Prov 17:22

A merry heart doeth good like a medicine... - Proverbs 17:22

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Their Old Familiar Carols Play

(The fourth in my Christmas Carols series.)
I’m going to assume you’ve heard of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and take you back to 1861. That was the year the poet lost his wife in a horrible fire. She was 44. The New York Times, on July 12, reported the following:

While seated at her library table, making seals for the entertainment of her two youngest children, a match or piece of lighted paper caught her dress, and she was in a moment enveloped in flames. Prof. Longfellow, who was in his study, ran to her assistance, and succeeded in extinguishing the flames, with considerable injury to himself, but too late for the rescue of her life… She leaves five children to mourn, with their father, their common loss.

Longfellow had already buried his first wife, Mary, after just four years of marriage when she was only 22. He was no stranger to loss.

The first Christmas after Fanny’s death, Longfellow wrote, “How inexpressibly sad are all holidays.”

A year after the incident, he wrote, “I can make no record of these days. Better leave them wrapped in silence. Perhaps someday God will give me peace.”

It’s not hard to understand why his journal entry for December 25, 1862 reads: “‘A merry Christmas’ say the children, but that is no more for me.”
The next Christmas, 1863, was silent in Longfellow’s journal. The American Civil War raged on.

On Christmas day, 1864, the beloved poet received word that his oldest son Charles, a lieutenant in the Army of the Potomac, had been severely wounded with a bullet passing under his shoulder blades and taking off one of the spinal processes. 

Not knowing whether his son would live or die, Longfellow did the only thing a poet knows to do: poured out his heart on paper. As he sat alone with his grief, he penned words to challenge his own despair and called the composition Christmas Bells, little knowing how many people his work might eventually reach.

Eight years later, composer John Baptiste Calkin set Longfellow’s words to music and it became the somewhat mournful carol you and I know as I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.

If you have suffered loss and wounds, you know how Christmas and other holidays can heighten your pain. You can easily relate to Longfellow’s fourth stanza:

“And in despair I bowed my head
‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said,
‘For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.’”
But somewhere in his outpouring of honest grief, hope came to Longfellow and he wrote words he chose to believe, despite all the evidence to the contrary:

“Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
‘God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men.’”

Lt. Charles Longfellow did not die that Christmas, but lived. I can only surmise that his father’s prayers were heard and God did indeed give him peace.

Faith is choosing to believe things contrary to evidence. It defies explanation. But it remains the very basis for peace on earth, goodwill to men. If 2013 has been a year of pain and despair for you, it may mean the bells of faith will peal more loudly and deeply for you than ever before in 2014. 

Let’s pray for it.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

A Thrill of Hope in a Hurting World

Raise your hand if you can name the first song ever sent over the air via radio waves.

Here’s a hint: it happened Christmas Eve 1906. Reginald Fessenden picked up his violin and played its melody after reading the Christmas story from the gospel of Luke. Radio operators aboard ships must have been shocked, for neither the human voice nor music had ever been transmitted this way.

Need another clue? The song’s lyrics were originally written in 1847 by a French poet named Placide Cappeau (who, incidentally, had his right hand amputated following a shooting accident at the age of eight).  

Adolphe Charles Adams composed the melody. To Adams, a man of Jewish descent, the poem represented a day he didn’t celebrate and a man he did not view as the son of God. But he wrote the music anyway, at his friend’s request, and at first the song was embraced by the Catholic church. But then the original poet, Cappeau, left the church to join the Socialist movement and the church learned the composer was a Jew. They banned the song, declaring it unfit.

About ten years later, American abolitionist John Sullivan Dwight was so moved by the words of the third verse, he translated the entire song into English and published it in his magazine. If you know your Civil War history, you can see why it quickly caught on in the northern United States during that time:
“Truly He taught us to love one another,
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother.
And in his name all oppression shall cease.”
And if you hadn’t already guessed, now you know. O Holy Night, originally called Cantique de Noel, has remained one of the most loved and most recorded Christmas carols.

Did you see the Lincoln movie that came out last year or this year’s Twelve Years a SlaveAbraham Lincoln remains a hero to many for taking the lead in abolishing slavery in America, but I can’t help thinking Lincoln would weep if he knew it has not been abolished at all. Oppression has not ceased. According to numerous reports, there are more people in slavery today than at any other time in history. Human trafficking runs rampant. 

This is probably not what you wanted to read in my Christmas column. The good news is, we can make a difference and we don’t have to fight this battle alone. Numerous organizations work hard to expose and abolish human trafficking. By buying fair trade, learning more about modern slavery, spreading the word, and joining a movement such as Free the Slaves, International Justice Mission, or ServantsAnonymous (among others), you as an individual can help.

Isaiah 58:6 says this: “I’ll tell you what it really means to worship the Lord. Remove the chains of prisoners who are chained unjustly. Free those who are abused!”

DefendDignity leads a campaign to end modern day sex slavery and defend the dignity of every woman right here in Canada. I’m happy to say my church and its denomination (the Christian and Missionary Alliance) are partners of Defend Dignity. 

