her you'd concede. She's a rescue. We picked her up from a foster home in Kentucky last December. Since then it's been a difficult journey from utter nervous anxiety to calm, stable, and happy. She's come a long way in just 12 months and she even gets along with our other rescue, Figaro---an old, one-eyed, tailless black cat. Surry is amazingly gentle and timid, but she loves tug-o-war. Like any red-blooded canine, she naturally bites into most things when teased into playing and proceeds to gnaw, grind, tug, and shake. I love our games of fetch and tug. Judging by the rate her tail gets going---like a floppy, furry, out-of-control metronome---I can tell it's her favorite thing in the world. At the same time, I've never encouraged her to chase or kill any unsuspecting rabbits, chipmunks, etc., that find their way into our back yard. No, Figaro has hunted and killed enough for both of them in his years of rogue cathood. Maybe that's just it---our cat seems more likely to kill, and I even find it amusing on some level, sometimes. Surry on the other hand, she's never killed anything that I've ever seen---until this morning.
A few weeks back, I woke to an email in my inbox from a friend who had created a Facebook page for my book Behold the Lamb of God: An Advent Narrative. I immediately thanked him and then panicked because I didn't really have any idea what I was supposed to do with it. Here's what I've come up with: a daily advent devotional to go along with the chapter of the day. I would love for you all to check it out, and I would love for any of you who feel so inclined to tell your friends about it and share it around the interwebs. In the coming weeks I'll run a few longer excerpts from the book here at The Rabbit Room as well. Hope you enjoy. Also, my follow up book, a 40 chapter Lenten companion called Behold the King of Glory: A Narrative of the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ will be available through the fine folks at Crossway Books in January. ______________ Follow Russ on Instagram Follow Russ on Twitter Follow Russ on Facebook
A style is found by sedentary toil And by the imitation of great masters. W.B. Yeats, Ego Dominus Tuus One of the classes I’m taking this term is a poetry writing course, and it’s been at once one of the most challenging and most delightful things I’ve ever tackled. I’ve learned so much about style and form, and I’ve been required to produce such a quantity of poetry on demand (and publish it in the course forums!), that I’m feeling rather intoxicated on words these days. It might be a stretch to say that I’m dreaming in iambic pentameter, or that my fingertips are calloused from beating out syllables on my desk---but there’s no doubt I’ve written more poetry in the last couple of months than I have in the whole past year. I’m loving every assignment, but my favorite thus far has been an exercise in learning from the great masters. In much the same way that art students in a classical atelier learn to “see” as painters by the practice of drawing plaster casts, any serious study of poetry is going to involve identifying the masters that have inspired you and practicing the attributes you admire until you are able to reinterpret them in your own unique way. At first, we were asked merely to name our greatest poetic influences, and to elaborate on specifics of style, subject, and form which we admired. Next, we were instructed to choose a favorite poem and draft a piece of our own which attempted to incorporate some of the techniques employed by this master.
Every year I spend about six months wondering who in the world will fill the shoes of the previous year's special guest on the Behold the Lamb of God tour. I used to stress about it for six months, but it always works out so now I just wonder. We've been blessed not only with the crazy talent of the yearly band and artists, but since this thing started we've been joined by some amazing special guests---and most of them ended up on the tour due to some pretty random occurrences. Either I bumped into someone around town or sent them a text or they came to mind while I was jogging. My son Aedan is responsible for Thad Cockrell being on the tour this year. Here's how it went down. Carly, the songleader at the 12 South congregation of Midtown Fellowship, does a fantastically understated job of choosing songs and leading the music. There for a while we sang a few old hymns and gospel songs that I was surprised I'd never heard. The first was called "Oh To Be Loved," a slow and simple waltz that was comforting and sad at the same time: "He knows the names of my sorrows / he knows the names of my fears / Why should I let them bother me? / For I know he is near." Simple, direct, and the melody suits it perfectly.
We love books. You love books. But this little girl really loves books, and she's not afraid to tell you why. We're currently in talks with Madison to see if she'll anchor our speaking roster at Hutchmoot 2015.