Finding Our Place

(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on December 14, 2014)

Can there be comfort in something as difficult as repentance?

Oh yes! It seems counter-intuitive in a world where we do about anything to hide our flaws, carefully curating one profile picture out of thousands taken…where celebrities hire publicists to manage their image…where putting on a mask is more normal than airing our dirty laundry.

Repentance raises issues and images for us as we think about God. Is God really loving, if God puts expectations on our behavior? Will I destroy my own sense of worth and value if I focus on sin and the need to repent?

Isaiah chapter 40 is an interesting mix of ideas. God is speaking to the prophet, wanting the prophet to give a message of comfort. The emotional tone is different than Isaiah 64 from two weeks ago, different than the crying out for justice. It is tender, it is reassuring, it is hopeful…but it is not without challenge.

Turn with me to Isaiah 40, and we’ll look at the first five verses, verses which convey to us today the theme of repentance.

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and proclaim to her
that her hard service has been completed,
that her sin has been paid for,
that she has received from the LORD’s hand
double for all her sins.
A voice of one calling:
‘In the wilderness prepare
the way for the LORD;
make straight in the desert
a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be raised up,
every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
the rugged places a plain.
And the glory of the LORD will be revealed,
and all people will see it together.
For the mouth of the LORD has spoken. (Isaiah 40:1-5, TNIV)

To the people of Israel, who had been conquered and exiled to another country, who believed that these horrible experiences were the result of their sin and wrong choices, these are words of comfort.

Your sentence is completed, your punishment is done. And for us…when we are feeling heavy guilt as the result of our own actions, when we wish we could find a way to pay back for the wrong we have done…in those times, these are words of comfort too.

But there is such a difficult dance to try and do here. Somehow we have to hold on to the idea that we sometimes do things that are hurtful and horrible, but without going too far and thinking we are therefore worthless and unloveable. Somehow we have to believe that God grieves over sin, allows consequences and even disciplines our wrong choices, without going too far and thinking God can’t stand the sight of us and wants to wipe us off the face of the earth.

The pendulum of history and theology seems to swing from one extreme to the other: the “tic” of an always angry God with a world of hopeless sinners, swinging over to the “toc” of a never angry God who always loves without ever confronting sin or wrong.

The book of Isaiah refuses to live at either of those extremes. The prophets will not let sin and wrong and injustice go without being called out out, without saying to king and peasant alike, “make a straight path in the desert” for our God.

The prophets will not let us believe that actions don’t matter, that sin doesn’t have a cost, that God turns a blind eye to disobedience. Nor will the prophets ever give up on hope. Nor will they be silent when they hear God saying, “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem” or “Comfort, comfort my people.”

The dance the prophets invite us to dance is this: to look at a loving God and yet not deny sin; to look at how loved and chosen by God we are, and yet not deny God’s holiness.

Without specifically throwing any particular one of my children under the bus, I can think of times as a parent that illustrate this dance with God that I’m describing…times where I think I have been so good at this dance, that I’ve communicated my unconditional love for them while at the same time holding them accountable for their actions…yet all they hear is judgment and that they haven’t measured up.

Or to use another example, the idea floating around in our world of the need for a “good cop, bad cop” approach. There’s one who delivers the judgment and the fear and the challenge, shaking someone out of their denial of their wrong; and there’s another, separate one who gives forgiveness and grace.

We have a hard time holding the two together in one person; we have a hard time holding the two together in one God. Yet the very God who speaks tender comfort and hope and forgiveness is the same God who exiled them from the promised land because of what they had done.

I see these first five verses of Isaiah 40 asking us to dance the dance, to wrestle with the tension: God both comforts and challenges, convicts and forgives.

As we get closer to celebrating Christmas, understanding this helps us understand why Jesus is so unique and special.

Where once upon a time in Isaiah 40 Israel could be comforted because they had paid their dues and done the time for their crime, Christmas is the beginning of something new and world-altering. God became human to both demonstrate deep love AND to “pay for our sin.” There is a deep and lasting comfort when we can see in the incarnation, in God becoming human…we see the ultimate dance of love and justice coming together.

When the gospels talk about John the Baptist–the one who went ahead of his cousin Jesus and called people to wholeness and repentance and hope–the gospels connect John the Baptist with Isaiah 40. John, the one who reminded everyone of their sin and their need to repent… John was seen as the “voice of one calling: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord.’”

We rarely enjoy being honest with our dark side. But honesty is the way to hope.

John’s message was strong, and it still applies today. Face your wrong choices, your selfishness, your hypocrisy. Don’t ignore it or pretend it isn’t there. Name it, and turn your back on it, because there is someone coming who is going to do something about it once and for all.

I will talk about God’s love until I don’t have breath left in my lungs. I will talk about God’s unending forgiveness and grace through Jesus Christ as often as I’m given the opportunity. Yet that doesn’t have to be instead of these words about the consequences of sin. It doesn’t eliminate the need for preparation, honesty, and repentance.