And finally, an invitation. I hope you attend your church’s Christmas services. But if you do not have a church home, please join me and my family at mine, PortageAlliance Church, on Christmas Eve at 7:00 pm. But come early – the place packs out! Spend an hour singing carols by candlelight. You may return home with renewed perspective on the hope that is ours because of Christmas. May it truly be, for you, a Holy Night.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Dawn of Redeeming Grace

(Part Two in the Christmas Carols series)
The story behind Silent Night is familiar to many of us, but I needed to brush up on my facts. Turns out, it started in 1816 in a small Austrian village called Oberndorf when a pastor named Joseph Mohr wrote the simple words as a poem. Of course, the words were in German, and the poem was entitled Stille Nacht.

Two years later on Christmas Eve, the organ in St. Nicholas Church (Pastor Mohr’s church) broke down just before the Christmas Mass. A tragedy! Determined that the Mass should not be without music, Mohr gave the two-year-old poem he had written to his organist and friend, Franz Xaver Gruber. Gruber must have been one speedy composer. He immediately wrote the melody and arranged it for two voices, choir and guitar – just in time for the midnight service.

The two writers of the carol thought they were simply doing something to get through a difficult situation. But almost two hundred years later, Silent Night is still the most performed and recorded Christmas song in history.

A wonderful story about the song comes out of World War I. On Christmas Eve, fighting was actually suspended on many of the European fronts while people turned on their radios to hear Austrian opera star, Ernestine Schumann Heink, sing Stille Nacht. Ms. Heink was not only an international celebrity, but the mother of one son fighting for the Germans and another son fighting for the Allies. Parents, can you imagine the turmoil in her heart or her longing for peace? Her beautiful rendition of this song had the power to bring a few moments of peace to a very troubled world.

The song itself represents an event orchestrated by God himself to bring heavenly peace to earth. Was that Bethlehem stable truly silent? It’s doubtful, what with the crowds, the animals, the shepherds, and the angel choirs. But a larger sentiment rings true, that of the little baby who came to bring freedom to human hearts. 

When that baby grew up, he said a most curious thing to his disciples. “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.” (Matthew 10)

Whatever did he mean? Was Jesus advocating violence? 

When you look at the larger context, you see that he was quoting from the Old Testament prophet Micah. He wanted his disciples to understand that Jesus divides the world into two camps: those who follow him, and those who do not. Following Jesus in his original Jewish society would not bring peace to a family, but might even split it up, and they needed to be prepared. However, he never tells his followers to wage war on everyone else, and certainly not on one’s family. If anything, this split would provide further opportunities for his grace to be demonstrated through us.

Silent or not, nighttime or not, it truly was a new day – with the dawn of redeeming grace.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

And Heaven and Nature Sing

Through the month of December last year, I began a tradition of researching and writing about the stories behind our most loved Christmas carols. For Part One of this year’s series, I’ve picked “Joy to the World.”

What would you do with your child if you noticed, between the ages of five and 13, he’d picked up Latin, Greek, French, and Hebrew in addition to his mother-tongue? Would you suspect you had produced a linguistic genius? What might you expect from him? What would you do when you grew tired of him criticizing the music at church every Sunday? Would you dare him to come up with something better, since he thought he was so smart?

That’s what Isaac Watts’ father did when Isaac was 18 years old, and the boy responded to the challenge. The next Sunday, Isaac produced his first hymn, with enthusiastic response from the congregation. For the next two years, he wrote new hymn texts every Sunday and over 600 hymns in his lifetime. It’s no wonder he became known as “The Father of Hymns,” even though the religious establishment considered him an outcast. A nonconformist, Watts was banned from both Oxford and Cambridge, and received his education at Stoke Newington’s Dissenting Academy. Aside from hymn writing, he studied theology and philosophy. Watts wrote significant volumes which powerfully influenced English thinking.

One of the hymns Watts wrote was “Joy to the World.” Are you as surprised as I was to learn he never intended it as a Christmas song? If you look closely, you’ll notice it never mentions the baby Jesus, shepherds, wise men, angels, or any of the typical trappings associated with the nativity story.

So, what’s it about then? 

Watts based his lyrics on Psalm 98, which is not about Messiah’s first coming, but about his second, when he comes to judge the earth. The psalm tells us all of nature will join in the singing when that great day comes. Christmas may not always be a joyful time, but when Jesus comes back to set everything right, even the rocks will sing!

And what about the musical portion of this song? Adapted and arranged by the American composer Lowell Mason, “Joy to the World” sounds suspiciously like portions of Handel’s Messiah in a number of places. Apparently, Mason felt plagued by the similarities all his life and paid homage to Handel by calling the melody “Antioch, from Handel.”

While it’s hard for us to imagine singing “Joy to the World” all year round, I hope we can let the lyrics point us to the reason Jesus came: to save the world. And to be ready, because He is coming again.

When you hear or sing it this year, think of it in that light and see what happens in your heart. May you find it preparing him a little more room.