It's Not Really About You

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

I have a new favorite Christmas song: I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day. The song is not well-known, and it’s rarely sung in churches (it’s been omitted from the United Methodist, Presbyterian and Episcopal hymnals), though it’s theology is as rich as any song I’ve heard:

I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

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.”

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.”

Till, ringing, singing, on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime,
Of peace on earth, good will to men!

This is based on a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and was written during the US Civil War – certainly an occasion for ‘bowing one’s head in despair’.  Longfellow’s original version contains several references to the war:

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Yet in the midst of the hate that mocks the song, the bells peal even more deeply an echo of Psalm 121: “God is not dead, nor doth he sleep”. Admittedly, it’s sometimes hard to hear the “loud and deep” message of Christmas. But this hymn gives us an opportunity to listen past the hate that mocks our hope in Christ, and it invites us tune our ears to the “chant sublime” of God’s everlasting peace.

May we listen loud and deep this Advent season!

Church stories

The Church is frequently conscripted into other stories, so that the Church lives in a world defined by others, not by Scripture. Culture is full of rival stories about the Church:

The church is the soul of the community. It represents “everything good in our culture”, a repository of wholesome family values that instills morality and social consciousness into future generations. The church is a place where we can look back nostalgically to the “good ol’ days” and remind ourselves that God is a God of order, hard work and dignity.  The church does the grunt work that the rest of the world wants to ignore – feeding the hungry,  disciplining our children, providing wholesome entertainment for teenagers, preserving  traditions and historic buildings, burying the dead, refereeing our marital squabbles and giving to poor people all the donated junk we don’t want anymore. The church is where we run to when life gets scary so the grandfatherly white men in funny robes can sprinkle holy water, say a magic prayer, and affirm whatever decisions we’ve already made.

Some of these stories sound nice, even comforting and safe. But it also keeps the Church out of the way so the Powers can operate without interference. This story keeps Christians quiet, and it turns the Kerygma into a harmless voice of conscience.

We need to reclaim our Story. We need the Holy Spirit to remind us that the church is on a mission. The Church is made up of men and women who have been called together by the Word, freed by the death and resurrection of Jesus, emboldened by the Holy Spirit, and who are anticipating the coming of the Kingdom of God.

The Church needs to live dangerously, throwing down the idols that assuage our complacent ideals about the world, and call out all forms of injustice that thrive when the sacred and the secular are kept separate.


Hating Easter

I’ve never been to an Easter service I’ve enjoyed.  Never.

That’s probably because every Easter service I’ve ever attended hasn’t really been about Easter.  Easter usually gets lost behind the lilies, the frilly hats, the ham, the crowds of relatives and the cantatas.  Easter is about more than that.

Easter is about resurrection – something that dramatically reorients the world and the way we are called to live.  Easter frees us from the power of death so we can live as a just, peaceable and sinless People.  Easter gives us hope so we no longer have to climb over each other to get ahead. Easter is disruptive – it tears apart conventional wisdom and dismantles everything we thought we know about life. Resurrection Life is our new reality.

So can you understand why I’m so disappointed when the liturgy for Easter Sunday doesn’t rock the boat? I don’t want an affirmation of the status quo – I want a bold, visionary reordering of every aspect of life.

  • Don’t dismiss me to a potluck – commission me to feed the hungry and relentlessly give all my possessions to the poor.
  • Don’t invite me to come back for a new sermon series – plant the Word of God deep inside my soul so that I hunger no longer for bread, but for every word that proceeds from the mouth of the Father.
  • Don’t educate me about your building campaign – lift my gaze to a heavenly plane and expand my horizon beyond these four walls.
  • Don’t offer me a first-time visitor gift bag – give me Living Water so that I will never thirst again.
  • Don’t let me day continue along as planned – interrupt my routine with the groundbreaking news that Christ is Risen!