God’s words of comfort are not because God is blind to wrongs and sins in the world! God’s love doesn’t end in the face of sin. The incarnation of God proves that Jesus has drawn near to a broken world and has taken our wounds and sins on his back and healed them all!

These first five verses of Isaiah 40 show us that God is one who comforts AND convicts. The next six verses push us to a similar both/and as we look at ourselves and who we are.

A voice says, ‘Cry out.’
And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’
‘All people are like grass,
and all human faithfulness is like the flowers of the field.
The grass withers and the flowers fall,
because the breath of the LORD blows on them.
Surely the people are grass.
The grass withers and the flowers fall,
but the word of our God endures forever.’
You who bring good news to Zion,
go up on a high mountain.
You who bring good news to Jerusalem,
lift up your voice with a shout,
lift it up, do not be afraid;
say to the towns of Judah,
‘Here is your God!’
See, the Sovereign LORD comes with power,
and his arm rules for him.
See, his reward is with him,
and his recompense accompanies him.
He tends his flock like a shepherd:
He gathers the lambs in his arms
and carries them close to his heart;
he gently leads those that have young. (Isaiah 40:6-11, TNIV)

Here is the pendulum again.

Looking at ourselves in light of the ultimate goodness of God, in light of the eternal God, reminds us that we are temporary and frail and we wither in comparison to the lasting goodness of God.

But before we are allowed to let that totally deflate us, Isaiah gives us another picture: we are part of a flock, we are cared for by God the shepherd. God “gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.”

We can be tempted to think we are invincible and unstoppable; tempted to believe everything and everyone revolves around us. Here is the reminder that everyone, even emperors and presidents, one day end up in the grave, powerless.

We can be tempted to think we are invisible and unnoticed and forgotten. Here is the reminder that God watches us day and night, gathers us close to his heart, tenderly cares for each one of us.

I came back from sabbatical last year wrestling with identity, thinking often about who we are.

Isaiah 40 is yet another reminder of how important this wrestling is. At our core, we are loved and watched over and valued by God our shepherd, tenderly drawn to his heart simply by being part of his flock, not because our actions have earned it. We are so valuable!

And yet we are not God, we are not perfect, we will not live forever. We are frail creatures full of foibles and failures. We are grass that is withering away.

Oh, that we might hold on to both of those truths about ourselves, just as we hold on to both truths about God!

Because the beauty of all this, the rubber-meets-the-road reality is this: we are loved precisely while we are “withering like grass”. To be loved, to see ourselves as worthwhile, does not mean we turn a blind eye to our frailty and failure. To be loved and to be valuable does not mean lying about our human struggle. God’s eyes are wide open. God’s arms are wide open, loving us in honesty.

We are both loved and frail, saint and sinner. God is both loving and holy. May this Christmas, where the God-child was born into a dirty stable, help us avoid the extremes of the pendulum. Knowing we are loved allows us to admit our wrongs. Knowing God did something about sin allows us to have hope.

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Silent Night Champion…

…is Simon & Garfunkel. Whew! A 15 seed!

What will Bethany do? There’s no anger to be unleashed! The hopes and dreams of all the years are met. Has the caps lock key spontaneously popped off her keyboard? INQUIRING MINDS WANT TO KNOW!

Thanks for joining again, everyone!

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Silent Night-Final Round

How we got here, I have no idea.

Actually, yes I do. Bylsma. We got here because of Bylsma.


It’s Bing vs. Simon & Garfunkel. Cast your vote before Wednesday night at 9 pm PST.

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Silent Night Round 3 Voting

Since college, I’ve always been an egalitarian, democratic, “We the people” sort of guy. But I gotta say that this Advent Caroling Madness is turning me all elitist. Frankly, I don’t think the masses are smart enough to be trusted with the vote. We’ve gotten to the place where I don’t even care any more. Puppets? Really? Puppets? If you didn’t KNOW they were the Muppets, wouldn’t your ears just throw up at the sound? The world was better when I was supreme dictator of advent madness.

But heigh ho life goes on. So go ahead and vote. Show your mediocrity and sentimentality. I STILL HAVE CONTROL OF MY OWN ITUNES!!! Vote before Monday the 15th at 9 pm PST. Or don’t. Whatever. I don’t care any more. ;)

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 John Denver and The Muppets face the “I guess I’m still relevant” Bing Crosby.


And Over the Rhine versus the juggernaut that is Simon & Garfunkel.


Monday the 15th at 9 pm PST!!

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Down goes the superstar & voting for round two

Oh, Baby, Baby…love couldn’t find a way. In the most stunning development since Santa Claus told Rudolph he was going to have to cancel Christmas, #2 seed Amy Grant has been upset in the first round. Part of me wants to find someone to promise to be with Elizabeth Curtis Gemeroy for the next 24 hours to make sure she stays safe.

