It’s the Christmas season, and each year for me that guarantees at least three things–familiar sounds, longing, and a tradition. The first guarantee of the season is that I release into the airwaves the music that is held for just this one month of December, music that for my soul brings to the heart the beauty and truth and delicate grandeur and gravitas of Advent and the marking of the Incarnation of the Savior of the world. It’s music such as John Michael Talbot’s The Birth of Jesus, and certain selections from Bruce Cockburn’s Christmas, and Loreena McKennitt’s To Drive the Cold Winter Away, and an intensely attentive listening of Handel’s Messiah. Each year, merely from the unwrapping of these treasures once again, assuredly bring the heights of adoration and depths of devotion. And their hearing guarantees the second thing . . . a longing in the form of a frustrated question: “Why didn’t I learn to the play the guitar?!” I wish I could play an instrument.
As my heart is set to flight just hearing some of these musical offerings, I want to ride them all the way to heaven and somehow reach God, but I know that merely hearing the songs can only get me so far. It’s one thing to listen to music; it is surely quite another to make it, and be lost in it as you play for and get lost in something quite larger than yourself. I can only imagine what it must be like to be able to play an instrument and enter the music, unconsciously and unselfconsciously, and then give that as an offering to God. With the Little Drummer Boy, I would play my drum for Him . . . if I just knew how!
This year, that song has surprised me. It was Josh Groban’s version that did it. It is sweeping so much as to be shocking, and the lyrics of the song, to my ears, have been saved from shelves of Christmas kitsch, pa rum pum pum pum. For some reason, the music of that version made me pay attention to the words, and they are as powerful as they are sentimental. And they’re about vocation.
You know the story: some people are off to see the newborn King Jesus, and they are bringing kingly gifts. A little boy that accompanies them is poor, and doesn’t have a gift fit for a king, but he has a drum so he offers what he can, and plays. “Pa rum pum pum pum // on my drum”.
God gives everybody gifts. They take myriad form. Naturally, some can sing or play music, others can write or paint or sculpt. For some the world of business and finance come as naturally as notes came to Bach, and for some working with policy and the law is like me hearing music. Some people get paid for working with their gifts, many don’t. Regardless every person is given them.
And this is the lesson of the little drummer boy: Whatever you’ve been given, somehow give it to back to God. And further, give him the best offering you can with the gift you’ve been given. “I played my drum for him // I played my best for him // Pa rum pum pum pum”.
Has God given you a gift with numbers? Figure out how to how to give that gift back to God, with your best. Can you paint? Paint for God–your best work. Can you write? Write for him. Are you gifted with the law? Do your law for him. Are you a gifted physician? Heal for him. Do you have a gift that is hidden to many because it’s not what you get paid to do? Cultivate that gift; use it to make an offering to God. Who knows, those acts may lead to a different job! Has God given you the gift of rhythm? Play your drum from him, your best for him.
When it comes to vocation–the combination of what God has called us to do with what God has gifted us to do–here’s a general aphorism. Give God what you can, not what you can’t. We can only give him what we have, not what we don’t have. I won’t play my drum for him, because I can’t. Two measures into a piece of music and I don’t know where the beat is. But that’s all right, because drumming for God is not what he’s called me to do or the gift God’s given to steward. And further, that’s all right because there are people who can keep a beat, really well, for him.
At the moment, as much as I’d like to, I won’t play the guitar for him, because I can’t. But I can write. And so I’ll write, this piece, as a gift to Jesus this Christmas. The little drummer boy plays his song for Jesus, “And then he smiled at me.” Pa rum pum pum pum. I can see Jesus smiling too. It’s Eric Liddell in “Chariots of Fire”, “God made me fast, and when I run I can feel his pleasure.” How has God gifted you? Give him that gift, and feel his smile.
Christina Rossetti was gifted with words, and she offered that gift to God, and concludes at the same place as the little drummer, and goes even a bit further:
What can I give Him? Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb.
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part.
Yet what can I give Him, Give Him my heart.
We can only give to God what we can, not what we can’t. All of us can give God our gifts; each of us can give Jesus our heart.
So this Christmas, let’s ponder what gifts God has given us, so that we can give them back to him. And then with David we can also say with great gladness, in the words of the old King James, “Of Thine own we have given thee”. (1 Chronicles 29.14)
The third guarantee for me of the Christmas season is a tradition. For many years now, in the attempt to celebrate Christmas morning rightly, and quietly, and deeply, and prayerfully, I’ll get up quite early, around 4am, and sit in a room lit only by the lights of a tree, with a cup of coffee, and the music, and Jesus. And I’ll listen, and long, and thank, and adore, and pray. This year, perhaps you might do the same, and we can do something together. Find a time when you can be quiet. Find the music that speaks to you, and let it take you where it will, and there pray. And there let us together offer to Jesus the only gifts he wants from us, those that he’s given us, and our hearts. Pa rum pum pum pum.
Rev. Bill Haley is the Director of Formation at The Washington Institute and Associate rector at The Falls Church in Falls Church, Virginia.
Photo Credit: KaroliK