While it is true that #15 Simon & Garfunkel was a formidable foe, the true turning point did not lie in the music; nor did it reside in the brilliant pairing of video and audio footage of world difficulties alongside the peace and hope of the Silent Night lyrics. No, the true turning point reminded me of when I was in the building in Boise almost 14 years ago for an opening round basketball game and watched #15 Hampton University upset #2 Iowa State. There came a moment in that game where Hampton’s funkadelic band whipped the neutral Boise crowd into a frenzy, and we all started to believe that Hampton could win. It was the off the court momentum that seemed to make the difference.

In the darkness of Monday morning, when it seemed all hope was lost, Bethany Bylsma rose up. With an extension to the voting given, she spared no effort in her “rock the vote” message, and S&G ended up winning in a landslide.

There were two other matchups which provided drama, starting with the #6-#11 battle. Over the Rhine held a comfortable lead, and while Bethany’s “go vote” campaign was in support of her beloved S&G, it seems Sufjan Stevens gained new life with the influx of these voters. An hour before the 7 pm deadline, the voting was literally tied. But someone tipped the scales in favor of Over the Rhine with a last minute vote. I have proof (note the time in the menubar):

Screen Shot 2014-12-09 at 7.00.13 PM

Finally, #10 Mary J. Blige & Marc Anthony pulled out a minor upset over #7 Pricilla Ahn, although Pricilla also benefitted with a late surge from S&G recruits voters.

All this leads us to round two. Please do make your vote count before Friday, Dec. 12 at 9 pm PST.

#1 seed Chanticleer takes on Bing Crosby after a dominating win in round one.


Crowd favorite (well…some of the crowd) Pentatonix faces off with  John Denver and The Muppets, in what I predict will be a close and fierce battle.


Next up, South Africa’s Drakensberg Boys Choir (on Spotify, get your free account to listen) goes against the aforementioned Over the Rhine, who narrowly escaped round one against Sufjan Stevens. (Remember it’s track #10, not track #2, that is the entry here.)


Finally, cast your vote in the matchup between bracket busters Simon & Garfunkel and Mary J. Blige and Marc Anthony.


Get your votes in by Friday at 9pm PST!! As we’ve already seen EVERY VOTE COUNTS!

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Silent Night Bracket Released

As any bracketologist will tell you, a good bracket looks at more than just the particular merits of any one entry. Also up for consideration is the entire body of work of the artist, the artist’s place in the pantheon of music history…and outsiders always speculate and wonder if the committee also looks at down the road matchups as they adjust seeding up or down.

The committee now has a year of experience under his belt, and has learned a few things. We now release to you the final bracket for “Silent Night”–please get your votes in by Sunday evening, 6 pm PST. UPDATE: Voting extended until Tuesday Dec. 9 at 7 pm PST!!

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Earning the #1 seed is relative unknown Chanticleer, nominated by David Sherwood. The classic “Silent Night” of course began as “Stille Nacht”, written in German by Franz Gruber (UPDATE: music written by Gruber, German lyrics by Joseph Mohr, as friend Robin MOHR let me know) in 1818. Famously (or apocryphally?), the organ was out of commission, and the simple, almost lullaby-like hymn was written for voice and guitar. It felt only right to have a beautiful version which used the original German as the number 1 seed.

Emerging from the play-in round, challenger Desert Hills Concert Choir earns the #16 seed, nominated by Heidi Tschan. Take a listen and then cast your vote:


In the #8 and #9 slot, we have a battle between exceptional crooners. Robin Mohr nominated the man synonymous with Christmas for so many in America, Bing Crosby. Serious consideration was given to Bing being a #1 seed for his place in American culture. However, the judicious use of the Boys Choir and the too-liberal use of high “ooohs” in the arrangement pushed him down to here.

Facing Bing is today’s outstanding voice, Josh Groban, nominated by Sara Kelm.


Coming in at #5 is the brand new release from crowd favorite Pentatonix, recorded live in a wonderfully echo-ey cathedral, and nominated by Doreen Fertello and Jennifer Perez. This arrangement is intricate and varied…yet also strays away from the traditional melody in the second half.

They face the all-too-frequent upset seed, #12…which is filled by Mannheim Steamroller, also nominated by Jennifer Perez. This…this one brings back memories for me, as this album spun often at the Koskela home I grew up in.


In the final game in the upper half of the bracket, I want everyone to note that I have gone against every fiber of my moral being and have capitulated to you strange groupies who love The Muppets. I am giving them the #4 seed, so no one (Melanie) can complain.

They will face #13 seed Russ Taff, nominated by my bride. This track comes from the second CD Elaine and I ever bought as a married couple, the Christian All Star laden “Our Christmas”. Russ gives a soulful performance here, and was sweet solace for us young newlyweds when we couldn’t afford a real Christmas tree in Southern California and had to make do with a tiny fake one back in 1990. (Plus this youtube video fits what Robin noticed last year-Evangelicals have a thing for horrifically cheesy powerpoint.)


In all honesty, I tried my best to avoid the next matchup, because it puts the nominations of my two biggest yellers and critics against one another. The #6 seed goes to Over the Rhine, nominated both by Bethany Bylsma and Martha Wood. Now, as I learned on my Facebook page amidst being yelled at, there are two versions of Silent Night on the Over the Rhine album. SO BE SURE YOU LISTEN TO TRACK #10. That’s the one up for nomination.

Facing them will be #11 seed Sufjan Stevens, whom J Rourke must be incredibly pleased to discover actually won a voting matchup! (Albeit a play-in game, but still, first time for everything).


Earning a strong #3 seed is a nomination from our daughter Natalie, studying this semester in South Africa. She got the chance to hear the Drakensberg Boys Choir in person, and nominated their exceptional blend for the bracket. (The only free version I could find was on Spotify, so you will have to create a free account to listen to this if you don’t already have a Spotify account. “Stille Nacht” is way down at the bottom.)

They face another “personal” nomination from Janni Baugh, who knows the people who form the duet of #14 seed The Luminous Grey. (And they, too, are only on Spotify.)


The very tough #7-#10 matchup is between Martha Wood’s nomination Pricilla Ahn in the seven slot, and Twila Tschan’s Latin-infused selection Mary J. Blige and Marc Anthony at number ten. I actually like both of these a lot, and will have trouble voting for just one.


Finally, the last matchup. Again, I am bowing to the groundswell of Christmas nostalgia that is Amy Grant, and giving Elizabeth Rogers Curtis Gemeroy’s nomination a #2 seed. I will confess that Amy’s 1984 original Christmas Album tugs at my heartstrings each Christmas. But I will also say that Amy can be…boring. And I gotta be honest. For me, this one is exactly that.

Amy faces #15 seed Simon & Garfunkel. For me, I wonder if this one will be the little engine that could. The arrangement juxtaposes the soothing folk of S & G singing the peaceful lyrics with the jarring headlines of the 1970’s evening news. This is also a Bethany Bylsma nomination.


Thank you all for the nominations! Now, let’s tip off the games. Listen to the links and make your votes by Sunday evening, 6 pm PST. UPDATE: Voting extended until Tuesday Dec. 9 at 7 pm PST!!

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Play-in round: Silent Night, Advent Caroling Madness

Once again, the response to Advent Caroling Madness is truly inspiring. You people care, you really care about my little Advent Adventure. I’m deeply touched. When I had this idea last year, I had no idea the life it would take on, the hope it would bring to the hopeless, the immense amount of CAPITAL LETTERS IT WOULD SPUR FROM BETHANY BYLSMA.

This year, I’ve committed to at least this one week of Advent Caroling Madness, where we will vote to pick the best version of the classic “Silent Night”. I received so many nominations that I am now holding a play-in round, so that you can decide who will actually make it in the final 16 song bracket.

SO GET VOTING BELOW!! You can click the links to listen. I’d prefer that you only vote one time for each matchup, although I obviously can’t control that. Please get your votes in by Thursday (the 4th) at 9 pm PST.

High School Category: Kati McKee is Tigard High School’s band teacher, and offers a marching band version of Silent Night. Heidi Tschan was a music education major, and offers this unique arrangement from a high school choir (“When do basses EVER get the melody?”). Which high school “Silent Night” would you put in the final bracket?


Classic Style Category: David Sherwood offered a wonderful a cappella version in a classic style by Chanticleer, even using some of the original German lyrics. In honor of her dad, who recently passed away, Erin Heasley Knoch nominated a classic four part harmony version by Forte. Which version of the classic style should be in the final bracket?


Genres I Don’t Enjoy Category: I’m making you people choose between two of my least favorites. I know I will be accused by Melanie Springer Mock of bias, but hey, this whole Advent Caroling Madness is MY invention. Another downside is both of these are nominated by my good friend Robin Mohr, and she is likely to be offended by my actions here as well. But it isn’t personal, it’s just…well…I personally don’t like either of these. There. I said it. So you all have to choose between The Muppets with John Denver, and Alan Jackson.


Eccentric Musician Category: Of course, both of these options were nominated by the talented J Rourke. Sticking to form, he offered a Sufjan Stevens version of Silent Night, which I am putting head to head with his other suggestion, Bela Fleck & The Flecktones.


Vocal Groove Category: In part to combat the charge of bias in these seedings, I am forcing Jenn Perez’s nomination (and one of my favs) Pentatonix to have to earn their way into the bracket. They go up against those smooth operators The Temptations in the final play in matchup.

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